One of the big issues in science education is the topic of science standards: each state is supposed to have guidelines for the public school curriculum, which are intended to enforce some uniformity and also make sure that key subjects are covered. These standards are often accompanied by big political fights as the religious right tries, for instance, to get evolution (and sex education, and historical accuracy, and …) expunged from the curriculum. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes the good guys win.
An article in Evolution: Education and Outreach assesses the current state of state science standards, and one of the things they’ve done is grade each state on their support for evolutionary biology. A centerpiece of the article is this map of science standard scores…how is your state doing?
Minnesota is doing pretty good. We got dinged for weak coverage of cosmology, and also for the inclusion of some waffly language that was included to appease the creationist lobby. Those are productive suggestions that we can build on for the next round of standards revisions, in a few years. We had our recent infestation of creationist yuckiness (ahh, Cheri Yecke…we do not miss you at all), but we got better. We’ve also built a local advocacy group, Minnesota Citizens for Science Education, that is there to provide support and information in building better standards.
I can’t help but gloat over our neighbor to the east: Wisconsin may have an excellent university system, but their politics have been poison to science education. That may change — they’ve now also got a Wisconsin Citizens for Science group, so maybe someone will be doing some effective lobbying in the future.
I think that’s key: you need activists mobilized to work for improvement, good education doesn’t just poof into existence. The other interesting cases on that map are Kansas and Florida: if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that those have been two hotspots for creationist inanity for some time now. So what’s with the perfect As for those states? How can such hotbeds of creationism be scoring so well?
First thing you have to keep in mind is that state science standards just say what should be taught, not necessarily what is taught. States with great standards can still have many teachers who are doing a poor job and not meeting those standards; similarly, there are great teachers in those failing states that go above and beyond to teach evolution well. The standards merely represent what direction the educational authorities in that state want their schools to take. A state with an A standard is declaring that they are aiming high for their students; the F states have essentially announced that they are giving up and diving for the basement.
The other point is that these reflect recent changes: responsible citizens have been stirred up by the crazies infesting their school boards, and are working hard to improve matters. There is hope: there is a clear message being sent to teachers in those states that they must do better. They also have excellent citizen groups organized there — Kansans should join Kansas Citizens for Science, and in Florida, help Florida Citizens for Science.
As for Texas…hoo boy. Texas is a bad story all around. They have some great advocacy groups working there (Texas Citizens for Science and the Texas Freedom Network), but have deep problems. They have a political history of putting the very worst, most unqualified creationist dingleberries in charge — Don McElroy, for instance — which makes progress difficult, and I suspect there is a lot of external pressure on the state, as well. As one of the largest textbook markets, and with a centralized decision-making apparatus for selecting textbooks, they are a major target of all of the creationist organizations; they know that influence in Texas ripples out everywhere else. We can only hope it will turn around soon.
So look at your state. If your standards are good, don’t be complacent: keep them that way, and also work locally to make sure your school districts actually implement them. If your state is shading into the dark grays…look for a state citizens for science group, or if you don’t have one, create one. Write to your representatives and let them know what’s going on; maybe send them a copy of the Mead and Mates paper and shame them a little bit.
Do something, though. It would be nice to see the United States get straight As someday.
Mead LS, Mates A (2009) Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science Curriculum and How States Measure Up. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2(3): 359-371.