Bad science education in the US

I am completely unsurprised by the recent report on the state of evolution in the American science classroom. It confirms entirely my impressions from years of freshman college students and from previous studies of the subject, and puts specific numbers and issues to the problem.

The short summary: public schools suck at teaching basic biology. You already knew this, too, though, didn’t you? The question has always been, “How bad?”

We can now say how many high school biology teachers do a good job, teaching the recommendations of the National Research Council and also, by the way, obeying the requirements of most state science standards: 28%. About a quarter of our biology teachers are actually discussing the evidence that evolution occurred and using evolution as a theme to integrate the components of a good year of biology instruction. And since most school curricula only include one year of life science, that effectively means that only about a quarter of our high school graduates are even exposed to evolutionary biology.

There’s also another problem. 13% of our biology teachers are openly and unashamedly creationists who teach creationism in the classroom. That number varies, by the way, with the political leanings of the citizens of the school district: 40% of the teachers in conservative school districts reject evolution entirely, while “only” 11% in liberal areas do. This is a disaster. This is active, ongoing miseducation and misrepresentation of science by the teachers we entrust with our children.

What about the rest? 60% of our teachers do nothing: they teach the bare minimum of evolution that they can get away with, focusing on details of genetics and molecular biology that allow them to avoid the more obvious implications (which shouldn’t happen, either; the molecular evidence for evolution is powerful stuff), or they allow it to slip off the schedule of lesson plans. They’re afraid, and rightly so, of aggressive, nasty, privileged religious parents who will make their life hellish if they do their job properly.

The paper did surprise me in one way. It made a very strong statement about those timid teachers in the 60%:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

Are you a teacher who avoids the subject of evolution because of the crapstorm of chaos that follows from the public if you do? Consider yourselves rebuked. You really aren’t helping.

What are we going to do about this? The authors have two major suggestions, and here’s where I get to feel rebuked. One problem is that many of the timid teachers also do not feel adequately trained to address evolution well, and that’s a significant factor in their reluctance to press the topic (creationist teachers, on the other hand, are full of unwarranted certainty and lie to their students with confidence). So they recommend that there be more thorough training in evolution for pre-service teachers, with at least a requirement for one course in evolution. I think I can say that my university does a good job at that, at least: our secondary education majors get a rigorous exposure to evolutionary biology in our program. If you’re looking to hire new science teachers, look to UMM graduates!

Another suggestion, though, is that scientists and science organizations ought to be doing more outreach and assistance. That’s tough, since our time is tight, but we know that would be a good goal. When a group of us put together the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education, for instance, one of the goals was to provide speakers and yearly seminar courses to help teachers learn more about evolution, and we did a good job the first year. But that effort was made at a time when there was active pressure from creationist groups to influence the state science standards, and as that pressure eased off, so did we, and we’ve been slacking ever since. The framework is there so we could fire it up again quickly, but maybe we ought also to be maintaining good science education in these lulls between storms, too.

There’s an interesting interview with the authors on Ars Technica — check it out.

Berkman MB, Plutzer E (2011) Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science 331:404-405.