Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Teaching Standards

A couple weeks ago, the Ohio Board of Education made headlines by removing language from their science teaching guidelines which would have required teachers "teach the controversy" about evolution. Scott Carson of examined life provided some good thoughts on the matter, as did Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia.

The deleted language was as follows:
Grade 10, Indicator 23: "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory. (The intent of this indicator does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.)" [source]
Now clearly, this kind of language shouldn't be controversial. One would hope that at a tenth grade level student could learn about how scientists "continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of" a whole host of theories. That is, after all, what scientists do with theories. However, on the highly charged intersection of evolution, creationism and intelligent design, such things are often not what they seem and common sense does not prevail.

That much is hardly news, and I might have let the whole thing slip by, except that the mere existence of the spat over these two sentences made me think about the deeper problems with our public education system. Two of the biggest problems with it being, at least in my estimation, that it is huge, and it is (at least to an extent) centralized.

It seems to me that education should be an artisan product, not a mass commodity. If one is responsible for funding and organizing a huge number of schools (as a state board of education is) I certainly understand the desire to write out detailed instructions in order to try to assure that teaching at a given grade level is fundamentally similar and always hits a certain base level of quality. Indeed, perhaps that is the only way that one can run such a large school system. If so, that would simply confirm in my mind the idea that one simply shouldn't have such a large school system. After all, the people who will be directly impacted by the quality of a school are the children attending it, their parents, and the immediate community into which these children shall (with whatever the school declares to be a sufficient education) be set loose.

In the ideal world (if you're not educating your children yourself, which seems to be the way we're heading towards here in Darwin-land) it seems like the procedure would be that a school would hire a teacher based on their belief that the teacher both possessed a thorough knowledge of his subject and showed strong teaching skills, and the teacher would then be more-or-less free to pick his own books and lesson plan. If the school board or principle did not agree with content or presentation which the teacher favored, they might ask him to modify his methods, or they might seek out a more congenial teacher. But this fussing, sentence by sentence, of guidelines of what teachers ought to teach and how they ought to do it detracts from the centrality of the teacher. One can always, I am convinced, learn far more from an individual (almost any individual) than from a committee, no matter how earnest in its work.


Vince said...

For the most part I think I agree with you. However, two things. 1. Since the state is financed by the people, it seems like the people should have some say in what is taught. So that some teacher might be able to teach however s/he wants with whatever book s/he wants to use, but there should be benchmarks as to what should or should not be covered.
2. Where are you going to find these intelligent and qualified teachers? Teacher pay is not very good. The old adage "those who can do, those who can't teach" seems to be true to form.
What I propose is a whole restructuring. I think begining teacher should be required to have a masters in their field and to ensure that this can happen, they need to be paid (at start) at least somewhere in the upper $40's. I realize this would either raise taxes or take money away from something else, but that is what needs to be done.

Fred said...

Please add a meta-thread on education! No doubt it will overlap your Intelligent Design meta-thread, but it will be worthwhile to see your collected thoughts on education.

Darwin said...


I certainly agree that since the state is footing the bill for public education, it should have some oversight on how the money is spent. I'd just tend to think that the oversight should be very local and more of a "should we hire someone who says he wants to teach this way" as opposed to a "precisely what should we tell the teachers to teach" variety.

The problem of getting quality teachers is, of course, the much larger problem. I could certainly approve of more masters degreed teachers (perhaps as a replacement for teaching credentials) but in a sense I think requiring everyone to have a masters would just end up increasing the supply of degrees without increasing the quality of candidates. After all, look what has happened to the BA/BS degree. Now that you need to have one for just about any decent job, the guaranteed quality of a BA/BS is incredibly low. In real terms, one might argue that a BA/BS means less now than a high school degree often did in the '20s or '30s.

I think salary definately helps, though in some areas with high salaries (the teachers I know out here tell me that starting salary in Austin is 35k-ish) its still very hard to get good teachers. I think perhaps the bigger (and sadly harder to fix) issue is societal respect. I've met a couple of ex-teachers temping at the company where I work, and all of them are now making less than they were as teachers. However, they generally seemed to feel that they were better off with the lower pay because they no longer had to take work home at night and have parents constantly harassing them about their children's grades.

Darwin said...


I'm flattered that you've found what we've had to say on education so far interesting enough to collect!

Actually, I have been thinking about putting up a education meta thread (not that I'm terribly good about updating the ones I have) though it would probably weight somewhat heavily in a homeschooling direction since that seems to be where the Darwin family is headed.

Fr Martin Fox said...

I confess I don't pay much attention to the Intelligent Design debate; forgive me if that's gauche to say to you nice folks, here in your cyber "living room." It's not a judgment on the merits of it; I simply leave the field to others, and check in from time to time.

But this business of the Ohio standards caught my eye. And I found myself thinking, "this doesn't reflect very well on those who argue for the evolutionary theory as the obvious, inescapably scientifically-valid and best explanation of origins!"

It came across as the state bowing to pressure to stop encouraging questioning!

It seemed to be, "Evolution is so clearly true that we shall no longer tolerate pointed questions about it!" I would think at least some strong advocates of evolutionary theory would be embarrassed by that. As a priest -- no, as a Catholic -- I would be deeply embarrassed by a similar approach to matters of faith: "sorry kids, we discourage tough questions on this subject." And, I wouldn't tolerate it. It seems so self-evident: the truth can take it.

Am I missing something here?

Darwin said...

Fr. Fox,

I certainly agree that the Ohio decision came out looking silly and defensive. I think that, to the extent that serious evolution defenders were behind it, the motivation was probably a feeling that the language represented a 'coded' attempt to sneak arguments against evolution they feel have already been defeated back into the curriculum.

In an imperfect analogy, I'd tend to be suspicious of a language put into a theology curriculum guideline that said, "Teacher should describe how theologians continue to investigate and critically analyze the question of women's ordination." If done honestly, this would be an entirely good thing, but if done in order to keep already rejected claims alive, it could be a bad thing.

Now, the difference in these two examples is clearly that while the Church has the power to make clear pronouncements, science is always revising its theories because its grasp of the physical world is necessarily imperfect at any given time.

So it's clearly good and necessary for students to understand the questions and investigations that are _really_ out there about evolutionary theory, or any other theory. I think the problem that people were reacting to in this case was that many of the questions that evolution opponents bring up aren't really under investigation by scientists, and so the picture of the field that students might get would be wrong.