Tag Archives: creationism

Time for a Charter Reality Check

There are many ways to view America’s contentious education wars. My own interpretation is that–at its most basic–the conflict is between those who want to improve existing public schools and those who want to turn education over to the private sector.

There are lots of nuances to both approaches, of course, and ancillary arguments about high-stakes testing, teacher accountability, etc., tend to obscure the public/private issue. I’m too old and tired to suit up for that battle, but I will share one caution that both camps should be willing to heed.

If we are going to spend public money on Charter Schools–which remain public schools, even when they are managed by private, for-profit companies–let alone vouchers, we have an obligation to both children and taxpayers to monitor what those schools are teaching, and to ensure that their curricula are both academically sound and constitutionally compliant. A recent report from Texas should not only illuminate the problem–it also (as one of my graduate students said after reading the article) should make our flesh crawl.

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

 The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

And that’s just the opening paragraphs from Slate’s devastating investigation of Responsive Education Solutions–a company which proposes to open four charters in Indiana next year. One of those, being conducted through an affiliate, has been authorized by Mayor Ballard’s office and will open in Indianapolis.

You need to click through to read the entire article. It’s appalling.

Here are a couple of questions for critics of our public schools: if you don’t trust “government schools” to educate children, why do you trust government officials with no particular expertise in education to select and monitor the private companies providing those educations? What safeguards against cronyism and ideology do you propose, and how will you ensure that those safeguards are in place?

Accountability isn’t just for teachers and public school administrators, and it isn’t limited to results on standardized tests.


A Welcome Statement

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized Ball State University for hiring a prominent creationist to teach science courses. Coming after complaints alleging that another science faculty member had taught a course from an “intelligent design” perspective, the hire raised troubling questions about the quality of scholarship at the University.

Yesterday, a friend on the BSU faculty shared with me a strong statement on the controversy just issued by President JoAnn Gora.

The money quote:

As this coverage has unfolded, some have asked if teaching intelligent design in a science course is a matter of academic freedom. On this point, I want to be very clear. Teaching intelligent design as a scientific theory is not a matter of academic freedom – it is an issue of academic integrity. As I noted, the scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected intelligent design as a scientific theory. Therefore, it does not represent the best standards of the discipline as determined by the scholars of those disciplines. Said simply, to allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars.


The statement made no reference to the prominent creationist who was hired, but it was unambiguous in recognizing that “intelligent design” is neither academically appropriate nor scientifically accepted, and assuring the faculty and alumni that religious doctrine will not be taught in science classes at Ball State.

A failure to clarify its continued commitment to intellectual integrity would have significantly diminished BSU’s academic reputation, so the issuance of this statement was a welcome relief (if unaccountably tardy).

But better late than never.


Education Redefined

When I was a young girl growing up in Anderson, Indiana (circa Ice Age), Ball State University, located in nearby Muncie, was sort of a joke. It was a “Teachers’ College,” attended by kids who didn’t have the grades to get into more rigorous or respectable schools.

Over the years, Ball State’s reputation has improved tremendously. It is no longer just a teachers’ college enrolling substandard students. It has become a respectable and respected University.

Or so I thought.

Suddenly, Ball State’s motto–“Education Redefined”–has taken on a whole new meaning. A recent news item was nothing short of appalling.

Ball State University has hired a controversial astronomer who is a national leader in the intelligent design movement (Slabaugh, Muncie Star Press). President Jo Ann Gora approved the hiring of Guillermo Gonzalez as an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy on June 12 at a salary of $57,000. He will start teaching at BSU in August. The hiring occurred after Ball State had launched an investigation into a complaint that another assistant professor in the same department, Eric Hedin, was promoting intelligent design in a science class…

Every court that has considered the propriety of teaching “creationism” or “intelligent design” (interchangable terms, no matter how desperately their proponents claim otherwise) in public school science classes has concluded that intelligent design is religion, not science. That includes Republican judges appointed by conservative Republican Presidents. Among scientists, intelligent design is a joke–not because it postulates the existence of God (many scientists believe in God), but because it is not science. Intelligent design or creationism can be taught in a class on comparative religion, but it simply cannot be taught as science.

Let’s talk about what science is.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. It requires the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena. Science is characterized by empirical inquiry.

The scientific method begins with the identification of a question or problem, after which relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated based upon that data, and the hypothesis is then subject to additional empirical testing.

Development of a scientific theory is a part of the scientific method. It involves summarizing a group of hypotheses that have been successfully and repeatedly tested.  Once enough empirical evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, a theory is developed, and that theory becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a particular phenomenon.

In the scientific method, a clear distinction is drawn between facts, which can be observed and/or measured, and theories, which are scientists’ explanations and interpretations of those facts. Scientists can draw various interpretations from their observations, or from the results of their experiments, but the facts, which have been called the cornerstone of the scientific method, do not change. A scientific theory is not the end result of the scientific method; theories are constantly supported or rejected, improved or modified as more information is gathered so that the accuracy of the prediction becomes greater over time.

Nonscientists use the word theory to mean speculation, or guess—“I have a theory about that.” When we fail to distinguish between our casual use of the term and its very different scientific meaning, we confuse discussions of science education. This has been particularly true of arguments surrounding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Some religious people (certainly not all) believe that the theory of evolution is inconsistent with a belief in God, and they challenge the teaching of evolution in biology classes because they believe that it is “just a theory.”

In order to be scientific, hypotheses and theories must be subject to falsification.

A falsifiable assertion is one that can be empirically refuted or disproved.

Observing that a woman or a sunset is beautiful, asserting that you feel sad, declaring that you are in love and similar statements may be very true, but they aren’t science, because they can be neither empirically proved nor disproved. Similarly, God may exist, but that existence is not falsifiable—God cannot be dragged into a laboratory and tested. One either believes in His existence or not. (That’s why religious belief is called faith.)

It’s unfortunate that so many people don’t understand the difference between science and religion, but it is inconceivable that an institution of higher education would confuse the two, or allow religious doctrine to be taught as science.

I don’t know what’s going on at Ball State, but apparently that institution is “redefining education” in ways that will return it to its previous status as a third-rate institution.

Jo Ann Gora should be embarrassed, and Ball State alumni–who are seeing their credentials devalued–should be furious.



What is WRONG with these People?

The embarrassments just keep coming, and the continued descent into self-parody of a once-rational political party is painful to watch. It seems that every day brings a new “WTF moment,” another occasion to shake one’s head and contemplate the GOP’s penchant for self-destruction.

A couple of days ago, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled–a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Treaty would not have required a single change to current U.S. law; its ratification was, in a sense, a formality, intended to bring the rest of the member nations up to the standard set by the United States. Bob Dole came in his wheelchair to urge Republican Senators to ratify it. Dick Lugar and John McCain were among the eight GOP “defectors” who joined all of the Democratic Senators voting for ratification.

According to media reports, ultra-conservatives associated with the Tea Party, led by former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, opposed the treaty on the grounds that it threatened U.S. sovereignty and parental rights. Santorum, who has a daughter with special needs, argued that the treaty would effectively put the United States under international law and give the U.N. discretion over decisions about how special needs children are educated.

This, of course, is nonsense–part and parcel of the paranoia that characterizes the Right’s frantic rejection of anything connected to the United Nations and increasingly, Europe. Even Bob Dole and Dick Lugar couldn’t shame them--but then, how do you shame crazy? So–add the disabled to the growing group of constituencies–women, immigrants, gays, young people–that the party has infuriated.

Washington is hardly the only habitat of the legislative loon, of course. Here in Indiana, we breed dozens of them.

The Northwest Indiana Times captured a quintessential example, under a headline that deserves some sort of prize: “Indiana Senator’s Plan to Teach Creationism Evolves.”

State Senator Denise Kruse has sponsored some of the Senate’s most constitutionally-suspect measures. Most recently, he’s been trying to pass legislation that would require the teaching of creationism in public school classrooms. Last session, his measure passed the (overwhelmingly Republican) Senate, but House Speaker Brian Bosma killed it in the House. Bosma is a lawyer, and obviously is aware that the courts have settled this debate, holding that creationism is religion, not science, and cannot be taught as science.

Kruse told the Times that he would not submit a similar bill this time. No, he said, he “wants to empower students to challenge their teachers” and “to make sure what is being taught is true.” He will sponsor a bill require teachers to justify and support their lessons.

I don’t know what Kruse thinks happens in a classroom. Given his public pronouncements, it’s fair to assume he hasn’t been in many. But I can’t imagine a classroom where students don’t challenge their teachers, or a classroom where teachers aren’t absolutely ecstatic when they can share with students the evidence and research underlying the substance of their subject-matter. Does he think students come into the classroom for indoctrination sessions? That teachers hypnotize children, or pour pre-packaged lessons into the tops of their heads?

Since conspiracy theories seem to be the order of the day, here’s mine: someone is putting hallucinogenic substances in the food of Republican elected officials. And baby, those substances are strong.

Vouchers and Education

While the constitutional challenge to Indiana’s much-hyped voucher program is pending in our Supreme Court, it might be instructive to look to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal’s equally-hyped version has just been declared unconstitutional. The legal issues are very different–both challenges were based upon state constitutional provisions, and Indiana’s constitution doesn’t contain the provision that was fatal to the Louisiana program. So there’s no legal equivalence.

Instead, what we can learn from Louisiana falls under the old adage that “there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”

Even the most well-meaning privatization efforts tend to founder on the shoals of accountability. When the effort involves education, those problems multiply. Despite lots of rhetoric, most academic studies of school voucher programs find that the only area of improvement is in parent satisfaction. Even in well-run programs, student performance remains where one would expect based upon a variety of sociological factors. Reports about rising test scores tend, upon further inquiry, to be based on the ability of private schools to eject students who aren’t making the grade.

Those results come from well-run programs. Louisiana is a poster child for the programs where ideology trumps accountability and basic common sense.

A report from Louisiana Progress, a good-government business group, is instructive. The group petitioned the Board of Education to set at least minimal standards for schools receiving vouchers–evidence that the schools have adequate physical facilities, that they not dramatically increase either tuition or enrollment in order to benefit financially from the program, etc. Calling the program “poorly thought out and poorly implemented,” the report noted that schools selected to participate were not chosen on the basis of educational quality. Most were religious, and many of those quite fundamentalist: the New Living Word School had been approved to increase its enrollment from 122 to 315 students, despite lacking physical facilities for that number; increased its tuition from 200/month to 8500/year, and has a basketball team but no library. Students “spend most of the day watching TV. ..Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses bible verses with subjects like chemistry or composition.”

Another voucher school, the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, operates in “a bunker-like building with no windows or playground.”

There are 120 private schools authorized to receive vouchers in Louisiana. A significant percentage are “Bible-based” institutions with what have been characterized as “extreme anti-science and anti-history curriculums” that champion creationism. (One is run by a former state legislator who refers to himself as a “prophet or apostle.” Wouldn’t that encourage you to enroll your child??) A number use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University.

Mother Jones has a list of 14 favorite lessons being taught by Louisiana’s voucher schools. Among them: dinosaurs and people hung out together; gays have no more claims to ‘special rights’ than child molesters and rapists.

Your tax dollars at work.

Louisiana Progress pointed out–reasonably–that since the reason for the voucher program was that Louisiana’s public schools were not meeting educational accountability standards, it makes no sense to spend tax dollars on private/parochial schools that aren’t even being asked to meet those same standards.

We Americans have a love affair with easy answers. We also tend to believe that–whatever the task–private enterprises will outperform governmental ones. And we have a well-documented belief that change equals improvement. Unfortunately, solving real-world problems requires analysis. Sometimes, there is an easy answer; sometimes, a private entity is better suited to solve a certain problem. Sometimes, change is warranted–and positive.

Sometimes, not so much.

If we want to improve education, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. We might start with: what is the content of a good education? How can we determine whether schools are providing that content? What can we do to improve the prospects that children who enter our schools without the necessary background and tools will actually learn?

Louisiana and many other states–including our own–don’t want to grapple with those questions. They want an easy way out.

Even Adam’s pet dinosaur knew better.