Mar 22 2011

Some Education News

The debate over teaching creationism continues – in the UK. That’s right, creationism is not just an American issue, nor just a Christian issue. There are fundamentalists in every major faith, and they generally don’t want their children taught in school ideas contrary to their faith.

In the US we have an overall higher percentage of biblical literalists who reject evolution, but we also have the Constitution. The first amendment wisely prohibits the government from passing any law that establishes a religion. There is now a couple hundred years of legal precedent on how to interpret this amendment, which follows the “separation of church and state” model. Essentially, there are no religious second-class citizens in the US. The government cannot promote or hinder any specific religious beliefs.

This means that religious faith, like creationism, cannot be taught in public schools. Creationists have constantly morphed their strategy over the last century, from banning the teaching of evolution, to requiring equal time for “creation science”, then for the rebranding of creation science as “intelligent design”, and now to “teach the controversy” or at the very least teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution or give teachers the academic freedom to do so. It’s all a giant game, but their motives are transparent – do anything possible to water down the teaching of evolution or insert creationist propaganda into the public schools.

Their strategy has largely failed from a legal perspective – they have lost every major legal challenge to their agenda. But they have been very successful from a cultural perspective – less than half of the population accepts the scientific theory of evolution without qualification, and 60% of public school science teachers shy away from teaching evolution because they either do not feel comfortable with the material or simply want to avoid controversy. In essence, what creationists have not been able to accomplish through evidence or the force of argument, or through the legal system, they have accomplished through intellectual thuggery.

In the UK there appears to be a growing creationist movement, or perhaps it is just coming into the light more. And they do not have any constitutional prohibition against teaching religion in public schools, so that layer of protection is gone. For now there are no plans to teach creationism in public schools, but the UK has private and so-called “free” schools. (There are private schools in the US as well, and they are free to teach creationism as part of the curriculum.) This is the latest battle ground for science education in the UK.

Recently, it is reported that:

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has confirmed that creationism will not be taught in free schools because it is “at odds with scientific fact”.

That’s nice, but what does that mean in terms of policy?

Mr Gove said at a free school conference in January that he would consider applications from creationist groups on a case-by-case basis.

That sounds like a bit of a political dodge. We will just have to wait and see how this get’s applied.

I acknowledge there is a real dilemma here, between freedom and quality control. For public schools I don’t think there is much of an issue – if the government is providing a free education, then that education should be secular and not impose any religious faith on the students. The question is, what rights do private groups have to forgo public education and set up their own private educational system, and how do these rights relate to the societal requirement that parents provide an education for their children? We recognize both the right of freedom, and the obligation of education – striking a reasonable balance is the dilemma. It makes sense that there has to be some minimum standard in order for teaching to be considered an education.

We can also recognize that in a free society people have the right to make what others might consider dumb decisions. But how much of a right do parents have to make such decisions on behalf of their children. This same conflict comes up with regard to health care – is the parent’s obligation to provide basic health care for their children met by simply praying over a sick and dying child? Likewise, is the obligation to provide an education met if the parents simply teach their cultural and religious beliefs as knowledge?

I think a good compromise, in general terms, is to let parents and private schools teach whatever they want (they are going to anyway) but to have requirements for what must be taught in order to be accredited. This is essentially the system we have now, but I would definitely include a working knowledge of evolution as part of the minimum requirements. I think it is fair to say to private schools – to qualify, you have to teach evolution. You don’t have to believe it, but you have to understand it.

In any case – the struggle to improve science education continues.

In an unrelated news item, Bill Gates has turned his attention to reforming education. This has been one of the major initiatives of the Bil and Melinda Gates Foundation, and previously he has donated money to failing high schools. Now he has announced a new initiative to reform teachers through incentives. He feels that a proper incentive structure and improved support for teachers will mean better quality teachers.

This may be the way to go. The quality of individual teachers seems to have more of an impact on the quality of education than any other single element, including textbooks, curriculum, and even money spent on education. Only the home environment has more of an impact of academic achievement.

Gates is committing $290 million dollars to a few test programs, but he hopes they will serve as a model to reform teachers everywhere.

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