Analyses of proposed changes to Texas science standards

Before new science textbooks will be approved by the Texas State Board of Education, the Board is engaging in a review and possible rewriting of science standards. In the wake of the Board’s voting to require Texas high school graduates to get an additional year of science education, this should be a good sign of concern for tough standards and high quality education.

Science standard rewrites in other states have been seen as open season on evolution in biology, however. Ohio and Kansas experiences in the since 1999 suggest advocates of science and education should be wary. Texas is not known for strong support of evolution by education officials (a reputation that serious education officials should think hard about changing).

Texas Citizens for Science, a group assembled in 2003 to defend good science and especially evolution, is watching the SBOE actions. TCS President Steven Schafersman has shared his views on actions in the past month, in an e-mail to TCS members and supporters of good textbooks. For the record, I reproduce his e-mail text completely below the fold. This material is also available in different form at the TCS website.

Citizens still carry a lot of clout in government in this nation. Good science standards in textbooks require vigilance of such people. We thank them.

Reviews of New Texas Science Standards Documents
by Steven Schafersman, President
Texas Citizen for Science

2007 November 7

I have now been able to carefully read and review several new documents that address K-12 public education in Texas. These were written in anticipation of Texas TEKS review, revision, and alignment, among other reasons. The first two documents were mandated by the Legislature and are professionally written by expert and knowledgeable teams; the reason the third was written is not known, but it is probably an attempt to influence forthcoming events and establish some legitimacy and become a stake-holder.

The Texas State Board of Education will be given the first two reports during their November meeting. The presentation and acceptance of these two reports will be an agenda item, so public testimony will be allowed.

Here are the three documents and their locations:

1. The Draft Report of the Commission for a College Ready Texas (CCRT)

The description of the CCRT is here:

2. The Texas College Readiness Standards (TCRS) of the CCRT written by four expert vertical teams consisting of both higher education and public education instructors. The four subject areas are ELA, math, science, and social science. I am only reviewing the science section.

The description of the TCRS is here:

The document is here:

The public comment form is here:

3. The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an extreme right-wing organization founded and funded by wealthy religious right radical and Gov. Rick Perry-supporter James Leininger, researches and attempts to influence public policy in Texas to support their ideological goals. The two documents below are accessed on the same page as commentaries denying the dangers of global warming and promoting school choice and competition for public schools as a way to improve public education

The homepage with links to recent documents is here:

The description of the TPPF is here (several of the TPPF board members pictured are extreme reactionaries):

TPPF’s Math and Science Reform Agenda is here:

The Executive Summary for Math and Science Best Practices is here:

Brief Reviews

1. The Draft Report of the CCRT is excellent. It states all the well-known problems: Texas students do poorly compared to students in other states; in fact, Texas student performance is among the poorest in the country; high school graduation rate is low and dropout rate is high; college attendance and graduation is low; most Texas high school graduates are unprepared for college-level work without significant remedial or developmental courses; the vast majority of Texas high school graduates are less prepared to succeed in college than most of their peers throughout the nation; etc. I remember pointing out all of these facts in public testimony to the Texas SBOE in 1984 (!), but of course nothing was done then and since then. Maybe the SBOE will do something now. (The Draft Report of the CCRT is a Draft until approved and adopted by the SBOE. They may do this with or without requiring revisions after public testimony and debate.)

The Draft Report easily makes the case that today’s knowledge-based global economy requires that most students must acquire a post-secondary education to be competitive, successful, and earn an adequate income. Thus, there is a great need for Texas high school graduates to be college-ready.

The Draft Report presents the obvious solutions: It defines college readiness. It states that nationally-recognized and exemplary college readiness standards exist now and should be incorporated into the Texas public school standards. Such standards include making courses more rigorous and requiring that students take certain courses that most students don’t take (such as Algebra II and Physics). The bad drop-out problem must be addressed in Texas, finding some way to encourage students to stay in school. Critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills should be emphasized in all courses. Students should be required to take notes and write reports or essays in every class. Students should be required to work in teams and on class projects that require teamwork. Standards should be explicit, focused, specific, and measurable. And the report contains many more excellent suggestions and solutions, all worth implementing.

Of special interest to me is the emphasis placed on science and math in the Draft Report. In several places, the report properly describes the need for knowledge of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, AND Earth and Space Science (ESS). Inclusion of the last science area, ESS, is a major advance in the recognition of the importance of all areas of science in college-ready education. I worked hard to encourage this recognition by public officials and education leaders, so I am gratified to see this result.

The Draft Report only leaves out two significant suggestions to improve the education and college readiness of Texas high school students. The first is to stop all the abstinence-only school presentations, adopt health education books that treat pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases in a realistic way, and start teaching comprehensive sex education programs in all Texas middle and high schools. The facts that over 60% of Texas high school students engage in sexual activity and that Texas has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, illegitimate births, and sexually-transmitted diseases in the nation are apparently lost on the authors of the Draft Report. These dire statistics reveal a major reason for the college-UNreadiness of Texas students, especially young women. The SBOE, the Legislature, the Governor, and now the authors of the CCRT Draft Report continue to ignore this significant problem.

The second suggestion to improve college-readiness that is not discussed is to oblige parents (i.e., require or force them by penalty-enforced statute or regulation) to become much more involved in the education of their children. The majority of parents leave everything up to the school and teachers and expect good results. This lack of interest and commitment is so unrealistic and counter-productive that it becomes wishful thinking. These parents live in a fantasy world. Just requiring that parents pick up their misbehaving kids from the school within one hour or bear a fine would be a significant step in the right direction. Other steps would be limits on television, video games, and sports participation, and requiring that parents sign a statement about homework completion each weeknight. I believe that the major impediment to improving student education is the attitude of the parents and, through them, school district boards and superintendents. All of these seem to want students to become credentialed as soon as possible with as little trouble as possible, and have encouraged social promotion, grade inflation, and non-rigorous testing to get kids through the system. Standards have become so low that our national productivity in scientific and technological areas is at risk. Immigrants from Asia and Europe must fill so many graduate school slots and job openings that American citizens cannot fill. Learning science, math, and engineering is demanding, time-consuming work that requires discipline, focus, and an intellectual work ethic that most students just don’t have, and they will not get these unless the school environment is changed.

In conclusion, with two notable lapses identified above, the Draft Report of the CCRT is an excellent survey of the problems facing Texas public schools regarding college readiness and a summary of solutions to those problems. I endorse its contents and can certainly recommend it to the SBOE.

2. The Draft Texas College Readiness Standards (TCRS) of the CCRT written by four expert vertical teams consisting of both higher education and public education instructors. The four subject areas are ELA, math, science, and social science. I am only reviewing the science section, although I will state that the other three sections are as detailed and extensive as the science section. (The TCRS is a Draft until approved and adopted by the SBOE. They may do this with or without requiring revisions after public testimony and debate.)

The Science CRS are excellent. They are the best-written science standards I have ever read. They can really serve as a basis for revising the science TEKS, the current Texas science standards.

The authors understand both the content and operation of science: what science knows and how it works. They define science as a way of knowing, a process by which we discover knowledge about and understand nature. This is correct. The authors also know that the core of the scientific method is testing hypotheses. One error they make (p. 41) is conflating theories and explanatory models (which can be either hypotheses or theories) with hypotheses. Theories are much, much more than hypotheses. However, I like the fact that they ignore the term “theory” after that, since no one except scientists apparently understands what it means.

The proposed CR science standards begin with knowing scientific ways of learning and thinking, including cognitive skills and methods of scientific inquiry. These are things I have been teaching explicitly for 25 years in my introductory science classes, although standards never require them. They should. They include things like using skepticism, logic, recognizing faulty arguments and unreliable statements about science, ethics, creativity, formulating testable questions, reproducible observations of empirical evidence, correct design of hypotheses, scientific collaboration, and other necessary scientific skills. These should be at the beginning of EVERY set of science standards, but rarely are. The TCRS has these, and they should serve as a model for the upcoming revised science TEKS. Needless to say, the unscientific and unethical language about requiring “strengths and weaknesses” for every scientific explanation is not present.

Next, the CRS discusses the need for Foundational Skills in mathematics and scientific and technical communication. These vital skills (math, note-taking, writing, speaking, computer graphing, etc.) are never required explicitly, but only implied, and so are usually ignored. Here they are explicit. This is just outstanding! These standards should be included in EVERY set of science standards.

Next, the expected content or discipline knowledge requirements are expertly identified and stated. The authors do this for the expected Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, but also for Earth and Space Science and Environmental Science, making it clear that they recognize that these two other disciplines or science course areas are of vital importance. I have long believed that every student should take FIVE science courses in high school, the traditional three plus ESS and Environmental Science. The authors of the TCRS appear to agree (although, in practice, four is all that can be expected). Acknowledging that other important realms of scientific knowledge exist in addition to biology, chemistry, and physics is most noteworthy.

The biology section includes a requirement that students learn the evidence for evolution (biogeography, embryology, fossils, DNA sequences, artificial selection, etc.) and how this evidence is used to infer evolutionary relationships among organisms. Specific requirements include an understanding of natural selection, common descent with modification, common ancestors, mass extinctions, the concept that populations change, etc. The only topic missing–which should be included if the authors were really courageous and did not ultimately pander to the expected religious biases of the SBOE–is human evolution and the hominid fossil record that illustrates human evolution so clearly. While not strictly an error, this is an inadequacy or fault of the science CRS and should be corrected. However, I doubt that it will be.

In conclusion, the Draft TCRS of the CCRT is a professionally-written, excellent, even outstanding document that should serve as a model for future Texas science standards and the upcoming science TEKS review, revision, and realignment. I endorse it whole-heartedly and with enthusiasm.

3. Now we come to the most curious of the new documents. The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) is a well-known right-wing organization that would term themselves as conservatives, but in reality are social radicals. Most or all of the officers and board members of this organization are members of the religious right, so would be creationists of various types (young Earth, old Earth, intelligent design, etc.). Thus, they would be antagonistic to science in attitude and belief (for example, also opposing scientific conclusions about the dangers of global warming, human population growth, industrial air pollution, etc.). No doubt they are aware, however, that the Texas business community has been among the strongest supporters of having accurate and reliable science taught in Texas, especially including evolution (which is the central concept in the life sciences), so they must constantly experience some form of cognitive dissonance, since they would presumably wish to be taken seriously as pro-business conservatives. In what guise will they appear in their new documents, one a five-page policy perspective on math and science reform, the other a one-page policy brief on math and science best practices (the research paper for which this policy brief is the executive summary is apparently not published yet)? Will they be anti-science social radicals (their true nature) or pro-science business conservatives (their adopted public persona)? I will objectively and fairly review their two new documents and report which is the case.

The TPPF elects to present itself as a group of pro-business conservatives who recognize the “math and science skills deficit in Texas public schools” and who advocate serious recommendations to solve the problems. It does not advocate teaching intelligent design or diminishing the teaching of evolution. It does not advocate “teaching the controversy” or “teaching both side of the origins question.” It ignores the typical anti-science religious-right rhetoric. Instead, it advocates several mainstream recommendations, most of which I find to be perfectly acceptable.

A. TPPF wants to make it easier for qualified math and science teachers to achieve certification without enduring the extensive education school training usually required, even to the extent of waiving state certification requirements to attract good math and science teachers. This recommendation may be anti-union, but I support it from my own experience as a non-certified but full-time high school science substitute teacher; I was paid one-fourth to one-third what a certified teacher made while I was teaching chemistry at one high school and later physics at another. I took the jobs for the experience, of course, not the money, and believe me, after 22 years as a college and university science professor I had a learning experience.

B. TPPF wants to make math and science teachers’ pay more competitive, abolishing the statewide salary schedule and offering bonuses and signing incentives for such teachers. This is also an exemplary idea.

C. TPPF wants math and science teachers to be evaluated objectively in a variety of ways. Teacher evaluation is okay if it is actually done objectively. Teachers rightfully object to proposed state teacher evaluation and accountability requirements because they are invariably set up so administrators control the results and no modifications are made for initial student quality, school district setting, and degree of teacher control of the classroom. In effect, the evaluation is un-objective and basically un-fair. Public education officials have yet to institute a really objective and fair method of teacher accountability, but the possibility exists. As I describe above, it is not teachers, but parents, school boards, and superintendents who are the reason for poor student educational results. Every teacher I have met–and I have met hundreds–is completely dedicated and works as hard as each possibly can. Parents, not teachers, should be evaluated on the basis of student learning.

The usual reason for demands for state-required teacher accountability are to demonstrate that teachers are failing, thus the schools are failing, and thus a private-school voucher program must be initiated to provide competition to the public schools to get them and their teachers to do better. (Failing schools is the one explicit reason so far allowed by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision to permit an otherwise unconstitutional voucher program.) In other words, public schools will be improved by taking money from them and giving it to private religious schools. Other ways to get public schools to fail are to under-fund them, take money from them and giving it to charter schools, over-test the students, and under-pay the teachers. Sound familiar?

D. TPPF wants to ensure that math and science courses are rigorous, required every year, test mastery of skills and not just content knowledge or appreciation, and really prepare students to be college-ready. These are great recommendations.

E. TPPF wants to encourage the creation of more math and science magnet schools which attract students who want to eventually enter scientific and technical professions. This is a wonderful recommendation that I completely endorse. Every urban school district should have at least one math and science magnet school, because all the students in it want to do well in school and won’t have the distractions of other students who are not motivated to learn (and thus are disruptive).

F. TPPF wants to remove restrictions on charter schools, especially expansion size limits. The charter school program was created for two reasons: first, to provide a legal way to start defunding public schools and promote their failure; second, it was a way to initiate the process of taking public tax money from public schools and start giving it to alternative schools, promoting “school choice” and ultimately giving the public money to private religious schools via a voucher program. The charter school program was a camel’s-nose-under-the-tent strategy; the camel’s body was to be a full-blown voucher program, but the effort has stalled, leaving charter schools in a sort of limbo. Despite TPPF’s claims to the contrary, charter schools have proven less effective and successful than public schools at educating students. They have been beset with financial, legal, and ethical problems also, so the charter program will probably slowly disappear. TPPF terms charter schools and even magnet schools as “school choice,” but this is a euphemism for vouchers, not magnet schools, which are legitimate public schools. Removing restrictions on charter schools is not a recommendation I can accept.

G. TPPF wants to replicate the best practices of high performance schools. This may or may not be a good recommendation, since high performance schools may have several reasons for their success, some of which cannot be replicated elsewhere. It is doubtful that TPPF was able to isolate specific best practices that promoted high performance in these schools. For example, one best practice TPPF promotes is to RAISE science and math class size, since this increases teacher salaries and decreases teacher shortages in math and science. How this happens is not explained. Why not pay math and science teachers more and keep class size at a typical level? This recommendation is problematic.

H. Finally, some perfectly acceptable recommendations include giving students incentives for better performance and for taking AP courses, to minimize TAKS intrusion on classroom time by restricting TAKS instruction to poorer-performing students, and by increasing parent-student communication.

In conclusion, except for two recommendations (F and G above), the TPPF suggestions are serious, mainstream, and acceptable, in some cases even exemplary. I agree with most of them and can advocate these to the SBOE.

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