Sunday, March 08, 2009

McLeroy’s Evolution Vendetta: Tempest in a Primordial Soup Tureen?

The State of Texas, through its State Board of Education, has for years enjoyed a singular place in the nation’s struggle to bring a quality education to all Americans. Because Texas acts as a unit in its school textbook ordering policies, publishers are usually more attentive to the wishes of how Texas SBOE members think content should be presented in these texts. It’s more expensive, you see, to make separate printings tailored to the desires of each individual state.

That being said, let’s switch to the Texas SBOE’s most recent restructuring of how English Language Arts are to be taught in Texas, a rendering that is a fait accomplît, and to the ongoing effort to revamp the state’s Science curriculum.

Over the strong objections of experts in the field of English instruction, the state board adopted last May new rules that are widely held to be from old school or traditionalist views of English language instruction.

The back-to-basics view is that grammar is a separate subject from reading and should be taught separately. Recent research shows that reading for comprehension and acquisition of grammatical skills go hand in hand. Remembering by rote the rules for grammar does not help a student read for comprehension.

But the state board was not finished. Since late last year the state board has begun to tackle the onerous chore of revamping the states science curriculum. Most disciplines of science have been treated with an almost blasé approach. Not so in Biology.

In Biology, the central principle of evolution has come under fire by this traditionalist board that is nearly dominated by creationists. While a recent aggressive move to include the “strengths and weaknesses” or even the “sufficiency or insufficiency” clause in evolution instruction, where students are required to make judgments on the strengths of evolution as an explanation for species diversity – a skill for which any K-12 student is woefully unprepared for – has been turned aside by a board majority, the fight is not over.

So says SBOE President and Dentist, Don McLeroy.

Set to be finalized this month, Don McLeroy promises to maintain a tough stance on acceptance of “evolutionary dogma” in the biology curriculum, as seen in this article in today’s Austin American-Statesman.

McLeroy has a new argument, no doubt cobbled together by any given pro-creationist think tank, that wishes students to make still more uneducated judgments, this time comparing cell structure to natural selection.

From the Austin-American Statesman:

“In addition to asking teachers to engage Texas students in a discussion of how gaps in the fossil record might undermine the notion of common ancestry, McLeroy says he will ask board members to adopt a curriculum standard that would ask students to explain how the complexity of cells does or does not support the idea of natural selection, an explanation of how organisms evolve.”

Asking a graduate student these questions might yield some strongly supported remarks in these regards, remarks that would probably not be to the liking of McLeroy and others of his ilk, but asking a 9th grader to make these comparisons are sure to serve only to confuse.

McLeroy is asking students to reflect on a finished product, a somatic cell, and speculate on whether evolutionary processes could possibly have brought that about. In the face of sheer ignorance, which is what you do face at the 9th grade level, the outcome is guaranteed.

This reminds me of an unattributed quote:

Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.”

That is, the earlier you can hurl ignorance at an empty vessel, or a child, the less work you have later to convince them of your beliefs.

Bringing me back to my original thought, that things mandated in Texas are necessarily carried across state borders by virtue of Texas’ monotlithic textbook purchasing policies.

Not so this time.

Textbooks in Texas are purchased through the state’s “Permanent School Fund” a thing that sounds, well, permanent, but a thing that isn’t anymore. This is because the Texas Permanent School Fund is invested in the stock market. And guess what? The “permanent funds” have gone the way of countless thousands of 401Ks – rendering them somewhat impermanent.

Texas may not have the funds to buy textbooks this year. At least not on the scale of prior years.

Given that, how much would I, in the position as a textbook publisher, rely on the renderings of a narrow-minded and somewhat backward-looking penniless state school board?



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