Science State Standards Signify Success: Alabama Versus Massachusetts

Fortunately for you, dear reader, I couldn’t figure out how to have every word in this post begin with the letter S. Anyway, onto to science education. I would take the education reformers more seriously if they would face up to a very brutal truth about the disparity among states:

The black-white gap is recognized as an educational crisis. Academics, columnists, pundits, and think tanks regularly attempt to tackle this problem. And it’s a problem that has a huge historical component: before Emancipation, many slaves would be tortured or murdered for daring to learn how to read. In the Jim Crow and lynching era, being too ‘uppity’, such as displaying literacy, could also be a death sentence. Add to that the effects of segregation and discrimination, and there’s quite a few things to overcome.

But the Massachusetts-Alabama gap is as large as the racial gap (and it holds across economic and educational groupings when data are available; data here; Razib has some additional analysis). Educating a white child in Alabama confers the same disadvantage as the historical effects of massive racial discrimination and segregation.

One of the key things (though not the only one) is having a good curriculum and coherency in what students are taught. Which brings me to this report on science standards by way of Anne Kuchment. Let’s first look at Massachusetts’ biology standards:

The life science section begins with an easy to follow, lucid, and to-the-point introduction, spelling out how biological concepts will be presented and developed from pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade. And, though the standards provide less detail than some other states in the early grades, the critical material is covered—and is well developed. Examples of exercises further explain and back up the standards. The coverage of evolution in grades six through eight is both appropriate and good; the term is used without apology or evasiveness. Evidence from fossils and comparative anatomy is adduced.

High school material is clear and concise, yet also comprehensive. An excellent physiology section goes into substantial detail. Treatment of evolution at the high school level is also thorough; as is the case in almost all states, however, human evolution is absent.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s problems are serious (boldface mine):

Alabama’s life science standards start off on fairly firm footing—cells and tissues, photosynthesis, and plant and animal species are all well handled. In fourth grade, for example, students are to:

[Classify] common organisms into kingdoms, including Animalia, Plantae, Protista, Fungi, Archaebacteria, and Eubacteria. (grade 4)

There are some intimations of evolution in the early grades, as in the following:

• Identify characteristics of animals, including behavior, size, and body covering.
• Comparing existing animals to extinct animals
Examples: iguana to stegosaurus, elephant to wooly mammoth. (grade 2)

•Describe evidence of species variation due to climate, changing landforms, interspecies interaction, and genetic mutation.
Examples: fossil records over geologic time, rapid bacterial mutations due to environmental pressures. (grade 7)

At the high school level, biology is mostly good and includes some biochemistry and lots of genetics and environmental material. The high school course electives—genetics, botany, and human physiology—are also substantive. That said, there is one glaring deficit with the Alabama biology standards. Evolution, which should be a front-and-center feature of genetics, is all but absent.

Alabama is clearly frightened by the “E-word”—a phobia from which most other states have recovered. The term “evolution” occurs exactly once in the basic biology course, once more in the genetics elective course, not at all in any of the other seven life science electives, and (despite those intimations) never prior to high school. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the Alabama Department of Education officially considers creationism, an explicitly religious and non-scientific position, to be a form of evolution.

The high school biology course has only this to say about evolution:
• Describe protective adaptations of animals, including mimicry, camouflage, beak type, migration, and hibernation.
• Identifying ways in which the theory of evolution explains the nature and diversity of organisms
• Describing natural selection, survival of the fittest, geographic isolation, and fossil record. (high school biology)

The odd implication here is that evolution and natural selection are sub-categories of the listed adaptations, rather than the center of the entire study. What are otherwise reasonable standards are marred by this flagrant omission of this central tenet of the life sciences.

For those of you keeping score at home, the gap between Alabama and Massachusetts whitesregardless of parental educational level is nearly twice as large as the poverty gap. While it’s tempting to jeer, this, as mentioned above, is a serious problem: the Alabama education system has the same effect on whites as poverty.

And an ass-backwards curriculum is not helping. Reformers might want to do something about that. Or bust teachers unions. Same difference.

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