The Season of Unreason in the Georgia State Senate@Standards Bill 167

 

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In an article published at the PeachPundit, the author, Charlie Harper suggests the Georgia Senate Bill 167 is an anti-science bill.  In this post, I want to add to Mr. Harper’s conclusion that the action of the Georgia Senate is major step backwards for education in the state.

Senators Ligon, Loudermilk, Hufstetler and Hill, the originators of the bill, based only on political considerations, have created a plague on the Georgia educational system.  If they had chutzpah, they would have created a bill that engaged the Georgia Senate in a debate, followed by and up or down vote on whether to opt out or stay with the Common Core State Standards.  Instead, they have created a wreck of the state’s curriculum by throwing their argument about the Common Core State Standards into the hands of a politically appointed 17-member committee.  According to the bill, the mathematics review has to be completed by May 31, 2015, and implemented during the 2016 -2017 school year.  English language arts is to be completed by May 31, 2016, and implemented by  the 2017-2018 school year.

The bill also prohibits any state official from relinquishing any control over content standards.  What this really means is state educators are not allowed to adopt any federally prescribed content standards established by a consortium of states or a third-party, including, but not limited to, the Next Generation Science Standards, the National Curriculum for Social Studies, the National Health Education Standards, or the National Sexuality Standards.  Will the esteemed senators ban textbooks and other resources that any connection to a federally prescribed program or research project.

But the Senators can’t get their story right. In another section of the bill, the Senators urge educators to examine standards previously or currently adopted by Georgia, other states, or other countries especially those highly rated in national and international surveys.

Whose In, Whose Out

The committee of 17 will be stacked with political appointees, many of whom will lack the knowledge to check and make recommendations about content standards in English, language arts, literature, reading, mathematics, science, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, engineering, history, political science, geography, anthropology, computer science, robotics.

The committee is tasked with making recommendations on the content standards. As you will see ahead, this is the wrong committee for a wrong-headed piece of legislation.

In: If you live in Georgia, and can claim membership in anyone of these categories, you are in:

  • Parent or grandparent of a Georgia student–they need 9 of you folks
  • Current or retired teacher–they only need 3 of you, one elementary, one middle, and one high school teacher
  • Private sector person–2 of you
  • Postsecondary content specialist: 3 people who have taught the subject content (at least 5 years) at the postsecondary level, and hopefully holding a doctorate. They mean professors of English, chemistry, history, engineering, political science, etc.

Out: If you are a professor of education in the state of Georgia, you are out.  If you hold an advanced degrees in education in a subject such as science education, English education, social studies education, or mathematics education–you can not be on this committee.

I do have a Ph.D. in science education and geology, and I know professors in all the education content areas in Georgia. If you wanted to have knowledgeable people on the committee, these are the folks you need.  They know and do the research in education, and they know and understand the content (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) of the standards.  This is a perfect example of the “season of unreason” playing out in the Georgia Senate.  Many colleagues in colleges of education also teach in academic departments of our universities.  What are these senators thinking? To continue the legacy of unreason, the Senators also insist that the committee be a blend of urban, suburban, rural and represent each congressional district.  And in typical fashion, committee members are appointed via a mix of the Governor, Speaker of the House, and the Lieutenant Governor.

Season of Unreason

I’ve read the Senate Bill 167, and if you do, I think you will agree that this piece of legislation is a display of ignorance on the part of these men.  What they have done is to use a lack of scholarship and ethics to inflict harm on hundreds of thousands of students, their parents, and all of Georgia’s educators.

The year 2010 is a benchmark for our senators.  You see, it was in 2010 that the state of Georgia received its $400 million dollar grant from the federal (this is a key word in Senate Bill 167) government’s Race to the Top fund.  Georgia agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of this grant.  Governor Purdue signed the proposal that was funded, and Governor Deal has stated support for the standards.

This senate bill pushes the state’s curriculum back to the year 2010, just before Georgia received RT3 federal funding.  Here is how Senate Bill 167 pushes education in Georgia back:

Beginning September 24, 2014, a local school system shall have the flexibility to determine its curriculum and instruction without constraint, including returning to curriculum and instruction aligned to the former Georgia Performance Standards that were in effect in June 2010, until the completion of the revision process established pursuant to this part and the establishment of new standards pursuant to such process. 

The Georgia legislature is in the midst an age of Unreason, and Senate Bill 167 is the poster child for unreason and unscientific literacy.  Two recent publications come to mind that underscore the unreason and unscientific thinking that has occurred under the Gold Dome in Atlanta.

The first publication is Susan Jacoby’s book, The Age of American Unreason (library copy).  It is the story of America caught up in “junk thought” and anti-rationalist thinking that seems to be common fare for state legislatures and the U.S. Congress these days.  The debate over the Common Core State Standards in America’s state legislatures is not a scholarly discussion of the content and curriculum of schooling.  It is an arrogant display of political advocacy trumping any sense of responsibility for the education of its citizens.  Creating a committee that lacks the credentials to analyze, synthesize and evaluate the content of the K-12 curriculum is a sham, and an embarrassment to the citizens and educators of Georgia.

Another publication that has relevance here is Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (library copy).  A very significant part of Senate Bill 167 is the disconnect between the content of the curriculum and the development of literacy among Americans.  Why did the Georgia Senate tie the hands of Georgia’s educators by making it illegal to consider and carry out any federally prescribed content standards or related materials, especially the Next Generation Science Standards?  It’s obvious that the Georgia Senate has decided politically to join the band-wagon of fellow legislators to opt out of the Common Core and to redirect the state away from the NGSS.

The action of the Senate is very clear, and that is to use the education of K-12 students as a punching bag to wedge their political ideology into our schools.  Their behavior is unscientific.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum discuss how [scientific] literacy has been impeded by politicians and advocacy groups.  The behavior of the Georgia Senate by writing and passing Senate Bill 167 only contributes further to the problem of illiteracy.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum expose the illiteracy of the senate when they say:

And anyway, we don’t need average citizens to become robotic memorizers of scientific facts or readers of the technical literature.  Rather we need a nation in which science has far more prominence in politics and the media, for more relevance to the life of every American, for more intersections with other walks of life, and ultimately, far more influence where it truly matters—namely, in setting the agenda for the future as far out as we can possibly glimpse it.  That would be a scientific America, and its citizens would be as scientifically literate as anyone could reasonably hope for.  We will never need a nation that is fully composed of Ph.D.s. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, p. 18.

 

The Georgia Senate, through its passage of Senate Bill 167 has not only pushed education in Georgia back, but has created instability for parents, students and their teachers.  Shame on them.

What do you think about Senate Bill 167?

Photo of the Georgia Senate Chamber by Wally Gobetz, Flickr

From Sputnik to Sagan: Some Views on Science

I decided to obtain a copy of Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum via my Kindle App on my iPhone, and started reading immediately.  A few days later, the book arrived.  In an early part of the book, “the rise and cultural decline of American science,” the authors have a chapter entitled: From Sputnik to Sagan.  It is an interesting chapter in that it provides a context to help us understand where we are today when we look at science and society.

Starting with WWII, the authors explore the social and political history of science in American society beginning with Vannevar Bush’s report Science: The Endless Frontier which President Roosevelt requested to explore how institutions of science could continue (given the development of the bomb, radar and other scientific developments of WWII) to serve the nation.  The report called for a heavy investment in science by the government, and one result of this was the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 to promote the progress of science, advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and secure the national defense.

But of course, after WWII, the Cold War created a scientific and technological war between the USA and the Soviet Union.  In 1957 we all found out that the Soviets, headed by an engineer by the name of  Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, had launched the first Earth satellite, Sputnik.  It was one of the most significant events in the history of science, and science education in America, in that it led to further pouring of funds into the NSF budget, and creation of a vast number of elementary and secondary science curriculum projects developed from the late 1950’s into the 1970’s.  The first NSF science curriculum project (PSSC Physcs), developed at MIT, was field tested in the high school I attended in the late 1950s, and then more than twenty years later, I was one of the writers on one of the last NSF projects in this string of curriculum projects, ISIS, developed at Florida State University.

Science took a prominent role in the federal government during the administration of President Eisenhower.  He created the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and it was President Kennedy who created an office of Science & Technology in the White House.  Eisenhower also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a direct response to the launching of Sputnik.  ARPA was the organization that was responsible for the creation of Internet through the predecessor ARPA-Net.  Science seemed to follow the outline established in Vannevar Bush’s report, and science flourished.  For example, the budget of NSF went from about $15 million in 1957 to $135 million the next year, and now the budget is more than $7 billion.  But between 1957 and now, science has gone through changes in the public perception of science, and as Mooney would say, The Republican War on Science which started in the 1980s.

Although the authors of Unscientific America talk a bit about the development of science curriculum by elite scientists, they fail to point out that there were two phases of curriculum development from 1958 – 1977, with the first phase primarily organized by professional scientists and science professors, and the second organized by science educators, science teachers, and scientists.  Although not a revolt, it was clear that scientists knew science, but there was a huge gap in what they knew about science teaching.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum do not explore the nature of science education enough to shed light on the true meaning of “unscientific America.”

But they do explore science in American culture, and shed a lot of light on one of America’s most prominent scientists, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996).  It was during the 1970’s that most Americans became familiar with Dr. Carl Sagan, Astronomer, and populariser of science.  In fact, Sagan helped educate more Americans about the world of science through his PBS program Cosmos which was the most popular science program every produced by PBS, and the book version of Cosmos sold more than a million copies.

Sagan was probably the most well known scientist of the 1970s and 1980s.  Not only did he produce the Cosmos program, he was a scientific advisor to NASA, was director of the Planetary Studies Program at Cornell (where he was full professor), author of hundreds of scientific papers, and author of more than 20 books.  But, I think, more importantly, he spoke to ordinary citizens about science in terms that all could understand.  It was his outspoken behavior that rankled a number of other scientists (especially I am sure his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show), and when he was nominated to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he was denied admission.  So this brilliant scientist was denied admission to this society, and as Lynn Margulis wrote to him: “They are jealous of your communication skills, charm, good looks and outspoken attitude especially on nuclear winter” (Mooney & Kirshenbaum, p. 40).

Sagan, according to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, was a “fierce advocate for the proper use of science.”  This is an especially relevant statement today given the attitude that the current President has toward science, compared to his predecessor.

Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Han Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unscientific America helps us understand the gap that exists between the world of science—scientists, scientific developments, scientific theories—and the political and public interpretation and use of science.  Since the 1970s battle lines were drawn over issues such evolution, SDI, climate change, energy crises, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemics.  In each of these cases, all of which have a scientific base, political views and media hype have created vast gaps in the way people view these issues specifically, and science overall.

At the heart of a solution to these issues is science education.  Although Mooney and Kirschenbaum do not explore science education in any depth, they allude to it.  When I use the term science education, I am not just referring to K-college science education, but also how the media does or doesn’t help educate the public on important science issues.  Over the past number of years, the print media, especially newspapers, have reduced the amount of space and number of reporters they devote to covering science.  And media such as TV spent very little time reporting on science.

There is more to discuss here, and I’ll return to this topic over the next several days.  In the meantime, I recommend that you take a look at the book, Unscientific America, and also read about some of the work of one science’s greatest spokesperson’s, Carl Sagan.