The public is bombarded with news reports saying that young people in the U.S. aren’t learning enough about science, especially compared to kids in Asia. I’m not sure that’s true, because I work at a large university where I see very able American students starting to excel in their scientific careers, and I hear back from them as they flourish in later years.
But perhaps we really are falling behind. After all, everyone says so. How would we start to investigate that possibility?
It’s tough to imagine a single science exam that we could give to kids in places as varied as China, Germany, South Korea and the U.S. Apart from the problems of translation and grading, there’s no reason for the schools in those places to cooperate with such a test. So it’s impossible to directly measure student achievement around the world.
Perhaps we better just focus on kids in the U.S. and think about what their science education is like, especially in the crucial grades of high school. What are the meat and potatoes in science classes we are delivering to most of our young people?
One fairly easy way to discover what is being taught to American kids about science is to ask their teachers. Biology teachers are of special significance in this regard, because many kids in high school take biology but no other science classes.
I’m sad to report the recently published news of what most high school biology teachers in the nation’s public schools say they teach. According to an article published in the prestigious Science magazine, only 28 percent of biology teachers follow the recommendations of the National Research Council and teach the basic theory of evolution by natural selection.
As I do the arithmetic that means an astounding 72 percent of our teachers don’t teach the organizing principle that stands at the base of modern biological science.
It’s not that the National Research Council recommendations are really so difficult to achieve. The idea behind them is just to present the evidence behind the theory. There’s a lot of evidence in favor of evolution, ranging from the fossil record that shows more complex plants and animals appearing over time to genetic similarities in groups of organisms.
Humans can “make” Chihuahuas and Great Danes out of basic dog-stock by choosing which individuals get to reproduce, thus shaping the next generation of canines over time until we get what we want. We geologists have a lot of time at our disposal – because Earth history is long – so it’s easy for me to see that Mother Nature can also select mamas and papas over time in a way that leads species themselves to change.
What can explain why 72 percent of our nation’s high school biology teachers don’t teach basic biological theory in class? The problem isn’t limited to one region of the country, so it’s not just a Bible-belt issue.
I suspect the personal religious convictions of the silent 72 percent don’t explain everything that’s happening. I go to church every Sunday; I’ve been doing so all my life. Heck, on a good week, I even put money in the plate. So I can testify that most of the traditional, mainline Christian denominations in this country accepted evolutionary theory around the year 1900.
Some high school biology teachers really are Creationists, rejecting every form of evolution. Their views, of course, are not scientific. People are welcome to religious ideas – very welcome in my book. But beliefs given to us by our faith are not what should shape science education.
I suspect a lot of teachers in the silent 72 percent are simply taking the easy road. They know that if they teach evolution, some parents will be upset. If the teachers just neglect to mention the theory, who is the worse for it?
But it’s our kids who suffer from the fact that we are not teaching the basic theory of biology. We’re not teaching them good science – and by our example we are teaching them cowardice.
Perhaps we really are falling behind, both in the realms of science and, even more importantly, of integrity.
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Natural and Resources Sciences at Washington State University.