quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (education)

Finland’s education system regularly scores best or near-best worldwide, yet the country has no private schools (period, at any level from preschool to doctorate), no government-created teacher evaluations, no uniform grading system, and no standardized tests except to graduate high school.

A Gates Foundation experiment finds a significant positive correlation between how good a teacher is at raising students’ standardized test scores and how much money that teacher’s students earn in their lifetimes, how likely they are to attend college, how likely they are to avoid teenage pregnancy, how well they perform at non-standardized and general comprehension tests (even if the teachers “taught to the test”), and how high the teacher scores in subjective teacher evaluations (even when the teacher is evaluated based on a self-made video of cherry-picked moments rather than being visited by surprise). And all after correcting for any chance that some teachers might just have gotten a priori better students than others.

(Gates himself talks about evaluating teachers in general, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bill-gates-a-fairer-way-to-evaluate-teachers/2013/04/03/c99fd1bc-98c2-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html)

An op-ed piece reveals there is a strongly positive correlation between family wealth and student academic performance all the way from kindergarten to high school — one more extreme than ethnic variances, and which has grown rapidly in the last 35 years, and which is due almost exclusively to pre-kindergarten cognitive development and home life stability rather than affording better schooling.

The German Sociological Association urges universities to boycott Germany’s most prominent third-party university ranking system, claiming that its ratings are based on incomplete data and that they do nothing to improve the universities’ research.

the A-B-Cs

Mar. 21st, 2013 12:12 am
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Claim: The subjects of biology, chemistry, and physics tend to be taught in that specific order in American high schools, and have been for over a century, as a result of one of the earliest national education standardization efforts: the Report of the Committee [of Ten] on Secondary School Studies, 1892.

Several official-sounding sources make this claim, including Wikipedia. And there’s a lot of present-day dissatisfaction with that subject order, often coupled with claims that there was no reason or a bad reason for it to begin with. I’ve heard speculation that the subjects were ordered that way because the Committee members all squabbled over putting their own favored topics first, which forced the chairman to arrange things in arbitrary order just to finish the report. I’ve heard one fellow with a Ph.D. and over a decade of teaching experience claim the chairman put them in alphabetical order because he couldn’t think of anything better.

Is any of this true? Well, you could always read the report, I suppose. Or, alternately, you could wait for someone to summarize it for you…

The experts on the Committee were divided into nine broad disciplines. One discipline was the “hard sciences” (my term): chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Another was biology: botany, zoology, and physiology. Initially, each group conferred in isolation and submitted a suggested list of class subjects by year for its discipline alone. Looking at just science subjects, they proposed this:

1st year:
2nd year:
just Botany or just Zoology - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
Astronomy - ⅓ yr, 5 hrs/wk
3rd year:
Chemistry - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
4th year:
Physics - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
Meteorology - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Geology or Physical Geography - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Anatomy, Physiology, & Hygiene - ½ yr, 5 hrs/wk

So it seems there is a definite genesis of the biology-chemistry-physics order in that first draft. The base claim is plausible, then. Next question: did they have a logical reason for that order? As it happens, yes.

The biology team put botany/zoology early because everything else in that discipline depended on them. The team didn’t intentionally position any of their subjects before or after subjects in other disciplines. They fell where they fell. For the hard sciences, the report explicitly says that every single team member thought it was more logical to teach physics before chemistry, but all members except one nonetheless recommended chemistry first to allow students more time to learn the greater amounts of math that physics requires.

Now, I’m not a master educator, so I don’t know if those are great reasons in this day and age. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not. I do know that the claims of alphabetization are total bunk.

Aaaaaand that’s the end of it, right?

Not quite.

The plan above was just the first draft. After the Committee compiled these separate team recommendations, it discovered some problems, like the fact there were no recommended science classes for the first year, and how there were only 22 hours of class a week for 9th grade but 35-38 for other grades. So the Committee convened as a whole and rearranged their recommendations into something more reasonable. Now the science portion of the plan looked like this:

1st year:
General Geography (i.e. Physical + Political) - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
2nd year:
Botany or Zoology - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
3rd year:
Physics - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
Astronomy - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Meteorology - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
4th year:
Chemistry - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
Geology or Physical Geography - ½ yr, 4 hrs/wk
Anatomy, Physiology, & Hygiene - ½ yr, 4 hrs/wk

Notice how physics slid earlier? The hard sciences team re-thought things and decided they wanted physics taught before (or at least alongside) all the half-year earth and space subjects in 11th and 12th grade.

This plan, since it was more refined, is the one that schools should have been using as a guideline (though I don’t know how many did). As you can see, it went biology-physics-chemistry.

The Committee cautioned that it was still a guide, not an exact plan, and that they didn’t expect any school to match it perfectly. Then they went even further and offered four sample specific course plans depending on how many foreign languages the student intended to learn. These plans all slide physics even earlier, to 10th grade, for a few reasons: so kids who drop out halfway through high school still get more basic science; so students can compare different science fields earlier and more side-by-side, which helps them make better career choices; and so students in the more “classical” tracks can wait until 11th grade to make their final decision on whether to learn Latin and Greek or just Latin.

So now we have biology and physics tied for first and chemistry second.

The moral of the story is this: the real proper order for things is read, then talk. More Ph.D.’s should learn that way.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (education)

As someone with no children of my own, I arguably have no legitimate business getting involved in the politics of education. But I have a sister and a future sister-in-law who are grade school teachers, and another sister who has three kids, from not-even-preschool to almost-middle-school, so I have occasion to be concerned anyway.

I’m concerned because the older of my two nieces is in the Gifted program. I was in such a program myself. These days, I can’t identify any positive benefit I derived from it. My only memory is that it instilled in me a harmful attitude that I was a genius and should be exempt from mundane responsibilities.

I’m concerned because my sister lives in a low-income neighborhood and her kids go (or will go) to a school that’s among the lowest rated in her state. She once Facebooked that she felt her kids were nonetheless receiving a good education from dedicated teachers. I asked her why she thought that was. (In the past, she has evidenced the bad attitude that as long as someone means well and tries hard, they deserve full credit for their intent regardless of the outcome of their actions, and anyone who criticizes them for falling short of their goal, doing more harm than good, or producing the opposite of their intended effect is a big mean poopy-head with an illegitimate opinion.) Her publicly-stated reasons were that her daughter never had a teacher she disliked and always got high grades and standardized test scores. In private, to avoid being accused of racism, she revealed an additional reason to me: she felt the school’s teacher ratings were contaminated by a significant population of recent immigrants who spoke little to no English and thus scored horribly on the state’s English-only review tests, making it appear that their teachers were lousy.

I’m concerned because neither of her parents is a particularly good academic or professional role model. No one in my family is, to the extent of anyone else I know who’s been to college or beyond. My father went into the Air Force right out of high school because that’s what his father and brother had done. That’s just what men did in his family. My mother went to a Catholic high school that offered girls three different tracks depending on their career intentions: a “medical” track for nurses, a “business” track for secretaries, and a general track for housewives. That’s just what women did in her town. I myself went to college for no other reason than that’s just what you did after high school if you were really smart (by which I mean you got good grades and knew a lot of stuff about hard subjects like math).

So here I am, across the country from relatives I’m concerned aren’t getting educated as well as they could be or should be and not super-confident in their parents to fix things. (Wow. Back-seat parenting is pretty damn easy, isn’t it?)

And let’s say I did get a chance to take part directly. What would I say? One of the things I want to impress on my nieces is that the point of school isn’t to get good grades, but to learn. But is it? It’s profound, and I think it’s an important distinction, but I worry it’s naïve. I can’t go ten paces without running into all manner of counterclaims as to the real point of public education. Some are outlandish conspiracy theories, like that it exists to instill all of society with an acceptance of, dependence on, and unthinking obedience to an intrusive omnipresent government. (I’m looking at you, Noam Chomsky.) Others are more reasoned, like James Portnow’s take that we’re still using a system modeled after the one used in 1850s Prussia, which was designed to operate with retired NCOs as teachers and deliver rote knowledge en masse to a totally uneducated population that needed to make a wholescale cultural shift from an agricultural society to an industrial one.


May. 20th, 2012 08:32 am
quarrel: (Default)

Did anyone else read this short-short story in middle school?

"Test", by Theodore Thomas

quarrel: (Default)

My sister is a primary school teacher in rural Pennsylvania, so I asked her her opinion of Bill Gates’s latest experiments at improving education.

Quick summary: over the past dozen years, Gates has given $5 billion — more than half the total charity this cause has received throughout its existence — to scholarships and education grants. He built twenty new schools in big cities with the goal of measuring the effects of smaller classes. He paid for a five-year study to look for common elements among teachers of the most successful classes. He wanted to know if there were teaching practices that consistently work well, and if so, what those are.

Gates discovered a few things. He found that attendance, discipline, and teacher-student interaction all increased noticeably with smaller class sizes, but academic performance and how many students continued on to college rose only slightly. He found no correlation in school performance between states where anyone can be a teacher and states where only union members can. He thinks private schools are excellent and efficient but doesn’t think a voucher program will ever be politically palatable enough to be worth pursuing.

My sister took issue with virtually everything Gates found. First there was his methodology. He tried to test “whether aspects of effective teaching—classroom management, clear objectives, diagnosing and correcting common student errors—can be systematically measured” but he only looked at seven school districts, and all of them urban. That’s not a scientific way to determine what works best in general when most states have a variety of environments and hundreds of districts. (Me? I think it makes perfect sense to isolate variables with a problem this complex.)

Vouchers? Those can only improve American education if private schools are truly better than public ones. They might be, but then again, they might not. The comparisons most often used to support their alleged superiority are confounded by flaws. Public schools must accept all applicants; private schools can and do reject applicants they think will do poorly, even when tuition is not a problem. Private schools also don’t need to give their kids the same standardized proficiency tests as public schools do, so there is no straightforward way to compare the performances of the entire student bodies across the board. You could compare things like SAT scores of those students who try to continue to college, but that’s not a cross-sampling of the whole population. It also relies on the same questionable conception of high school that Gates has: that the primary purpose of high school is preparation for college.

Mainly, though, she is frustrated at the growing trend of holding teachers 100% responsible for children’s performance when a child’s home life accounts for more than 50% of his academic influence. Here my sister brings up the sadly predictable extreme circumstances she’s experienced first-hand: the kids who put half their lunch in their pockets so they’ll have dinner that night; the kindergartener who was locked in his room, beaten, and intentionally underfed the first five years of his life; the seventh grader who shows up in place of her mother at her younger siblings’ teacher conferences because their mom’s in jail and their dad works three jobs. And this is in hicksville, not the inner city where drugs, gangs, and guns make life tough.

Still, I just don’t know. Here’s the thing: I don’t care about the extremes. I’d like to think no sane person would hold a teacher responsible for the poor academic performance of a 15-year-old who falls asleep in class because he works two shifts after school to provide the sole income for a family of three. I’d also like to think no sane person would favorably view a law that forces a school to keep a teacher on the payroll while he is in jail serving out a conviction for molesting his own students. I’m talking about the everyday ordinary cases, not the outliers. I simply find it implausible that teacher proficiency cannot — just cannot, at all — be evaluated in a sufficiently accurate, uniform, and objective manner that we know who deserves a pay raise and who needs more training or a career change. I know teacher skill is far from the only factor in determining a kid’s performance, and could easily be a minority influence, but teachers do vary in skill, right? That’s true in all other occupations. And why can’t we adjust for things that aren’t their fault? Firefighters in drought conditions in the rural southwest aren’t expected to keep fires as contained as those in Baltimore in the spring.


Aug. 29th, 2011 10:20 pm
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

I took the biology semester of my mandatory science requirement in…I think it was my sophomore year of college. One short quiz was multiple choice, with five questions and five possible answers, not counting "none of the above". One question clearly had A as its answer. One question clearly had D. One question clearly had E. The remaining two questions were ambiguous. Both could correctly be answered with either answer B or C. I answered B for one of the questions and C for the other, and I turned my paper in.

I got them wrong, of course. The correct answer for both was, in fact, "B or C".

quarrel: (Default)

I stumbled onto the Jump$tart Coalition’s Student Financial Literacy Survey today. I tried to take it but could not find the questions in their raw form, so I had to imagine that the correct answers weren’t marked. Frustratingly, I had trouble understanding two of the answers. #4 didn’t make sense until I read the detailed coverage in the Survey Book. Then it was embarrassing how obvious it was. I suppose I missed some simple detail or overthought the problem. I also got 12 and 19 wrong. But at least I'm smarter than a 12th-grader.

Tiger dad

Jul. 14th, 2011 01:46 am
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Arthur Robinson is a curious fellow. He has a doctorate in chemistry and briefly taught at UCSD. He co-founded a medical research institute with Linus Pauling. He is the founder and former head of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and the primary author of that institute’s famous Oregon Petition, which purports there is no scientific consensus on global warming and boasts 31,000 scientist signatures. He is one of the 700+ signers of the Dissent From Darwinism statement challenging the basis of the natural selection theory of evolution, which comes from the famously intelligent-design-favoring Discovery Institute.

In the late 1980s, in response to how political, anemic, and (in his words) evil the American public school system had become, his wife created a homeschool regimen for their six children aged 1.5 to 12. He claims the regimen worked so well that he was able to raise and educate all his children alone after his wife unexpectedly died before starting the lessons.

He claims that any child who is forced to do schoolwork (literally, as in physically confined and allowed to do nothing but sleep and eat until it’s finished) and is given an environment with no distractions (including other family members with less-studious lifestyles) is guaranteed to learn to like studying and successfully self-educate in any topic. Some will learn faster than others, but all will succeed eventually and all will enjoy it. The only exception is children who have already been ruined by too-casual conditioning, who are allowed to get out of work by throwing tantrums, who receive hints and help and encouragement when encountering difficult subjects.

The regimen is strict. Schooling occupies five hours per day (from breakfast to afternoon, when the mind is freshest), six days per week, for a total of about ten months per year. It’s not a ten-month span with two months of break, though. It’s year-round with many short vacations. Every single school day, regardless of age, includes two hours of math problems and a one-page essay. All problems must be completed and correct, redoing work as necessary.

Is it hard for him to administer? He says it isn’t. He claims to have spent a lifetime average of less than 15 minutes of education-related attention per day per child, yet had them scoring in the 99.9th percentile of standardized college entrance exams by age 16.

There are, however, rules that the entire family — students, older children, parents — must obey without exception:

  • No added sweeteners of any kind in any food or drink. No saccharine, no aspartame, no sugar, no honey. All artificial sweeteners are incompletely understood, natural sugar impacts mental attitude, and any sweetening sabotages the human body’s natural enjoyment of healthy foods like vegetables.
  • No television. It’s passive entertainment (which is bad) and it lets in the evils of societal norms (which is also bad).
  • No use of computers or calculators until after calculus is mastered. Children are in school to learn how to think; they should not be distracted into conflating thought with data manipulation. Also, as a matter of foundation, they must become adept at performing the simpler arithmetic operations, such as division down to four decimal places, entirely mentally, otherwise their higher thought processes will be bottlenecked at unacceptably slow speeds.
  • The only schoolwork assistance a parent is to give a child, ever, is to instruct the child to try again when the child encounters a problem he can’t solve correctly or a topic he doesn’t understand after reading about it.

He sells his curriculum for a couple hundred dollars. The bulk of it is a primitive proto-eBook library: TIFF-format scans of dozens of reference, history, classic literature, and textbooks, intended to be printed as necessary. The reference includes a 98-year-old dictionary and a 100-year-old encyclopedia. But that’s not a problem. The dictionary is unabridged, and the encyclopedia nonetheless covers 98% of human history (and besides, its age means it hasn’t suffered dumbing-down, political correctness, or multiculturalist revisionism).

Physics is excluded entirely until the child has mastered calculus and is able to personally replicate Isaac Newton’s entire body of work from scratch, which should happen at approximately age 16 (that’s grade 10-11). The child then gets full-bore physics, with no simplified or approximated formulas because those are misleading and wrong. If the child wants to use F = mg for the gravitational pull on everyday objects, he can — if he comes up with that formula himself, and realizes he can use it, and realizes that in real life, gravity is weaker near the ceiling than near the floor and pulls in a different direction in this corner than in that one. Also, air slows things.

His curriculum deliberately excludes everything beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reading is essential for self-teaching everything else for the rest of your life. Writing is essential for communication. Math is essential for teaching rational thinking and the existence of absolutes, and it’s the foundation of sciences such as physics, which is itself the foundation of chemistry and biology. Family Bible readings, household chores, and music lessons are crucial components of rearing his children but are expressly separate from their education. Other “academic” studies like foreign languages are left as hobbies. The kids can pursue them on their own time if they want, but it’s utterly voluntary and on the side. School is for fundamentals.

What are his goals? They seem simple. He wants children to learn

  1. questions have correct answers,
  2. those answers are determinable, and
  3. the child can determine them — all by herself.

He is a proponent of absolute morality. Killing humans for convenience is wrong, period, in all cases, not wrong most of the time but right if it’s a fetus (even in the case of rape). Any given activity, such as watching television, is either bad for you or it isn’t. If it isn’t bad, the only proper amount to let a person indulge in is “as much as that person wants”. If it is bad, the only proper amount is “none whatsoever”. Therefore television is banned in his house. And not just for the kids, because, for example, even if it weren’t bad, there is no logical justification behind limiting the 4-year-old to half an hour a day but letting the 40-year-old watch as much as he wants. That only teaches the kid the immoral, despicable lesson that it’s okay to apply stricter regulations to other people than to yourself.

His policies haven’t always helped his children. They’ve been attacked twice. The first time, in the early 80s, armed Child Protection Service agents interrogated his family and friends, and one son was held at a medical clinic under a law that mandates that medical professionals who suspect a domestic issue must contact authorities and fabricate false medical claims to detain the child. A clinician became concerned when she saw this large family all packed into a single pickup truck, and the agents cited the children’s unusually quiet demeanor as suspicious, presumably indicating fear due to abuse or an abduction in progress. Robinson asserts the authorities were interested less in helping children and more in the $100,000 federal payout their state got per child rescued, and thus viewed his family as an easy half-million bonus check.

The second time was in March of this year. Three of his children, now graduate students in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University, were blocked from their degrees and expelled for no apparent reason. Robinson claims it’s retaliation for his political stance against the university, including his running for a Republican seat in the House of Representatives against a Democrat incumbent with long, strong ties to OSU. The university says the claims are meritless and that it’s illegal for them to discuss details publicly without the students’ consent.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This conversation didn’t exactly happen, but it was close.

“Guess what I discovered: it’s unconstitutional to require evolution to be taught in school.”

“Really? How so?”

“It contradicts the Christian story of creation. That means it directly attacks a main tenet of a major religion. The government isn’t supposed to promote any particular religion. Logically, it shouldn’t be allowed to inhibit any particular religion either.”

“Right. So what does that tell you about the government’s proper role in education?”

“Wait. You believe me?”

“Sure. Why shouldn’t I? You were serious, right?”

“...no. I was being silly.”

“You took two fairly evident and easily-defensible facts, drew a completely logical conclusion from them, and you say you’re not serious? How do you even do that? Why would you do that?”

“You understand politics. I don’t. I put an absurd notion forward so you’d tell me the simple, obvious factor I overlooked.”

“I don’t think you overlooked anything. Your reasoning seems sound. What do you think the error is?”

“It’s got to be something. The Supreme Court says it’s illegal for states to outlaw teaching evolution. Forbidding that subject favors Christianity.”

“First, you didn’t answer my question. I asked you to identify the flaw in your logic, not guess whether there is a flaw — and ‘a bunch of old white guys who went to fancy schools disagree with me’ is not a valid response to either of those anyway. Second, you see the conundrum. If government forbids teaching evolution, they favor a particular religion, and if they mandate teaching it, they disfavor a particular religion. Their only legal move is to do neither.”

“That’s crazy! If you go by that reasoning, there can’t be any government education requirements at all, in any subject, since they might teach something that contradicts some religious teaching.”


“You are serious.”

“Absolutely. The federal government of the United States has no business forcibly educating any of its citizens that all or even part of his or her faith is false. Period. It’s that simple.”

“But the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming.”

“That’s utterly irrelevant. This isn’t about what theories are sound. It’s about what the government may force people to do.”

“So if my religion requires human sacrifice, I can just kill anyone I want? I mean, hey, the government can’t oppress me!”

“Oh come on. You know the answer to that. This is a case of conflicting rights. Your right to practice your religion loses priority to my right not to be murdered. You couldn’t legally sacrifice me unless I volunteered. But it’s an invalid analogy. There is no right to education in the U.S.’s highest legal documents. Now lift yourself out of grade school and give me a counterpoint that you don’t already know will fail.”

“Okay.... Widespread, quality education is necessary for the general welfare of the country, and the government is required to protect that.”

“Gah. The ‘general welfare’ clause is an ill-defined briar patch and always has been. It’s been used to justify almost all losses of freedom Americans have suffered.”

“So you don’t think education is crucial to a country’s very existence?”

“Oh, I do! It’s absolutely vital. But federal involvement and central control have made education worse, not better, and cost taxpayers billions in the process. The U.S. was globally competitive on the academic front for most of its existence, including the whole time before education became federally regulated and mandated. The current system is more concerned with keeping those billions of dollars flowing into it than with teaching. You’re getting worse education overall (and less religious freedom, as you yourself pointed out) than if Washington did nothing.”

“I said I wasn’t serious.”


quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This year’s Miss USA pageant picked one of its fifteen semifinalists by posing three questions to all the contestants, recording their answers, putting these videos on the internet, and opening them up to a public vote. Those questions were:

  • Have you, or would you, use an online dating service?
  • Should evolution be taught in schools?
  • How do you feel about being in a tasteful nude photo shoot?

#2 caused a bit of a stir.

Numerous news agencies and Scientific American magazine report that only two of the fifty-one contestants “backed evolution”. I have no idea where these journalists got that count, but even though the vast majority of answers were vague or wishy-washy, the count of contestants who personally believe that evolution is real and/or technically answered the question “yes” is far higher than two. At least three said they personally believe evolution is a real phenomenon. About ten straight-up said it should be taught. Then we get into the ones who are only kind of in favor of it but not really supporters. About ten more were weakly in favor of teaching it or favored teaching it with some hamstringing qualifying condition, like making it an elective or only teaching the observable facts supporting it but not the theory itself. Over twenty more advised teaching it along with “the alternative” or “everything” and letting the kids decide for themselves what to believe. (See this link for fairly accurate breakdown and quote sample.)

The blog entry at It’s Not a Lecture summarizes things best, I think: this was a popularity contest, for crying out loud, not a policy discussion. Of course the contestants will be wishy-washy and noncommittal. Like, duhhh!They’re not trying to give thoughtful, rational answers. They’re trying to schmooze as many different viewers as they can. It’s a tempest in a teapot, deliberately constructed so by pageant officials (probably) to turn more heads their way.

So are the contestants’ stances indicative of the attitude of America in general? Well, they can’t logically be considered so. The environment of the question and non-randomness of the sample mean you can’t extrapolate like that. On the other hand, if you look at what typical Americans actually believe, the Miss USA hopefuls were comparatively pro-science. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans are Young Earth Creationists. Other polls put the figure closer to half the country, and Gallup’s own earlier polls meander between 40% and 50% going back to 1980. Two out of five Americans believe the Judeo-Christian God created the Earth and universe similar to their current state a mere six to ten thousand years ago. Two of the remaining three believe that life did evolve over eons but God guided and/or invented the process.

Convincing people of things is hard. Very hard. Facts do a lousy job by themselves. Worse, this issue is scattered with misinformation, overloaded terms, and preconceived notions, circumstantial evidence, and deep political and religious convictions. There’s the notion that scientists favor evolution because their real goal is not to discover knowledge but rather to spread their atheist faith. There’s the notion that so many scientists favor evolution only because lots of other scientists do, not because each scientist weighed the evidence personally and came to an independent conclusion. When Young Earth and intelligent design explanations are dismissed or excluded from curricula, it’s because of a conspiracy to squelch dissent rather than because those explanations were honestly found flawed or unconvincing. (After all, if you compete and lose, is it because the winner was better than you or because the judges were crooked?)

There is a problem of terms. In formal scientific use, an explanation doesn’t get to be a “theory” until it’s withstood a hell of a lot of testing. In everyday English, the word is merely a synonym for “educated guess”. “Evolution” can refer to the general idea that animals, plants, bacteria, and so on change over time, or it can refer specifically to the modern Darwinian-based theory of that process’s details (which you can disagree with without rejecting the former).

A big problem is the idea that the evolution explanation and the creation explanation are equal alternatives in a 50/50 conflict of opinions — opinions being those things that everyone is entitled to (with exactly as much weight as everyone else’s) and that, by definition, cannot be incorrect (since that status can apply only to knowledge). This notion permeates the Miss USA answers and most public comment threads on the interview controversy.

I asked an acquaintance who’s a moderator on the atheism and skeptics StackOverflow sites for advice. His approach is to point out that the modern theory of evolution doesn’t say a thing about how life began, so it doesn’t contradict the idea that God created life. He follows that up by pointing out that, if you were to design life yourself, how smart it would be to design a way for living things to get more survivable over time. That gets them un-defensive enough to listen to evidence supporting evolution’s existence. I’m not sure how he approaches the fundamentalists who point out that even though evolutionary theory doesn’t claim an act of God didn’t start life, it does contradict the Christian creation story, or who believe random changes and natural selection can account for minor variations between or within similar species (say, wolves to foxes or horses to zebras) but not macroevolution (like plankton to giraffes).

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

As things now are, the high school teacher finds in the pupils fresh from the grammar schools no foundation of elementary mathematical conceptions outside of arithmetic; no acquaintance with algebraic language; and no accurate knowledge of geometrical forms. As to botany, zoölogy, chemistry, and physics, the minds of pupils entering the high school are ordinarily blank on these subjects. When college professors endeavor to teach chemistry, physics, botany, zoölogy, meteorology, or geology to persons of eighteen or twenty years of age, they discover that in most instances new habits of observing, reflecting, and recording have to be painfully acquired by the students — habits which they should have acquired in early childhood. The college teacher of history finds in like manner that his subject has never taken any serious hold on the minds of pupils fresh from the secondary schools. He finds that they have devoted astonishingly little time to the subject; and that they have acquired no habit of historical investigation, or of the comparative examination of different historical narratives concerning the same periods or events. It is inevitable, therefore, that specialists in any one of the subjects which are pursued in the high schools or colleges should earnestly desire that the minds of young children be stored with some of the elementary facts and principles of their subject; and that all the mental habits, which the adult student will surely need, begin to be formed in the child’s mind before the age of fourteen. It follows, as a matter of course, that all the Conferences except the Conference on Greek, make strong suggestions concerning the programmes of primary and grammar schools,—generally with some reference to the subsequent programmes of secondary schools. They desire important changes in the elementary grades; and the changes recommended are all in the direction of increasing simultaneously the interest and the substantial training quality of primary and grammar school studies.

If anyone feels dismayed at the number and variety of the subjects to be opened to children of tender age, let him observe that while these nine Conferences desire each their own subject to be brought into the courses of elementary schools, they all agree that these different subjects should be correlated and associated one with another by the programme and by the actual teaching. If the nine Conferences had sat all together as a single body, instead of sitting as detached and even isolated bodies, they could not have more forcibly expressed their conviction that every subject recommended for introduction into elementary and secondary schools should help every other; and that the teacher of each single subject should feel responsible for the advancement of the pupils in all subjects, and should distinctly contribute to this advancement.

—from the main report of the Committee of Ten on standardizing the U.S. high school curriculum, 1892 (emphasis added)

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From Nickelodeon to Launch Team Umizoomi Preschool Math Kits Exclusively at Toys"R"Us Stores in July:

Nickelodeon worked with a team of educational consultants to develop the Team Umizoomi Preschool Math Kits, which cover the nine areas of math preschoolers need to know before starting kindergarten: numbers, counting, patterns, shapes, measuring, positioning, sorting, classification and reasoning. [emphasis mine]


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