Standardization Walks a Fine Line

On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle argues that unless homeschooling is better regulated, it should be banned altogether.  He writes “universal primary and secondary education is part of why our country has been so successful.”  While Rick Santorum can teach his kids that global warming is a hoax and the earth was created in a day, other parents can withhold sexual education, or, in one example, forbid their daughters from getting a GED.  Hoofnagle concludes, “for parents to say it’s a matter of religious freedom to deny their children education, or a future outside their home, can not be justified.”  Meanwhile, in an actual classroom or lecture hall, too much regulation can drag the learning experience down.  Ethan Siegel writes “the most difficult course to teach is the one where you, the teacher, cannot control what or how you are teaching.”  He calls such courses unreasonably standardized, and says they result in a shallow understanding of the curriculum, or the omission of important topics.  The most important thing, says Siegel, is to have a great teacher.  His post was inspired when Chad Orzel originally asked what course is most difficult for students on Uncertain Principles.  The answer—well, pick your poison.  Classical electromagnetism or literary theory?


A Class of 51

The Fordham Institute recently released their assessment of state science standards with a handy color-coded map—and California was the only state to receive a solid “A,” along with the District of Columbia. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers wonders how his state will ever get into college with a lowly “C.” He writes, “The Institute does a fairly thorough breakdown, so there are some bright spots: Minnesota is doing a good job in the life sciences, but where we got dinged hard was on the physical sciences, which are ‘illogically organized’ and contain factual errors.” But at least Minnesota wasn’t one of the twenty-seven states to get a “D” or an “F.” Greg Laden repaints the Institute’s map with only two colors, making a “Pass/Fail” version of the assessment. At first glance the blocks of red and blue look electoral, but much of the South is blue with passing grades, while Oregon and half of New England are red for failure. Obviously, the quality of education depends on complexities far exceeding geographical and political alignment. Greg Laden writes, “It is an interesting report to browse through, and you can get your PDF copy of it here for free! Also, have a look at this overview from the NCSE. How did your state do?”

H.R. 3699 Threatens Free Publications

On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter imagines the fallout of HR 3699, a bill that would eliminate the requirement for free public access to NIH-funded research papers. Porter writes, “The reasoning behind this requirement is that taxpayers funded everything about the research except for the final publication, and so they have already paid for access.” In small schools and community colleges without costly journal subscriptions, passage of this bill would effectively remove contemporary scientific literature from the classroom. Porter continues, “working in science, and learning about science, requires looking at papers from multiple journals and multiple years from those journals.” With many journals priced more than $200 a year, and single articles more than $30, open access becomes invaluable when “students might need to look at ten papers to complete an assignment.” Mark Hoofnagle also covers the news on Denialism Blog, asking “what did it take to make Carolyn Maloney back the publishers over the public and advance this bill? About $9000 in donations from publishers (Issa only needed about $2000). It’s pathetic how cheap it is to get a member of congress to vote for an industry over the public.” In her original post, Sandra Porter concludes “In an era where the economic benefits of educating students in science are well-known, the idea of crippling science education by cutting off access to the primary literature is puzzling.” We can think of a few less generous adjectives.

A is for Average

On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, Dr. Isis solicits hypotheses for the increase in the number of A’s awarded to students at American universities. In 1960’s, one out of six students got an A (and C used to be the most Common). Now an A is most common, and the number of C’s (and D’s) has fallen by half. Dr. Isis says, “It’s interesting that the real change in grading appears to have occurred in the period between 1962 and 1974, probably coinciding with the increase in conscription for the Vietnam War.” Mike the Mad Biologist offers, “I think it’s pretty obvious what happened: increased competition for graduate school slots put (and still puts) pressure on faculty to not give C’s and to give more A’s.” Chad Orzel has a different theory, saying “blame the Baby Boomers. First, as students, they got a gigantic bump in grades […] Then, as they entered the faculty ranks, they continued the upward trend.” Regardless of the cause, more students now get a passing grade than ever before, and close to half of them get an A. B is the new Below Average—and C the new Crappy.

Fusing Art and Science

We are excited to introduce a new blog dedicated to The Art of Science Learning. This project will culminate in the spring with conferences across the United States. Funded by the National Science Foundation, The Art of Science Learning will explore “how the arts can strengthen STEM skills and spark creativity in the 21st-Century American workforce.” Over the coming weeks and months, voices on this blog will “lay out the landscape and articulate many of the issues and challenges we’ll be discussing at the conferences.” To start things off, David Green suggests we bring science into the arts as well as the arts into science, and describes a new course at Bard College that challenged humanities students to do “plenty of hands-on lab work.” Peter Economy compares the math and science scores of the U.S. with those of other nations, saying “we must find new approaches to educating our youth in math and science—the current approaches are clearly broken.” And Helena Carmena shares the results of an “experiment with science, art, and literacy integration” in a fourth-grade classroom, where students were first asked to draw a scientist and artist, and ended up improving their standardized test scores. See the revealing illustrations on The Art of Science Learning, and join in on the discussion as we seek to bring together art and science for the sake of improving education.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The science portion of The Nation’s Report Card was released on February 24th, with test scores from school districts in seventeen urban centers. Almost every district performed below the national average. Greg Laden explains, “Poverty determines the outcome of the results, and this is probably exacerbated in urban zones where private schools siphon off the small number of higher-income kids.” Although Department of Education officials were firm in their stance that “correlation does not equal causality,” Greg plots test scores against poverty level in the cities surveyed and reveals a very clear trend. Mike the Mad Biologist produces a similar slope using data from Massachusetts, where “a one percent increase in school lunch eligibility means the expected percentage of poorly performing students in math increases 0.88%.” He concludes, “our educational ‘crisis’ is one intimately associated with poor children. Yet our political betters refuse to comprehend that.”

Good Health for Haiti

Vaccines are a tried and true mechanism for controlling disease, but they are not always a magic bullet. Researchers who study the spread of cholera in Haiti recently modeled what would happen if 150,000 vaccines were administered in Port-au-Prince. They concluded “the benefits would have been negligible.” Liz Borkowski writes, “this intervention’s small effectiveness is due partly to the slow pace at which full immunity builds up and to the likelihood that many vaccine recipients would’ve already built up natural immunity.” A better way to control a water-borne disease like cholera is to nip it in the bud, as John Snow did in 1858. In Haiti, this means providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene education. Mike the Mad Biologist clarifies, “The simple reason we don’t have shigellosis or cholera outbreaks in the U.S. is that we don’t have to drink our own shit.” He concludes, “Like I said, let’s build some sewers.”