Op Ed

Before relocating to Austin, I had spent eight years teaching math and/or science in Egypt, Mexico and Honduras at elite private schools that used American textbooks, American curriculum and were accredited by American institutions.  The majority of my students were not Americans, but graduated with a combination of diplomas: local, American and/or IB (International Baccalaureate). After graduation, nearly all attended college, mostly in the US, Canada and England, and a few remained in their own country for higher education.

I proudly returned to the US, toting my international bag of creative, engaging teaching tricks, especially curriculum-based projects that I had created, ready to dazzle my American students. So, imagine my utter shock when resettling into American life, teaching at an Austin public high school, and discovering that the standards were actually lower. Moreover, my teaching creativity was all but stifled for the sake of “standardization” in the most controlling environment I had ever taught.  

During the eight years that I had taught outside the US, a gradual yet educationally lethal trend, like a viral infection, had set in.  As a result, no longer were educators preoccupied with fostering such lofty ideals as stimulating students to become “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers” or “accepting personal responsibility.”  Instead, teachers were pressured to focus tremendously on preparing students for high-stakes standardized exams that tested basic knowledge.

During fall semester, I remained at school for 12 hours a day, researching and writing lesson plans, marking papers, making parental contacts and doing a myriad of bureaucratic things. I was in “survival” mode although I had 13 years of teaching experience. By mid-March, we science teachers stopped the regular teaching instruction, which was already geared toward the state standardized test, and did nothing but drill past standardized exam questions and review science objectives.  This was in addition to an 80-question baseline exam, morning/lunch/afterschool science tutoring and horrendously punitive five-question quizzes where the students could score only a zero, 80 or 100. A “more rigorous” version of the five-question quiz was later implemented among Biology teachers: students could only score a zero or 100!

In the end, our science students did well enough on their high-stakes standardized exams to receive “recognized” status.  The school was euphoric, but I was apprehensive.  I had never conceded that the end justified the means and I certainly did not think that doing recognizably well on any state-issued exam should be the aim of education, especially since we classroom teachers were allowed to do little else than standardized test preparation. 

Additionally, the standards, which were drilled into the students, had transformed themselves into being the ceiling of knowledge rather than the foundation. Anytime I attempted to go into a deeper level of understanding, some of my colleagues warned me that the “students don’t need to know that,” since the state standardized exam would not test them on it.

I started my second school year refreshed and full of new ideas that I wanted to implement now that I knew how things worked at my high school.  How naïve I was! The powers that be had their own ideas. Since the administration trumps an individual teacher, my creative, fresh ideas were quickly edged out as the school year unfolded, not to resurface again until after the mighty state standardized exams were completed.

The administration deemed that science teachers, who taught the same course, had to use the exact same lessons 80 percent of the time. With tighter control on teachers’ lesson plans, administrators easily compared electronic grade books online. The grade books “looked good” if majority of the assignments looked alike.  The grade books “looked bad” if there was more than 20 percent diversity among assignments.  As it turned out, we common subject teachers taught about 95 to 100 percent of the exact same lessons since, given the challenge of teaching at a conducive pace for student comprehension, more time was necessary to sufficiently cover the learning objectives than we had previously allotted.  Most teachers sacrificed their 20 percent of creative lesson opportunity in order to “be on the same page.”

Whatever happened to effective teachers excelling in their classroom by presenting their own engaging standard-based lessons? Being handed scripted lessons to use in one’s classroom reduces a creative, experienced teacher to a robot. When administrators control lesson plans, they put outstanding teachers into a mediocre box.  Innovative teachers are chastised for thinking out of the box since individuality is only praised when a teacher provides the same instruction as every other teacher.

Could some of the reasons why the US has fallen behind globally in both math and science be due to the mediocrity that is being perpetuated by teaching to high-stakes tests and the practice of forcing teachers to use the exact same lesson plans? In all knowledge domains, we highly value the innovators—not the mediocre masses.  So why in the world would the powers that be squelch innovative teachers?  Answer: Quality control.

As one sympathetic administrator informed me, the quality of teaching instruction had been waning; so the administration had to strengthen it. As noble as that cause sounds, the “one size fits all” approach does not lead to stronger teaching; it lowers superior teaching and makes bad teachers lazier. Teacher enthusiasm for a lesson affects student enthusiasm. If teachers are estranged from the creative, personalizing process of lesson planning, then how well can they deliver those scripted lessons? Public school teachers, who research, write and deliver their own standard-based lesson plans, are the last defense against the mechanization of mediocre public education. The US will only recapture its high academic glory through creative and innovative teaching—not cookie cutter scripted lessons presented by disenfranchised teachers.

 

Teresa Y. Roberson is a teacher and writer living in Austin.

With the support of my family and unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today as a candidate for president of the United States.”

With those words—in an Aug. 13 speech in Columbia, South Carolina—our esteemed governor ended years of speculation and made official what had become apparent months ago. Rick Perry will seek the presidency in 2012.

Within days of the announcement, Perry was already dealing with multiple controversies over his statements that Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke might be committing treason, that the jury is still out on climate change, and that Texas schools teach creationism. Despite Perry’s wobbly first week, many pundits were bullish on his chances against Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann.

Amid all the horse-race analysis of Perry’s candidacy, we hope the national media—and GOP primary voters—will focus on a more important issue: Can he govern?

His performance in Texas hasn’t been inspiring. Perry is a purely political animal. When the campaigns are over and he actually takes office, he’s not someone who studies, or even cares much about, policy details. On the few occasions he has put forth major policy proposals, the results have been colossal failures.

First there was the Trans-Texas Corridor that would have used government’s eminent domain authority to seize rural farmland for a massive toll road. The backlash from rural Republicans was intense, and the plan died slowly over the next four legislative sessions.

In 2007, Perry proposed that all young girls receive the HPV vaccine. Conservatives in the Legislature would have none of it. That idea suffered defeat even faster.

Then there’s the one major proposal that Perry passed into law: the business margins tax, part of the 2006 school-finance reform. The idea was to cut property taxes and replace the lost revenue with a new business tax. Problem is, it’s been a disaster. The tax doesn’t generate enough revenue. The Texas budget has an ongoing structural deficit because of Perry’s underperforming business tax.

As governor, Perry’s lack of policy depth hasn’t hindered him. He lets the Legislature do the heavy lifting while he floats from one public appearance to another, cheerleading the Texas economy.

If he wins the presidency, Perry will have to deal with complex policy every day. He wouldn’t flourish in that role. Perry is a charismatic and talented campaigner. But the thought of him governing the country is almost too scary to contemplate.

Rick Perry, Out and Proud on Climate Denialism

He's a creationist too!

At a breakfast meeting yesterday in New Hampshire, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, now a candidate for U.S. President, announced that he does not believe in anthropogenic global warming. He said,

I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.

So not only does our governor not believe in human-caused climate change and global warming, he thinks scientists are fraudulently manipulating data to cash in and get rich quick. Yes, vilifying and maligning scientists is a sure way to win the Republican nomination in today’s partisan environment. It always worked in Texas, the state whose Republican Party is totally controlled by religious-right radicals who would rather believe in fundamentalist sectarian doctrine than what they were taught in science class. But will it work on the national stage?

Scientists are usually seen as quiet individuals who work to discover new knowledge that helps human civilization to survive, such as finding new sources of energy, new properties of matter that create better industrial materials and chemicals, and new drugs to cure diseases. Scientists also map the geology and biology of the Earth, so we know what we’re mining, drilling, and killing. But when scientists try to warn us that using fossil fuels as a major energy source is poisoning our atmosphere and changing the climate in dangerous ways, Rick Perry would rather think the worse of them: Not only are scientists wrong, they are venal, too. Indulging in baseless insults is a prerogative of some candidates, and Rick Perry is a master of this, a skill he learned during his Texas campaigns.

Perry makes his bizarre claims deliberately. Even though he sincerely believes what he says, an intelligent candidate would presumably keep his crazy thoughts hidden from the voters until after he –or she; I must not exclude Michele Bachmann – is nominated and elected. But our governor loves the publicity. He knows the nightly commentators on MSNBC won’t be able to resist him and will give him plenty of air time in front of their left-leaning viewers – a priceless opportunity to spread his message of hope to the unconverted. Already the national press (here and here) is falling all over itself to publicize his every utterance. Perry will certainly keep saying stupid things because it gains him enormous press attention and the commitment of millions of Republican voters.

Last year, Governor Perry was not shy about telling people he is a creationist:

Explain where you stand on evolution-creationism being taught in school.

I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution. The State Board of Education has been charged with the task of adopting curriculum requirements for Texas public schools and recently adopted guidelines that call for the examination of all sides of a scientific theory, which will encourage critical thinking in our students, an essential learning skill.

Perry’s answer assumes that there is more than one side to science’s explanation of biological origins, a scientific side (evolutionary biology) and a religious side (intelligent design creationism). There is not. To this end, Perry has appointed three recent members of the Texas State Board of Education – Don McLeroy, Gail Lowe, and Barbara Cargill – to be the chairman. All three are, like Perry, creationists who worked hard to push their sectarian beliefs about the natural world into the science standards and textbooks. Scientists had to leave their important work at our state’s universities and take time instead to oppose these radicals on the State Board.

At least our governor is willing to act on his beliefs about science, as backward and mistaken as they are. Image what he could do as President. He could deny scientific facts repeatedly, politicize the country’s science agencies to publish inaccurate scientific information and suppress scientists who dare to speak the truth, and continue to give federal support to corporations who make money defying environmental laws. Oh, wait….that already happened during the previous Republican administration.

Steven Schafersman is a consulting scientist, writer, and science education advocate.

Rick Perry Identifies Himself as an Anrhropogenic Global Warming Denier

Previously Perry announced he was a Creationist

At a breakfast meeting this morning in New Hampshire, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, now a candidtate for U.S. President, announced that he does not believe in anthropogenic global warming. He said,

I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.

So not only does our governor not believe in human-caused climate change and global warming, he thinks scientists are fraudulently manipulating data to cash in and get rich quick. Yes, villifying and maligning scientists is a sure way to win the Republican nomination in today’s partisan environment. It always worked in Texas, the state whose Republican Party is totally controlled by religious-right radicals who would rather believe in fundamentalist sectarian doctrine than what they were taught in science class. But will it work on the national stage?

Scientists are usually are seen as quiet individuals whowork to discover new knowledge that helps human civilization to survive, such as finding new sources of energy, new properties of matter that create better industrial materials and chemicals, and new drugs to cure diseases. But when scientists try to warn us that using fossil fuels as a major energy source is poisoning our atmosphere and changing the climate in dangerous ways, Rick Perry would rather think the worse of them: not only are they wrong, but they are venal, too. Indulging in baseless insults is a perogative of some candidtates, and Rick Perry is a master of that.

Perry makes these bizarre claims on purpose. Even though he really believes what he is saying, an intelligent candidate would keep his crazy thoughts hidden from the voters until after he is nominated and elected. But our governor loves the publicity. He knows the evening commentators on MSNBC won’t be able to resist him and will give him plenty of air time in front of left-leaning viewers–a priceless opportunity to spread his message of hope to the unconverted. Already the national press (here and here, for example) is falling all over themselves to publicize his every utterance. Perry will certainly keep saying stupid things because it is getting him enormous press attention and the committment of millions of Republican voters.

Last year, Governor Perry was not shy about telling people he is a Creationist:

Explain where you stand on evolution-creationism being taught in school.

I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution. The State Board of Education has been charged with the task of adopting curriculum requirements for Texas public schools and recently adopted guidelines that call for the examination of all sides of a scientific theory, which will encourage critical thinking in our students, an essential learning skill.

Perry’s answer assumes that there is more than one side to science’s explanation of biological origins, a scientific side (evolutionary biology) and a religious side (intelligent design creationism). There is not. To this end, Perry has appointed three recent members of the Texas State Board of Education–Don McLeroy, Gail Lowe, and Barbara Cargill–to be the chairman. All three are, like Perry, Creationists who worked hard to push their sectarian beliefs about the natural world into the science standards and textbooks. Scientists had to leave their important work at our state’s universities and take time instead to oppose these radicals on the State Board.

At least our governor is willing to act on his beliefs about science, as backwards and mistaken as they are. Image what he could do as U.S. President. He could deny scientific facts repeatedly, politicize the country’s science agencies to publish inaccurate scientific information and suppress scientists who dare to speak the truth, and continue to give federal support to corporations who make money defying environmental laws. Oh, wait….that already happened during the previous Republican president’s term.

As a native Texan, I’m used to crazy religion and crazy politics. So, the announcement of Gov. Rick Perry’s plans for “The Response,” a prayer event scheduled for Aug. 6 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, was not a surprise.

But as a Presbyterian minister and community organizer, it’s part of my job to stand up for my neighbors. The use of the governor’s office to promote one religion in a country with such rich religious diversity is obviously unhealthy politics, but—if one takes the Christian and Jewish scriptures seriously—it is also unhealthy religion. Here are five rather important verses of scripture you aren’t likely to hear at “The Response”:

 

Don’t make a show of prayer
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray in public places to be seen by others… But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your heavenly parent, who is unseen.” (Matt. 6:5-6)

While Jesus never addressed the issues most important to some of this event’s co-sponsors, such as homosexuality and abortion, he did speak out against public displays of religion. Whatever Jesus meant by the word “prayer,” it seems to have been about the quiet and personal. The disciples had to ask Jesus how to pray, which is a pretty good indication that he wasn’t praying a lot publicly.  What he did say about prayer carried a warning label: “Don’t rub it in other people’s faces.”

God doesn’t withhold rain because we’ve done something wrong
“God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45)

Perry recently called Texans to pray for rain, which implies that God steers clouds toward the worthy. According to Right Wing Watch, one of the events co-sponsors, the earthquake in Japan happened because the emperor had sex with the Sun Goddess. It may be a part of our lower nature to blame disasters on people we don’t like or understand, but Jesus taught that God sends rain on the just and unjust.  Furthermore, he said our love should be equally nonselective.

I have chosen Christianity as my life’s religion, but when nonjudgmental love is taken out of its center, it becomes poisonous and predatory. The word “God” can be a helpful symbol for all the transcendentals of life, but the symbol becomes instantly pathological when used as a scientific explanation or political justification.

God doesn’t have favorites
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.” (Acts 10:34)

When the Bible says that God is not a “respecter of persons” it means that God doesn’t have a favorite country or religion. The idea that God wants Christians to be in charge of other people violates Jesus’ teaching that we are to take the lowest place. We are to change the world by humble persuasion and good example, not by messianic coercion. The assumption that Christianity and America are God’s two favorite things will be particularly ironic, as the prayer event falls on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Worship by those who neglect the poor is offensive to God
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me… Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

The prophet Amos chastised the religion of his day for praying to God while mistreating people.  Texas leads the nation in citizens who are uninsured, who work for minimum wage, and who die from unsafe working conditions on construction sites. Our state has the widest gap between rich and poor of any in the union.  If the governor wants to call us to repentance it should begin with our real sins against the poor not the imaginary sins dreamed up by his friends.

The heart of Christian ethics is being a good neighbor
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) it was to teach humility to a rich young zealot who thought he was approaching moral perfection.  The Samaritans were the scapegoats of the day. The rich young ruler would consider Samaritans heretics and immoral people. Jesus used a merciful Samaritan as the example of ethical perfection.  It is a lesson many Christians have yet to learn.

One sponsor of the event, the American Family Association, is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.  The group’s director of analysis for government and policy is quoted by the SPLC as saying that Hitler was “an active homosexual” who sought out gays “because he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough.” He also said Muslims should not be allowed in the military or be allowed to build mosques in the United States.

None of this analysis springs from malice. In fact, I must confess that I have a soft spot for Rick Perry. When the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in Texas was passed, I had the honor of pushing the wheelchair of Byrd’s mother into the governor’s office for the signing.  I privately thanked Perry for his courage in standing up to all the groups who had fought against the bill; I knew he might pay a political price for signing the bill.  Tears came to his eyes, and he said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

I can’t know what is in Perry’s heart, of course, but I do know the problem isn’t one politician but rather a nation that has embraced an unhealthy political arrogance undergirded by even unhealthier religious hubris.  The “prayer” that is most needed at this time is for each of us, believer or not, to go into our own heart and find the humility and empathy that is at the core of righteousness, political and spiritual.

 

Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. He can be reached at [email protected], and videos of his sermons are available online at http://www.staopen.com/sermons/.

Observer Wins Casey Medal

Melissa del Bosque's "Children of the Exodus" earns top prize in national journalism competition.

This morning we received great news—the Observer has won a 2011 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for Melissa del Bosque’s story “Children of the Exodus“. The prestigious national award, given out by the University of Maryland, honors outstanding coverage of children and families.

Like many great stories, this one started with a nugget of news that hinted at something larger. In late 2008, Melissa came across a brief article in a Mexican newspaper reporting that the United States had deported 90,000 unaccompanied Mexican children in the previous year. She wondered how this could be and what was happening to these children. Two years later—after obtaining a reporting grant from The Nation Institute—Melissa and her husband, photographer Eugenio del Bosque, traveled to the Mexican border towns of Reynosa and Matamoros to find out. What she found was a region terrorized by drug cartels and riddled with violence into which U.S. and Mexican authorities were sending thousands of unaccompanied children. The resulting story—“Children of the Exodus”—was published in November 2010 and recounts the disturbing tales of Mexican children detached from their families and caught between the tough-on-immigration policies in the U.S. and the deadly drug war in Mexico. It’s a stunning story that’s receiving national recognition.

More than 500 journalists from across the country entered work in the award competition. First-place awards were given in 12 writing and multimedia categories

Melissa and Eugenio won first place medal for magazine journalism. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman of Newsweek were runners up for the story “The Creativity Crisis.” Other winners included reporters from the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times and Palm Beach Post. The medals and the $1,000 award will be handed out at an October ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The contest judges wrote of Melissa’s story: “This important story is the result of unusual initiative, determination and bravery on the part of a journalist. Most Americans probably don’t know that their government deports tens of thousands of unaccompanied Mexican children each year, and even fewer know what happens when those children reach Mexico. The Texas Observer traces the path of deported children to dangerous Mexican border cities, finding that many of them end up on the streets. Others try to reunite with their parents by attempting the hazardous and illegal border crossing, and some are even kidnapped and held for ransom. By taking readers on the hunt through first-person accounts of what she sees and hears, the writer enables us to feel the atmosphere of fear, incompetence, desperation and duplicity.”

The story, which was edited by Michael May, has also recently been honored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and by the Texas Institute of Letters.

Congratulations to Melissa and Eugenio on a terrific honor. We couldn’t be prouder.

If you want to help support courageous reporting like this, consider making a tax-deductible donation or becoming an Observer partner.

Well la-dee-da!

This weekend, we won six awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, including two for first place.

Our very own executive editor, Dave Mann, won first place from AAN in two different categories. That gives Dave a total of seven awards from AAN in his time at the Observer. Dave won the top prize in public service journalism for his story DNA Tests Undermines Evidence in Texas Execution. The article broke the international story that DNA testing disproved key evidence that led to the 2000 execution of Claude Jones. The Observer partnered with the Innocence Project in the successful three-year court battle to obtain the evidence: a single strand of hair.

Meanwhile his story Bloody Injustice won the top prize for best long-form news story. The article explored the flawed evidence that convicted Warren Horinek of murder in 1996 and revealed how questionable testimony from forensic experts can send innocent people to prison.

We’re pretty darn proud ourselves. In addition to Dave’s articles, four other staffers won awards, all listed below. That gives us at total of 49 awards from AAN. We see it as an affirmation of our mission: providing independent, investigative reporting to readers, with all the stories available free on the web. (If you want to help in our mission, consider becoming an Observer partner.

Here are all the awards we snagged:

• Dave Mann won first place in the long-form news story category for his story A Bloody Injustice and first place for public service reporting for his story DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution. 

• Forrest Wilder won second place in investigative reporting for his story, Agency of Destruction

• Melissa del Bosque won third place in features writing for Children of the Exodus. The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund provided support for Melissa’s reporting.

 

• Michael May won third place for his reporting on the War on Drugs in his article Gone Rogue.

 

• Ben Sargent won an honorable mention in the cartoon category for his regular feature Loon Star State

Live Blog of the Texas State Board of Education Meeting, 2011 July 22

Final Adoption of Supplemental Science Instructional Materials

Good morning. The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) official meeting is called to order at 9:03 a.m. by Board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill. There is no student performance this month. After the traditional invocation (Bible verse read and prayer led this month by Gail Lowe) the two pledges, business started immediately.

9:10 a.m. – Of greatest importance today from a scientific viewpoint will be a new vote to allow Holt McDougal to defend its biology materials from the criticisms against their evolution content by a single member of the biology review panel. Yesterday, when the Holt materials came up for a decision, the Board was correctly told by staff that six pages of alleged errors by a biology review panel member listed several errors. Under normal circumstances these errors would be routinely corrected, but since all the identified “errors” dealt with evolution and all were written by one person (who turned out to be David Shormann, an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist), some Board members wanted to examine the legitimacy of the identified errors. It was pointed out by one of the ultra-right Republicans that all the members of the review panel signed off on the list and should be accepted. This was true: yesterday TEA staff reported that all three members of the panel signed the error report, but besides two were biology teachers. Unfortunately in Texas, many biology teachers don’t know very much about evolution and are easily misled by an aggressive Creationist who claims to hold superior knowledge. This is what happened here.

9:25 – The Board takes up the issue of Holt McDougal. Thomas Ratliff brings up the issue that Holt needs to be reconsidered. Anita Givens tells the Board that unexpectedly the three-person review panel did not sign the error report, but the error reports of all the other materials submitted were signed by their respective panel members. Michael Soto makes an amendment to strike the identified eight errors from the report. A huge debate now starts. Terri Leo and David Bradley attempt to defend the original Creationist error report.

Pat Hardy states that she has been told that scientists have objected to the error report. They claim that Shormann’s alleged identified errors are not real errors. She said that other publishers had similar topics and similar wording and Holt was being singled out to make changes not demanded of others, and this was not fair. Bob Craig makes the point that if the Board accepts the original error report, the Board will be responsible for forcing a publisher to make changes that are in themselves in error if in fact they are as claimed by several scientists present in the hearing room and also by five science teachers who signed a statement written by TFN and NCSE the night before.

Michael Soto speaks in favor of his motion. He said that the Board members are not biologists and do not have the expertise to evaluate the alleged errors. He further stated that the alleged errors were identified in a style that was snide, unprofessional, and impractical and he thought this was unscientific and unscholarly and indicated to him that the alleged errors were probably incorrectly identified. He also said that he examined biology books in an education library and that four of the eight topics were treated similarly to the original Holt language.

George Clayton says that the vote yesterday to deny the publisher the opportunity to address the alleged errors was unfortunate and he regrets it. He does not want now to be responsible for inserting new errors in biology materials.

10:05 – Barbara Cargill calls for a 15-minute recess.

10:20 – The Board resumes discussion. Michael Soto is encouraged to withdraw his motion to strike the alleged eight errors from the error report so that the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher. Commissioner Scott indicated his willingness to do so. Mr. Soto then withdrew his motion. Bob Craig moves to adopt the Holt McDougal biology supplemental materials with the described provision. The vote is taken and the vote board indicates that the motion passes 15-0 even though Mary Helen Berlanga is not present. This generates minor amusement from some in the room. Someone apparently voted for Mary Helen, but the error is attributed to the technology. Chairwoman Cargill confirms that the recorded vote, 14-0, is the official one.

Finally, the Board votes to adopt all the supplementary science instructional materials. This vote is the official vote since today the Board is sitting as the offical SBOE. The preliminary votes yesterday were votes of the Committee of the Whole Board.

The final result is a major victory for science education. Except for the Holt McDougal materials, all the biology supplemental instructional materials submitted for review by the TEA and SBOE were adopted by the State Board with no political or religiously-inspired changes that damage science education by weakening evolution content in ways that would have misled and confused students. No information about Creationism or Intelligent Design was included, of course, but that would be illegal in any case and even the religious right Board members know this. Of course, legitimate factual errors will be changed but that is normal.

The alleged but bogus errors in the Holt biology materials that concern evolution–identified by a Creationist appointed to the biology review panel by a fellow Creationist member of the State Board–were not accepted in the official error report. Instead, Commissioner Scott will now use his own experts and probably some on TEA staff to review the eight alleged errors and work with the publisher to re-word the passages that concern evolution. I fully expect some changes that won’t affect the scientific accuracy of the text. Of course, the original language was perfectly okay but the alternative we closely avoided was to have the Holt materials rejected or forced to make the unscientific changes to have the materials adopted–which is the alternative Holt would have chosen as explicity stated by the Holt representative. Of the three possible alternatives we achieved the best outcome. I spoke to Commissioner Robert Scott after the meeting ended adn he told me he will keep everyone informed of the outcome of his negotiations with the publisher.

This concludes the live blog today but I will come back and fill in some additional content later. As an active participant in the process (I am a professional science education adovocate–an advocate is a lobbyist who is not paid) as well as a writer, I often had to move away from my notebook computer to talk to Board members and the press and I had to skip recording some sections. But I remembered what happened and will fill this in soon.

Live Blog of the Texas State Board of Education Meeting, 2011 July 21

Public Testimony about Supplemental Science Instructional Materials

Steve Schafersman is blogging on the SBOE hearing as a participant and activist. He is presenting testimony to the board as well as writing about his observations. His testimony is available here.

10:00 a.m. – Good morning. I am present at the William Travis Building in Austin waiting for the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting to start. Later this morning the State Board will hear public testimony about the impending adoption of new supplemental digital science instructional materials. These are the first science instructional materials submitted under the new 2009 controversial science curriculum standards that had several new TEKS inserted by the State Board over the objections of the scientists and science educators who wrote them. The standards were written and adopted by 8-7 majority votes by the radical religious right Republican SBOE members. Highly-qualified science curriculum experts and professional scientists and science teachers were asked to write new science standards and update old science standards during a series of meetings in 2008 and 2009. These were given to the SBOE and generally adopted, but sections in Biology and Earth and Space Science that included information about evolution, DNA, the fossil record, and the origin of life were modified by the ultra-right members.

I have discussed these issues in detail in articles on the website of Texas Citizens for Science and here at the Texas Observer. Articles are at both places now. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am the president of TCS and I also will testify on behalf of TCS during public testimony later today.

The SBOE meeting is being live-streamed here. You must have a RealPlayer client such as RealPlayer SP installed on your computer to watch the streaming videos. I often watch these live video streams at home when the State Board is meeting to avoid ten hours of driving to and from Austin to attend in person.

My friends at Texas Freedom Network (TFN), Ryan Valentine and Dan Quinn, are also live blogging this meeting at TFN Insider. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education is also here live tweeting at at @JoshRosenau and @NCSE (using hashtag #txtxt). TFN informs me they are also live tweeting at #SBOE. Abby Rapoport of the Texas Observer will also be tweeting about this meeting using #SBOE.

11:00 a.m. – Today is the first meeting chaired by Barbara Cargill who was just appointed to the chairmanship by Governor Rick Perry two weeks ago. When the special session of the Texas Legislature ended without Senate approval of Perry’s former appointment of Gail Lowe as chairman, Perry had to appoint someone new. He chose Cargill. Like Gail Lowe and Don McLeroy before her, Barbara Cargill is a Young Earth Creationist (she believes the Earth is 6-10,000 years old and Earth, life, and all species were specially created by a supernatural deity in six days) and radical religious right Republican. Cargill, McLeroy, and Cynthia Dunbar were most instrumental in damaging the science standards with motions to amend the specific topics of evolution, the fossil record, origin of life, and DNA. Barbara Cargill especially tried to damage the new Earth and Space Science standards with numerous anti-science amendments that would damage the integrity of the ESS standards. Several unfortunately passed. However, ESS materials were not requested for adoption so today only the Biology supplemental materials will be controversial. Physics, chemistry, and other non-controversial sciences will also be adopted tomorrow but I doubt many will address these sciences.

11:30 a.m. – The SBOE is still listening to testimony about technology TEKS that mostly concern computer courses. I am not going to write about this testimony.

The science TEKS will come up next. It is very likely that only supplemental instructional materials submitted under the high school Biology standards will be controversial and addressed by testifiers. Tomorrow, during formal adoption of these materials, the State Board members will discuss these topics with quite differing viewpoints. Mainstream publishers will be criticized by Creationists for not writing enough about the bogus “problems” evolution supposedly has with biological complexity and the fossil record. The politically-inserted standards that promote Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) will be the topics of debate from those presenting public testimony. The mainstream publishers certainly addressed the new standards, but not in the way that Creationists wished. They expected more content that would disparage the ability of evolution to account for complexity in DNA, cells, the origin of life, and indeed in all of biology. Complexity is one of the ideas that motivate ID Creationists such as those at the Discovery Institute. They sincerely believe that life is too complex for evolution to explain it, but this is nonsense. Mainstream modern biology does not share this belief. Many experiements and observations have revealed how evolution can produce complex biochemicals and organism relationships.

The other side, scientists and pro-science testifiers, will support the mainstream publishers and criticize the single IDC supplemental science submission from International Databases LLC (ID LLC, get it?). The author of the ID LLC materials is an experienced high school and college science teacher who lives in New Mexico. He is intersted in geology as well as biology. He is a person who also sincerely believes that evidence of IDC exists in nature, a concept contrary to mainstream science that sees no IDC in nature. His materials explicitly mention Intelligent Design, much to the annoyance of the Discovery Institute who want to hide the IDC undercurrent in materials they write and distribute to teachers and school officials for use in public schools. Unfortunately for ID LLC, his materials also contain many errors of fact and science. I discuss one such error in my written testimony.

11:50 a.m. – We just broke for lunch but I want to get one more item in. The SBOE Committee on Instruction met earlier this morning. This important five-member committee has long been dominated by radical religious right members because the Board’s leaders, Don McLeroy and Gail Lowe were able to appoint a majority to this panel, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down since she was just appointed the chair of the SBOE. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as new chair. Clayton and Farney, though Republicans, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction of the party. Cargill immediately nominated fellow radical religious right Republican Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate because Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings. The committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Mary Helen will be present. Terri Leo chaired the meeting after the vote, making me think for a moment that she was elected. But she chaired the meeting because she was vice-chair and Cargill did step down. Berlanga will likely vote for Farney at the September meeting and we will finally have a responsible and non-agenda Republican leading this important committee.

12:50 p.m. – The meeting resumes with an introduction by Associate Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction Anita Givens describing the new digital science instructional materials. Next, new Chair Barbara Cargill described the new rules of public testimony. She will only allow two minutes instead of the traditional three minutes. Also, she will allow only a maximum of four hours of testimony instead of continuing until everyone has finished.

1:15 p.m. – Public testimony begins. Most of the first speakers ask the Board to keep Creationism out of the science instructional materials. Both David Bradley and Ken Mercer claim the science standards do not mention “creationism.” Indeed they don’t, but the concept is still there as an implication in the politically-inserted standards.

Kathy Miller (TFN) and Jonathan Saenz (Liberty Institute) presented conflicting views about the process without getting into the details of the instructional materials (because neither is a scientist). Kathy asked that the process not be corrupted by either making changes to mainstream publishers’ materials in ways that compromise scientific accuracy. She also aske the SBOE to ignore the ID LLC submission (which was not recommended). Saenz also presented no details (you really can’t present details in two minutes!) but said that subsequent “scientists” would detail some of the problems with the biology materials. He of course was referring to the fact that the mainstream publishers did not produce content that disparages evolution or implies that there is a scientific alternative to evolution within modern science. The point is this: although the political radical religious right Board members inserted the unnecessary and really unscientific standards for the purpose of forcing publishers to include material that weakens evolution and implies an IDC alternative, the publishers did not do this. They produced scientifically accurate content which is now making some Board members angry.

I was the next speaker. My testimony is availble here. I asked the Board to adopt only the recommendations of the TEA and Commissioner and not adopt the ID LLC submissions (which was not recommended and would have to have a positive motion to adopt). I did acknowledge that a few mainstream materials still contained the erroneous Haeckle vertebrate embyo diagram. This engendered questions from both Terri Leo and Ken Mercer about my apparent agreement with their side. In fact, the flawed nature of this old diagram has been well known to scientists for decades and the diagrams have been gradually removed from biology textbooks over the years. Creationists, such as the Discovery Institute, adopted this critique and have made it their own by widely publicizing it. Just because Creationists object to Haeckel’s diagram doesn’t make it permissible. My specific page about the Haeckel diagrams is here. I learned just today that one of the submitters withdrew its Biology module and the other two have already agreed to make changes. I believe the members of the biology review panels that evaluated these submissions already detected the use of Haeckel’s vertebrate embryo diagrams and asked that these be changed. I also emphasized that the other objects to the mainstream materials contained in the DI Evaluation (see the previous link) were not valid and should be ignored. Ken Mercer pointedly insisted that the Haeckel diagram was fraudulent but I explicitly said it was erroneous, not fraudulent. Haeckel was ignorant of the true morphology of some vertebrate embryos and his flawed diagram has been handed down for generations from one biology textbook to the next as an illustration of the evidence for evolution. I emphasized in a response, at considerable length, that the evidence for vertebrate embryonic similarities is there but the specific diagram should not be used.

David Shormann, a Young Earth Creationist who produces pseudoscience materials for home schooled children whose parents are Religious Fundamentalists, spoke about science education but presented no details. I thought his testimony was rather mild compared to what I expected. I thought he would explicitly demand changes to the mainstream publishers’ materials and perhaps ask that the ID LLC modules be adopted, but he did not.

A long stream of speakers follows, almost all supporting the adoption of the TEA Commissioner’s recommendations. A few criticized the mainstream publishers for not addressing the claimed but actually bogus criticisms identified by the Discovery Institute. Although no representative of the DI is present, a few speakers took up its cause of damaging evolution content in the new digital instructional materials. The only publisher that the DI liked, ID LLC, was not recommended by the TEA for several reasons. ID LLC did not cover the TEKS adequately, did not make three mentions of each TEK, had many factual errors, and most notably explicitly advocated Intelligent Design Creationism.

4:30 – Public testimony about the proposed new supplemental science instructional materials has ended, and the State Board of Education is now starting debate about whether to adopt the materials recommended by the Texas education commissioner. In past adoptions, the state board has taken a preliminary vote at the end of this initial debate. The final, formal vote on which materials to put on the official adoption list is scheduled for the meeting tomorrow, Friday, and I will be present to live blog this (in case anything happens at the last minute–which it often does).

 

The SBOE decides to consider the proposed instructional materials by grade level, beginning with Grade 5. Under consideration are science materials for Grades 5-8 and materials for Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Integrated Physics and Chemistry at the high school level. The State Board is considering a motion that would require publishers to make corrections to errors identified by the Texas Education Agency’s instructional review teams in June. This motion would apply to all materials, for Grades 5-8 and high school. This type of correction is normal and is a good thing since the review panels usually have good people on them who know the subjects. It is a fact that new instructional materials always have errors that should be corrected. Problems only arise when the State Board members themselves decide to make the changes by majority vote, since the Board members generally have no knowledge or expertise in the subject (usually evolution).

4:47 – The Board begins voting on the approval of the commissioner’s recommendations by grade level, subject to publishers making required changes to errors. Chairman Barbara Cargill moves Biology to the end of the list because it is really the only subject that will generate controversy from some members of the Board. The Board quickly gives preliminary approval to the Commissioner’s list for Grades 5-8 subject to publishers correcting any errors review teams identified.

The errors that publishers must correct include grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. Sometimes these errors really add up. During the present adoption, School Education Group/McGraw-Hill was dinged for 2,288 errors. I spoke to the publisher rep who was present and he told me the errors were all for commas out of place! Of course these will all be routinely corrected. It’s not unusual for publishers to correct numerous such errors after initial submission for adoption. Problems arise only when some state board members start identifying errors that are really ideological, religious, or political objections to content. [More soon about Holt McDougal and this very concern.]

5:21 – Board members discuss concerns that they might be adopting instructional materials without knowing how publishers will make corrections to identified errors.

6:00 – Thomas Ratliff states that the Board shouldn’t make a decision about a publisher’s biology materials content from the review of one person without hearing from the publisher who would defend its content. The content in question deals with evolution and the critical review (from a biology review panel member who is obviously a Creationist) objects to several statements. The publisher did respond in print, also provided in the handout, but the Creationist Board members want the material removed because one person criticized it from a Creationist standpoint. Next, George Clayton questions whether we would hear from a publisher or a biologist of the publisher. A vote is taken to determine if we should hear from the publisher. The vote wins 7-6 but Cargill then votes no, and a tie vote means it does not pass. If Mary Helen Berlanga were present, this vote would have won.

Gail Lowe objects to drawings of Haeckel’s vertebrate embryos in the biology materials submitted by Adaptive Curriculum and Learning.com. She asks that the materials be approved subject to replacement of the Haeckel diagram with something else.

6:20 – The State Board votes to adopt Adaptive Curriculum and Learning.com biology materials subject to replacement of its Haeckel vertebrate embryo diagram with photos of vertebrate embryos. The publisher rep showed the State Board photos of very early embryos that looked identical and more developed embryos of a human and a fish. These will be posted here soon.

Why Republicans are Underfunding Education in Texas

The official Texas policy is misguided and short-sighted... and deliberate.

Many people don’t understand why public education is being deliberately torpedoed in Texas by its own Legislature and Governor. One might think that conservatives would support a traditional, long-existing, honorable, and valuable state system; after all, isn’t that the definition of conservatism—support of traditional values? What is more traditional and valuable in the United States than public education?

But public education in Texas is heavily politicized by both the Texas Legislature and the Texas State Board of Education. The Legislature has allocated fewer state funds to public schools over the last 15 years, but this year for the first time it deliberately under-funded schools by $4 billion.

This deliberate under-funding could easily have been avoided by simply raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses in Texas or tapping the $10 billion “Rainy-Day Fund,” created years ago with the primary purpose to provide money to finance public schools at appropriate levels in case of economic hardship.

In 2006 a new business tax replaced part of state property tax in a way that state financial experts predicted would be insufficient to support Texas schools. This structural deficit could be corrected now by simply reconfiguring the new business tax to bring in the necessary amount of money, but again the Legislature deliberately refused to correct it.

Thus it is clear that the intention of the Republican majority of state legislators is to deliberately damage public education in Texas. The reason for this, however, is not well known: Public schools damaged by underfunding will be more likely to fail and thus create a situation—the sole situation—for which the Supreme Court legally permits private religious school voucher programs.

Many in the current crop of Republicans in Texas are radicals, not conservatives, and they have several reasons to defund public education. Perhaps the most popular is that under-funding will cause school districts to lay off teachers who have in the past financially supported and voted mostly for Democratic candidates, thus damaging the Democratic Party in Texas. A second is to damage the quality of public schools so more citizens will support private schools, the vast majority of which are religious. However, the least known but by far most important reason is that in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision for the first time allowed a private voucher program for private religious schools, but only when the local public school system is failing.

Goaded by Governor Perry, radical Texas Republicans tried to institute vouchers in the past by legislative action but failed by extremely narrow votes in the Legislature. Anti-voucher proponents, some Republicans but mostly Democrats, damaged the legislation sufficiently with amendments to cause its supporters to retract the bill. Now, by underfunding public education, Republicans are trying to create the sole conditions in which public voucher programs are legally permitted: making the poorest school systems in Texas—mostly urban systems—fail. A perfectly-legal state voucher system in the future will shift vast amounts of public tax money—far more than $4 billion—from public to private religious schools.

Some Texas citizens have a nebulous but gnawing feeling that, except for a few secular private schools, K-12 education in Texas isn’t very good. This feeling has a basis in reality. Without going into the details, Texas teacher pay, Texas per-student expenditure, Texas school quality, and Texas student achievement rank very low compared to most other states in the country, and very much lower than the teachers, schools, and students in most European and Asian countries. Those who are interested in this topic know the statistics or can easily find them on the Web.

There are, of course, some states that have poorer statistics than Texas, but we are not talking here about competing for the bottom rung of the education ladder. Instead, the question is why does one of the wealthiest states in the nation have such low K-12 academic achievement? Most U.S. states, wealthier or not, make public education their highest priority. This is, however, not the case in Texas. Why? There are two reasons.

First, it appears that some Texas public officials and political leaders care little about providing a quality public education to Texas children. The enormous politicization of classroom curriculum standards and instructional materials in Texas has resulted in a culture of diminished expectations and achievement. Students are expected to attend school for a credential rather than for greater knowledge of how to succeed in a highly-competitive global economy. Ironically, despite the evidence that Texas schools are failing their students, many parents develop a totally unwarranted self-satisfaction that Texas public schools are successfully preparing students for either higher education or for immediate high-paying and fulfilling jobs. They need to be more realistic. Unwarranted self-satisfaction is probably the phrase that best describes Texas K-12 education. The results certainly show it.

Texas policy-makers and public officials have a peculiar belief not shared by their counterparts in most other states. They believe that it doesn’t matter how much we spend on Texas public schools or whether their quality is good enough, because if Texas can just create more jobs than other states, the better-educated citizens of those states will move to Texas and take the jobs here. Texas can depend on other states to spend their tax dollars to educate and train high-value workers so we don’t have to. As long as our state’s economy creates high-value jobs, those workers will move to Texas and bring their expensive educations along with them.

This Texas belief—official Texas legislative and executive policy, really—absolves state government policy-makers from having to adequately fund the state’s public school system. The result has been year after year of decreasing state funding of public education, forcing local communities and school districts to raise their taxes to the highest levels to pay for a minimum education system.

This official Texas policy thumbs its nose at the social contract, at the American belief in fair play and the idea that we’re all in this together. Instead, the Texas view is that our state is competing against other states and if they aren’t slick enough to create jobs that attract other states’ educated citizens, then that’s their problem. In Texas, we create those jobs by underfunding public education, allowing Texas to have low taxes that attracts more companies.

It goes unrecognized, however, that the best and highest-paid knowledge jobs are created in states other than Texas, states that have good primary, secondary, and higher education systems supported by a reasonable tax base. A state that deliberately and selfishly underfunds its own public education system to keep its individual and business taxes artificially low, and unfairly seeks knowledge workers educated at other states’ expense, deserves to receive little or no education funding or stimulus funding from the federal government. Indeed, when Texas scored its first stimulus funding for education, it used the funds for general state expenses and kept state education funding at current levels, completely negating the purpose of stimulus funding. This is really Texas-sized selfishness, but I’m sure the self-satisfaction gained by pulling a fast one on the feds was worth it.

But there is far worse to consider: the second reason that Texas Republicans despise the state’s public school system is because it provides free education to working class Texas citizens, most of whom are Latin-American and African-American minorities. Our Republican policy-makers believe that public education funding is wasted on minorities, so deliberate underfunding of public schools has become official state policy. This policy is fed by a barely-hidden racism that demeans Texas and is shameful to those Texans who possess a fair and multicultural attitude toward ethnic-minority Texans and who defend fair treatment by the state of all citizens. This policy also creates a host of problems since under-educated citizens often turn to crime to make an adequate living. One major result of underfunding and politicizing Texas public education is that Texas has the largest prison population in the United States, indeed, one of the highest in the world.

The egregious school financial situation created by the Legislature is the most visible politicization of public education in Texas today, but it is not the only one. Some readers may know of my 31-year-long history of advocacy to protect the integrity and accuracy of science instruction in Texas public schools before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) and Texas Education Agency. This will be the main topic of my next and several subsequent columns, including live-blogging of the SBOE meeting in July 21-22.

As many readers will remember, in 2009 the SBOE on votes of 8-7 damaged the Texas science standards by inserting extreme, non-educational, radical sectarian agenda-driven standards into the Biology and Earth and Space Science Texas Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) against the advice of the scientists and science teachers who originally wrote these standards. The new politically-driven standards were added to have students question the effectiveness of biological evolution to account for the diversity and complexity of life on Earth, question the origin of life by natural processes, and question the patterns of evolution of ancient fossil organisms as explained by modern paleontologists. Censoring, manipulating, and editing these topics were of prime concern to the seven radical religious right Republicans on the SBOE at that time, who wanted to force teachers to disparage biological evolution and confuse and mislead students. The five Democrats then on the State Board consistently voted against these unnecessary and unscientific changes.

The members of the SBOE have changed but the rush to politicize science education continues. Governor Rick Perry was forced to appoint yet another SBOE chairman, and the one he chose, Barbara Cargill, is one of the most extreme sectarian proponents of the irresponsible misuse of official power to push Creationist-inspired changes into Texas public school science curricula.

In an address to the Texas Eagle Forum, Barbara Cargill stated her intention of using her office to force mainstream science publishers to include material that falsely misrepresents the status of biological evolution in modern biology and misleads students about the accuracy and reliability of information about modern biological evolution. The changes she seeks would have the effect of promoting a belief in a supernatural Creation of life and all species, topics that are not part of modern science.

This week the elected members of the SBOE, eleven Republicans and four Democrats, will decide what materials are adopted in Texas by majority vote. One of the biology instructional materials submitted explicitly promotes Intelligent Design Creationism. This supplement was not recommended by the TEA and Texas Commissioner of Education, but the radical and sectarian non-scientists on the SBOE could adopt it anyway by majority vote. Is this any way to teach science in the 21st Century?  I will cover this process and explain what is happening so please stay tuned.