Sunday, October 29, 2006

A recent study by Tim Loveless of the Brookings Institution shows an inverse association between what children perceive as their ability in math and their measured math ability across countries. This report from the Washington Post describes the major findings.

For Math Students, Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores
U.S. Lags Behind Countries That Don't Emphasize Self-Regard

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006; Page A02

It is difficult to get through a day in an American school without hearing maxims such as these: "To succeed, you must believe in yourself," and "To teach, you must relate the subject to the lives of students."

But the Brookings Institution is reporting today that countries such as the United States that embrace self-esteem, joy and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that don't promote all that self-regard.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

What he says or what he does?

In the State of the Union address last month, President Bush called for more investment in mathematics and science. He called to train 70,000 teachers to teach higher level math and science and to double the physical science research budget to about $100 billion a year. He also made the case for stronger math programs at earlier grades and repeated his call to have trained mathematicians and scientists be adjunt teachers.

The impetus behind the president's call for more attention to education in math and science is reported in the NY Times (here, here, and especially here) and Washington Post to be the result of discusions with business leaders who fear the lack of such an investment will have dire economic impacts. The president who wants to "teach the controversy" of intellligent design to high school biology students, whose administration denies the existence of global warming, and who has severely limited stem cell research is swayed by an economic argument to invest in math and science. One can only wonder whether such an investment is worthwhile given the clear willingness of Mr. Bush and his administration to suppress and ignore science on so many fronts.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


The National Acadamies of Science released a report yesterday that addressed the future direction of the US and our need to invest in the development of science and mathematic capacity.

The unmatched vitality of the United States' economy and science and technology enterprise has made this country a world leader for decades, allowing Americans to benefit from a high standard of living and national security. But in a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode. A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster U.S. competitiveness and pre-eminence in these areas so that the nation will consistently gain from the opportunities offered by rapid globalization, says a new report from the National Academies.

What is not clear to me is whether there is any political will in our national government to take a long term view of the country's future. Our investment in science has been declining and is expected to decline even further as more funding is directed toward military and disaster recovery efforts. Our political debates are ever more divisive and encroaching on the critical thinking necessary to foster science. How can we on the one hand support further investment in science and on the other hand call to teach ID as science? I am skeptical as to whether the current social and political environment in the US will allow the needed investment in science and mathematics until there is further degredation in our living standard. Here's hoping I am wrong.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Undoing Darwin

Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have written a comprehensive review of media coverage of the discussion of evolution, intelligent design, and creationism.

Undoing Darwin
By Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet

On March 14, 2005, The Washington Post’s Peter Slevin wrote a front-page story on the battle that is “intensifying across the nation” over the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. Slevin’s lengthy piece took a detailed look at the lobbying, fund-raising, and communications tactics being deployed at the state and local level to undermine evolution. The article placed a particular emphasis on the burgeoning “intelligent design” movement, centered at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose proponents claim that living things, in all their organized complexity, simply could not have arisen from a mindless and directionless process such as the one so famously described in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his classic, The Origin of Species.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The End of Science Education

Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne warn accepting 'intelligent
design' in science classrooms would have disastrous

Thursday September 1, 2005
The Guardian

"It sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? Such a modest proposal.
Why not teach "both sides" and let the children decide for
themselves? As President Bush said, "You're asking me
whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the
answer is yes." At first hearing, everything about the phrase "both
sides" warms the hearts of educators like ourselves."

"Without needing to make a single good point in any argument, [Intelligent Design theory] would have won the right for a form of supernaturalism to be recognised as an authentic part of science. And that would be the end of science education in America.",13026,1559743,00.html

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Intelligent Design

Debate about Intelligent Design continues to rage in the general public with both President Bush and Senator Frist making statements in favor of including discussion of ID in the science curriculum. In an op-ed piece in the NYTimes over the weekend, Daniel Dennett takes issue with ID. His comments can be readily summarized by simply noting that he is a philosopher and not a scientist. There is no science to ID. No testable hypothesis. Within the scientific community, there is no controversy about the theory of evolution per se. ID has offered no explanations for observable phenomena that can not be explained by evolution. He concludes with some excellent questions that might be appropriate for the non-science curriculum.

Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Imputing Design to Nature

Last week, Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna penned a Op-Ed piece in the NY Times in which he states that "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." I agree. Sort of.

The archbishop, however, must also concede the corollary statement. Any system of thought that imputes or seeks to assign a designer to biological phenomenon is ideology, not science. Science seeks to explain the physical, not the metaphysical. In using only non-physical explanations, religion leaves the realm of science (e.g., "by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers"). Whether there is a designer or not is not the purvue of science. Similarly, whether biology requires a designer or not is not the purvue of religion. Faith that requires proof is not faith at all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"An atmosphere-changing tool"

Gospel choir class at Chatham Central High School, NC (on the southern border of Orange County).

I would have a difficult time viewing this as neutral with respect to religion. I think it would need to meet that criteria (or the 3 criteria of Lemon) as this is a class, not a student-directed club. Perhaps if more than half the songs were non-religious in nature or contained a range of songs from different religions, it might be viewed as such. Typically, gospel choirs sing all or almost all religious songs and these are all from one religion.

In contrast, if a school provides a limited public forum in which student-directed clubs are allowed, then a gospel choir would be OK, provided it adheres to the provisions of the Equal Access Act.

The newspaper article presents arguements in favor of the gospel choir - that it contributed to easing of racial tensions, for example. Was not the choir present at the school during the period of racial tensions but as a club instead of a class? And does it really follow that making the club a class (with 28 students out of 450) caused an easing of racial tensions? In any case, the EC is not about the worth of religion. It is about the problems that arise if the line is not respected. If the reporter or school principal would like, I would be happy to explain this but for a more authoritative source I would suggest the ACLU or First Amendment Center.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Missing the Trees for the Forest

I am still contemplating the Establishment Clause of the constitution and I have noticed something. Consider these three cases in point.

1. Is there a fundamental difference between a cross in the seal of LA County and a church (with a cross) in a mural paid for by the Town of Chapel Hill and installed in a town-owned building that contains a church with a cross? (By the way, there is another recognizable religious symbol in the mural, see if you can find it. Hint: don't bother telling me this is what the servings look like at the shelter - they don't. Answer here)
2. Is a bible study curriculum not cultural but gospel choir performances of religious songs in elementary schools are?
3. Can someone object to a privately owned newspaper using the heading "Faith and Family" yet be silent to an event organized and funded by the Town of Chapel Hill that included both gospel music and prayer? Yes, I realize the objection to the newspaper heading is on political grounds but that retort is hollow knowing that the person making the objection to the newspaper heading was involved in planning the latter event that presents EC issues.

Perhaps a pattern. Do prominent voices discuss this issue when it applies to those far away (geographically and/or on the ideology spectrum) but show an apparent reluctance to make the same principled points when the issue is closer to home? This might simply be a difference in the scope of focus involved. After all, many of the locals have a national or international perspective. Nothing wrong with that. There is also the consideration that we are more likely to give lattitude to people we know, work with, and trust from personal knowledge but are more skeptical of those more remote. Perhaps that is self evident.

A writer on another local blog (who I do not know) had this to say on #3.

It’s interesting to compare this thread [on the newspaper using the "Faith and Family" heading] to the one on MLK Blvd name change. In one case we have a privite sector paper giving a little space to religion. Perhaps good bussiness; perhaps bad; but still thier bussiness. Many observers have some kind of problem with it. At the MLK event, three of the four music acts were christian. Some of the speakers were clergy and I could have sworn I heard prayer. Oh yeah, the government set it up. I never heard anyone complain. Perhaps the problem is the Republican God Vs. the Democratic one. Perhaps we hate the God of the white people but love the black peoples God. I can’t tell just where Dan Coleman stands on the Islamic God but I’ll bet he’s troubled with Christians who hate Allah.

Though these comments may be more cynical than necessary, it is very difficult to understand the apparent disparity in how this issue is handled by those who have responsibility to the public good, such as elected and appointed public officials. Do not forget the other similarity among these three points - they all are incursions against the Establishment Clause by the majority religion, which was precisely the rationale for the EC.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cultural or Religious?

Sally Greene has another post and comment (where do you find the time, Sally?) on the separation of church and state. A bible study course sponsored by a Greensboro, NC group is being presented to public schools as a cultural teaching. This is exactly the same rationale that I have recently received when pointing out the inappropriateness of public elementary schools inviting a Gospel Choir to perform at a school-sponsored event. While religion is cultural, it is also religious.

Most, if not all, Gospel Choirs have repertoires that are predominantly religious in nature and represent one particular religion. The foundation of Gospel Choirs is from religion. In contrast, the scope of religion in a Gospel Choir is not similar to religious references we find in many other parts of the curriculum. In particular, I do not remember "The Diary of Anne Frank" to be a religious work, as was suggested to me for comparison in the justifcation for the cultural nature of Gospel Choirs. My faint remembrance of the Diary as a non-religious work seems to also be the impression of at least one CliffNotes-like reviewer.

The holidays provide some welcome festivity to the household. It is important that Anne's family celebrates St. Nicholas Day--traditionally a pagan, and then Christian holiday. (Black Peter is the companion of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus.) The fact that they celebrate St. Nicholas Day--even more than Chanukah, at least for this year--shows how assimilated the Franks are into Gentile Dutch society. While this may explain why Anne seldom identifies with other Jews (beyond persecution, of course), it is this very element of her diary that troubles some Jewish critics. David B. Green notes that "being Jewish seems to have been largely tangential to Anne's sense of self, even as the tightening noose of the Nazi occupation reminded her daily that her fate was tethered to her Jewishness" and complains that if Anne had not suffered from "[a] lack of ethnicity," her diary might not have been the overwhelming classic that it is.

The First Amendment Center summarizes the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause thus:

Although the Court’s interpretation of the establishment clause is in flux, it is likely that for the foreseeable future a majority of the justices will continue to view government neutrality toward religion as the guiding principle. Neutrality means not favoring one religion over another, not favoring religion over non-religion and vice versa.

Neutrality might be including a variety of religious perspectives in a school sponsored event, but it does not include a single religious group.

Let us not forget why the founders included the Establishment Clause. "...the framers of the First Amendment recognized that when the roles of the government and religion are intertwined, the result too often has been bloodshed or oppression."