Reviews of New Texas Science Standards Documents

by Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
http://www.texscience.org/
November 7, 2007

INTRODUCTION

I have carefully read and reviewed several new documents that address K-12 public education in Texas. These were written in anticipation of Texas TEKS review, revision, and alignment, among other reasons. The first two documents were mandated by the Legislature and are professionally written by expert and knowledgeable teams for the Commission for a College Ready Texas. The reason the others were written by the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not known, but it is probably an attempt to influence forthcoming events, establish some legitimacy, and become a stake-holder in the science standards process.

The Texas State Board of Education will be given the first two reports during their November meeting. The presentation and acceptance of these two reports will be an agenda item, so public testimony will be allowed.

Here are the three documents and their locations:

1. The Commission for a College Ready Texas (CCRT) was appointed in April 2007 by Governor Rick Perry to provide support to the Legislature-created vertical teams and to the State Board of Education to implement the requirements of House Bill One. It has written a Draft Report.

The Draft Report of the CCRT is here:
http://www.collegereadytexas.org/documents/CCRTReport110207FinalDRAFT.pdf
The description of the CCRT is here:
http://www.collegereadytexas.org/

2. The Texas College Readiness Standards (TCRS) of the CCRT were written by four expert vertical teams consisting of both higher education and public education instructors. The four subject areas are English Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Science. I am only reviewing the Science standards.

The description of the TCRS is here:
http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/collegereadiness/TCRS.cfm
The Draft Texas College Readiness Standards document is here:
http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/collegereadiness/DRAFT_CRS.pdf
The public comment form is here:
http://epiconline.org/texas/CRSpubliccomment.php

3. The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an extreme right-wing "think tank" founded and funded by wealthy religious right reactionary and Gov. Rick Perry-supporter James Leininger, researches and attempts to influence public policy in Texas to support their ideological goals. The two documents below are accessed on the same page as commentaries denying the dangers of global warming and promoting school choice, school competition, and vouchers as ways to improve public education!


The homepage with links to recent documents is here:
http://www.texaspolicy.com/
The description of the TPPF and photos of board members is here:
http://www.texaspolicy.com/about_tppf.php
TPPF's Math and Science Reform Agenda is here:
http://www.texaspolicy.com/pdf/2007-10-PP31-reformagenda-bt.pdf
The Executive Summary for Math and Science Best Practices is here:
http://www.texaspolicy.com/pdf/2007-10-PB32-bestpractices-execsummary-js.pdf

BRIEF REVIEWS

1. Commission for a College Ready Texas

The Commission for a College Ready Texas (CCRT) has published their draft report on their findings and recommendations on how to prepare Texas students to achieve success in college. The Draft Report of the Commission for a College Ready Texas is excellent. It states all the well-known problems: Texas students do poorly compared to students in other states, In fact, Texas student performance is among the poorest in the country: high school graduation rate is low and dropout rate is high; college attendance and graduation is low; most Texas high school graduates are unprepared for college-level work without significant remedial or developmental courses; and the vast majority of Texas high school graduates are less prepared to succeed in college than most of their peers throughout the nation; etc. I remember pointing out these and other facts in public testimony to the Texas SBOE in 1984(!), including the fact that Texas students scored in the bottom five of all states on the SAT, ACT, and APT tests, but of course nothing was done then to correct the many problems. I hope the lessons in this report will be taken seriously by the State Board and dealt with in a realistic manner. From their track record, it is likely that this report will be ignored as so many have in the past.

The Draft Report easily makes the case that today's knowledge-based global economy requires that most students must acquire a post-secondary education to be competitive, successful, and earn an adequate income. Thus, there is a great need for Texas high school graduates to be college-ready.

The Draft Report presents the obvious solutions: It defines college readiness. It states that nationally-recognized and exemplary college readiness standards exist now and should be incorporated into the Texas public school standards. Such standards include making courses more rigorous and requiring that students take certain courses that most students don't take (such as Algebra II and Physics). The bad drop-out problem must be addressed in Texas, finding some way to encourage students to stay in school. Critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills should be emphasized in all courses. Students should be required to take notes and write reports or essays in every class. Students should be required to work in teams and on class projects that require teamwork.

Current Texas curriculum standards are too weak, ambiguous, subjective, and difficult to measure, so standards should be created that are more explicit, focused, specific, and measurable. It is too easy to achieve a passing score on the TAKS exams, since their grade scale is so low, and offers no assurance that a student is ready for college. The solution is for tests to be graded more rigorously. Many students, in the words of the report, "view the senior year in high school as a let-down or 'marking-time' interval," and this practice should be discouraged. Instead, students in their senior year should continue to receive rigorous, comprehensive coursework to prepare them for college without a year-long gap in their education. The report contains many more excellent suggestions and solutions, all worth implementing.

Of special interest to me is the emphasis placed on science and math in the Draft Report. In several places, the report properly describes the need for knowledge of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, AND Earth and Space Science (ESS). Inclusion of the last science area, ESS, is a major advance in the recognition of the importance of all areas of science in college-ready education. I worked hard to encourage this recognition by public officials and education leaders, so I am gratified to see this result.

The Draft Report only leaves out two significant suggestions to improve the education and college readiness of Texas high school students. The first is to stop all the abstinence-only school presentations, adopt health education books that treat pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases in a realistic way, and start teaching comprehensive sex education programs in all Texas middle and high schools. The facts that over 60% of Texas high school students engage in sexual activity and that Texas has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, illegitimate births, and sexually-transmitted diseases in the country are apparently lost on the authors of the Draft Report. The latest news is that Texas leads the nation in teen births and multiple teen births. What are we not teaching our children? These dire statistics reveal a major reason for the college-UNreadiness of Texas students, especially young women. The SBOE, the Legislature, the Governor, and now the authors of the CCRT Draft Report continue to ignore this significant problem and its obvious solution: comprehensive sex education, which all studies show is extremely effective.

California--which has about the same student ethnic and urban/suburban/rural demographics as Texas--uses an abstinence-first or comprehensive sex education program in its public schools, so all students are taught about the importance of using contraceptives when they choose to engage in sexual activity. Thus, the more than 60% of high school students who engage in sexual activity know how to protect themselves. Thus, it is understandable that California has a significantly smaller incidence of teenage pregnancy, illegitimate teenage births, STDs, etc. Is it possible that these statistics are partly responsible for the fact that California has a higher graduation rate (smaller dropout rate) than Texas?

The second suggestion to improve college-readiness that is not discussed in the Draft Report is to oblige parents (i.e., require or force them by penalty-enforced statute or regulation) to become much more involved in the education of their children. The majority of parents leaves their entire children's education up to the school and teachers and expects good results. This lack of interest and commitment is so unrealistic and counter-productive that it becomes wishful thinking. Just requiring that parents pick up their misbehaving kids from the school within one hour or bear a fine would be a significant step in the right direction. Other steps would be limits on television, video games, and sports participation, and requiring that parents sign a statement about homework completion each weeknight.

I believe that the major impediment to improving student education is the attitude of the parents and, through them, school district boards and superintendents. All of these seem to want students to become credentialed as soon as possible with as little trouble as possible, and have encouraged social promotion, grade inflation, and non-rigorous testing to get kids through the education system with as little cost, effort, and thus actual learning, as possible. Standards have become so low that our national productivity in scientific and technological areas is at risk. Immigrants from Asia and Europe must fill so many graduate school slots and job openings that American citizens cannot fill. Learning math, science, and engineering is demanding, time-consuming work that requires discipline, focus, and an intellectual work ethic that most students and their parents just don't care to develop, and they will not get these unless the school and home environments are markedly improved by new standards and new attitudes among public education officials. Teachers are already working as hard as they can; there is nothing they can do better to improve student education statistics. It is unrealistic to expect student academic performance to improve without more parental effort in encouraging and disciplining their children.

In conclusion, with the exception of the two notable lapses identified above that should be corrected--and that indicate that the report's authors wish to continue to ignore reality by indulging the ideological biases of state education officials--the Draft Report of the CCRT is an excellent survey of the problems facing Texas public schools regarding college readiness and a summary of some of the solutions to those problems. I endorse its contents and can certainly recommend it to the SBOE.

2. Texas College Readiness Standards

The Draft Texas College Readiness Standards were written by four expert vertical teams consisting of both higher education and public education instructors. The four subject areas are English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Science. I am only reviewing the science section, although I will state that the other three sections are as detailed and extensive as the science section.

The Science College Readiness Standards (SCRS) are excellent. They are among the best-written science standards I have ever read. They can really serve as a basis for revising the science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), the current Texas science standards. In fact, as written the SCRS put the current Texas science standards to shame. However, the Science College Readiness Standards do omit requiring standards for scientific topics that the authors must have known would be controversial to the members of the State Board of education (SBOE) and many Texas citizens. These are summarized below.

The authors understand both the content and operation of science: what science knows and how it works. They define science as a way of knowing, a process by which we discover knowledge about and understand nature. This is the correct definition. The authors also know that the core of the scientific method is testing hypotheses. One error they do make (p. 41) is to conflate theories and explanatory models (which can be either hypotheses or theories) with hypotheses. Theories are much, much more than hypotheses. However, I like the fact that they ignore the term "theory" after that, since no one except scientists apparently understands what it means, and the term is frequently misrepresented by opponents of science. If anyone wanted to define scientific theory properly, a good definition of "scientific theory" would have to consist of at least three sentences: "In science a theory is not a hunch, guess, speculation, idea, suggestion, conjecture, or hypothesis, which is what theory means in popular language. A scientific theory is a set of tested and corroborated hypotheses, reliable observations, and logical inferences that explain, unify, and predict natural phenomena. While not absolutely or ultimately true, a scientific theory is the best and most truthful explanation of how nature works that humans possess, and should be considered the most reliable and accurate knowledge possible."

The proposed Science College Readiness Standards begin with a section titled Scientific Ways of Learning and Thinking, which includes knowing and understanding cognitive skills and methods of scientific inquiry. These are things I have been teaching explicitly for 25 years in my introductory science classes, although standards never require them. They should, and the proposed SCRS do. They include things like using skepticism, logic, ethics, and creativity in science activities, recognizing faulty arguments and unreliable statements about science, formulating testable questions, making reproducible observations using empirical evidence, correctly formulating hypotheses, participating in scientific collaboration, and other necessary scientific skills. These should be at the beginning of EVERY set of science standards, but never are to my knowledge--until now. The SCRS does have these, and they should serve as a model for the upcoming revised science TEKS. Needless to say, the unscientific and unethical language about requiring "strengths and weaknesses" for every scientific explanation in every scientific discipline, which is found in the current science TEKS, is not present in the SCRS. This is extremely laudable.

Next, the Science College Readiness Standards discusses the need for Foundational Skills (also termed Cross-Discipline Skills) in mathematics and scientific and technical communication. These vital skills (math, note-taking, writing, speaking, computer graphing, etc.) are never required explicitly, but only implied, in most sets of science standards and so are usually ignored. Here they are explicit. This is just outstanding! These Foundational Skills should be included in EVERY set of science standards.

Finally, the expected content or discipline knowledge requirements are expertly identified and stated. The authors do this for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, as we would expect, but also for Earth and Space Science (ESS) and Environmental Science, making it clear that they recognize that these two other disciplines or science course areas are of vital importance. I have long believed that every student should take FIVE science courses in high school, the traditional three plus ESS and Environmental Science. The authors of the SCRS appear to agree (although, in practice, everyone understands that four is all that can be expected for the vast majority of high school students). Acknowledging that other important realms of scientific knowledge exist in addition to biology, chemistry, and physics is most noteworthy and again quite laudable.

The College Readiness Standards for Biology, in the section on knowing multiple categories of evidence for evolutionary change, requires that students learn several specific examples of the evidence for evolution (biogeography, embryology, fossils, DNA sequences, artificial selection, etc.) and how this evidence is used to infer evolutionary relationships among organisms. Specific requirements include an understanding of natural selection, common descent with modification, common ancestors, mass extinctions, the concept that species populations change, not individuals, etc. The only topic missing, however--which should be included if the authors were really courageous and did not ultimately decide to pander to the expected religious biases of the SBOE and many Texas parents--is the requirement for knowing the evidence for human evolution, including vestigial organs, the excellent hominid fossil record, human/ape DNA and skeletal similarities, and many other examples that illustrate human evolution so clearly. While not strictly an error, this is an inadequacy or fault of the Science CRS and should be corrected. However, I doubt that it will be.

Several other important science standards are missing:

The College Readiness Standards for Earth and Space Sciences, in the section describing possessing a scientific understanding of the history of Earth's systems, commendably requires knowledge of life's major extinction events. With all the major mass extinctions of life that Earth has experienced, including events that wiped out an estimated 95% (terminal Permian) and 75% (terminal Cretaceous) of all species, I wonder how the authors explain the biodiversity we have now. In fact, the Science College Readiness Standards omit requiring student knowledge of the major evolutionary adaptive radiations that followed each of the major extinctions and led to a rebuilding of plant and animal diversity on Earth. It's a good thing that evolution actually occurs, and that it can be fast, too.

Neither the College Readiness Standards for Biology or Earth and Space Science requires that students be introduced to the current scientific knowledge regarding the origin of life. Life began on Earth approximately 3.7 billion years ago when abiotic chemical processes involving organic chemicals derived from cosmic, stellar nebular, and Earth processes led to the appearance of the first living organisms on Earth, the first fossils of which (cyanobacteria) are known from rocks that are 3.5 billion years old. The origin of life from natural chemical processes and materials on Earth--sometimes termed chemical evolution to distinguish it from biological evolution--is important knowledge that must be imparted to students.

The College Readiness Standards for Environmental Science has a section requiring student knowledge of population ecology, including birth and death rates and carrying capacity, but neither exponential growth rates nor excessive human population growth is mentioned. Excessive human population growth is the ultimate cause of all forms of pollution and of all the major environmental problems on the planet. In fact, excessive human population growth is the foremost environmental problem on Earth. This should be required knowledge. This might also be a good place to require knowledge of how to ethically achieve zero and even negative human population growth, which is necessary now to sustain a decent quality of human life on Earth.

The College Readiness Standards for Environmental Science commendably has a section requiring student knowledge of how human practices affect air, water, and soil quality, and include mention of ozone depletion and global warming. But the standards omit specifying knowing the clear links between specific human practices and the air pollution that results, and most importantly the scientifically-identified solutions. These clear, specific, and measurable links should all be required knowledge. A recently released study concludes that young adults are graduating from U.S. high schools who are "totally environmentally illiterate" (Environmental Literacy in America, a report from the North American Association for Environmental Education).

The College Readiness Standards for Environmental Science has no section requiring student knowledge of the Tragedy of the Commons, the major scientific insight that explains how completely rational human behavior directly, necessarily, and invariably leads to the degradation, depletion, and ultimately destruction of any commonly-available but shared limited natural resource. Furthermore, shared limited resources include all air, water, soil, plant, animal, mineral, and energy resources, since all are limited by form, time, location, amount, accessibility, availability, and price to a greater or lesser extent, and thus are all threatened with degradation, depletion, and destruction from humans acting rationally in their legitimate self-interest, a function of both market economies and planned economies. Humans have already exceeded the natural carrying-capacity of the Earth as measured by quality of life for every individual. Small pockets of some humans have higher quality of life due to large and unsustainable amounts of energy consumption. This process can't continue indefinitely.

The solution to the Tragedy of the Commons should also be required student knowledge: limits and restrictions must be placed on the use of all shared limited natural resources, that is, on everything. Furthermore, non-coercive limits must be placed on human population sizes (this can be easily accomplished using well-known marketing techniques and economic incentives that require absolutely no coercion or restrictions on human freedom; these incentives even occur naturally in developed countries where zero population growth is normal if immigration is not included). The only source of such necessary limits and restrictions are national governments and international treaties. Without them, environmental degradation and destruction is inevitable. The fact that this vital knowledge is omitted from the SCRS is unbelievably counter-productive for human quality of life and even for human survival, and mitigates the claim that the Texas College Readiness Standards really prepares students to succeed in college and society. Such ignorance will only lead to a lower quality of life and ultimately to disaster (as it is doing now in our country).

In conclusion--with the exception of the significant and probably deliberate omissions listed above, which can be easily corrected and should be corrected--the Science section of the Draft Texas College Readiness Standards is a professionally-written, excellent, and even outstanding document that should serve as a model for future Texas science standards and the upcoming science TEKS review, revision, and realignment. They are among the finest, most complete, and most explicit science standards I have ever reviewed, and I endorse them whole-heartedly.

3. Texas Public Policy Foundation

Now we come to the most curious of the new documents. The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) is a well-known right-wing organization that would term themselves as conservatives, but in reality are right-wing radicals (more specifically, reactionaries--social and economic radicals of the right, also popularly known as ultra-conservatives). Most or all of the officers and board members of this organization are members of the religious right, so they would be Creationists of various types (Young Earth, Old Earth, or Intelligent Design). Thus, they would be antagonistic to science in their attitudes and beliefs (for example, they would presumably oppose commonly-accepted scientific conclusions about the dangers of global warming, human population growth, industrial air pollution, etc.). No doubt they are aware, however, that the Texas business community has been among the strongest supporters for having accurate and reliable science taught in Texas, especially including evolution (which is the central concept in the life sciences), so they must constantly experience some form of cognitive dissonance, since they presumably wish to be taken seriously as pro-business conservatives. In what guise will they appear in their two new documents, one a five-page policy perspective on math and science reform, the other a one-page policy brief on math and science best practices (the research paper for which this policy brief is the executive summary is apparently not published yet)? Will they be anti-science social radicals (their true nature) or pro-science business conservatives (their adopted public persona)? I will objectively review their two new documents in a fair and balanced manner and report which is the case.

In the documents, the TPPF elected to present itself as a group of pro-business conservatives who recognize the "math and science skills deficit in Texas public schools," who advocate serious recommendations to solve the problem, and appear to want a significant improvement in the quality of math and science education in Texas. In these documents, the TPPF does not advocate teaching Intelligent Design Creationism or diminishing or omitting evolutionary science instruction. It does not advocate "teaching the controversy" or "teaching both sides" of origins questions. It does not use typical anti-science, religious-right rhetoric in any document, all things that the State Board of Education has consistently supported. Instead, the TPPF advocates several mainstream recommendations, most of which I find to be perfectly acceptable and would endorse.

A. TPPF wants to make it easier for qualified math and science teachers to achieve certification without enduring the extensive education school training usually required, even to the extent of waiving state certification requirements to attract good math and science teachers. This recommendation may be anti-union, but I support it from my own experience as a non-certified but full-time high school science substitute teacher. I was paid one-fourth to one-third what a certified teacher made while I was teaching chemistry at one high school and later physics at another, for a semester each. I took the jobs for the experience, of course, not the money, and believe me, after 22 years as a college and university science professor, I had a learning experience.

B. TPPF wants to make math and science teachers' pay more competitive, abolishing the statewide salary schedule and offering bonuses and signing incentives for such teachers. This is also an exemplary idea.

C. TPPF wants math and science teachers to be evaluated objectively in a variety of ways. Teacher evaluation is okay if it is actually done objectively. Teachers rightfully object to proposed state teacher evaluation and accountability requirements because they are invariably set up so administrators control the results and no modifications are made for initial student quality, school district setting, and degree of teacher control of the classroom. In practice, most proposed accountability evaluations are un-objective and basically unfair. Public education officials have yet to institute a really objective and fair method of teacher accountability, but the possibility exists. As I describe above, it is not teachers, but parents, school boards, and superintendents who are the reason for poor student educational results. Every teacher I have met--and I have met hundreds--is completely dedicated and works as hard as each possibly can. Teachers are not the problem for Texas's poor education statistics. Parents, not teachers, should be evaluated on the basis of student learning.

The usual reason for demands for state-required teacher accountability are to demonstrate that teachers are failing, thus the schools are failing, and thus a private-school voucher program must be initiated to provide competition to the public schools to get them and their teachers to do better. Failing schools is the one explicit reason allowed by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002) to permit an otherwise unconstitutional voucher program (other reasons may be legally possible but have not been tested in litigation). Other ways to get public schools to fail are to under-fund them, take money from them and give it to charter schools and virtual private academies and home schools, over-test the students, and under-pay the teachers. Sound familiar? The religious-right solution to the failing public schools problem is always the same: public schools will be improved by taking money from them and giving it to private religious schools by vouchers. This makes as much sense as every other solution to social problems proposed by the religious-right (such as abstinence-only sex education to the problem of teenage pregnancy and STDs, and growing more warm-weather crops to the problem of global warming).

So, if teachers can actually be evaluated objectively and fairly, then the TPPF recommendation is a good suggestion. If not, then it is not a good suggestion.

D. TPPF wants to ensure that math and science courses are rigorous, required every year, test mastery of skills and not just content knowledge or appreciation, and really prepare students to be college-ready. These are great recommendations that I warmly endorse.

E. TPPF wants to encourage the creation of more math and science magnet schools which attract students who want to eventually enter scientific and technical professions. This is an exemplary recommendation that I completely endorse. Every urban school district should have at least one math and science magnet school, because all the students in it will want to do well in school and won't have the distractions of other students who are not motivated to learn (and who are usually disruptive).

F. TPPF wants to remove restrictions on charter schools, especially expansion size limits. The charter school program was created for two reasons: first, to provide a legal way to start defunding public schools and promote their failure; second, it was a way to initiate the process of taking public tax money from public schools and start giving it to alternative schools, promoting "school choice" and ultimately giving the public money to private religious schools via a voucher program. The charter school program was a camel's-nose-under-the-tent strategy; the camel's body was to be a full-blown voucher program, but the effort has stalled, leaving charter schools in a sort of limbo. Despite TPPF's claims to the contrary, charter schools have proven less effective and successful than public schools at educating students. They have also been beset with financial, legal, and ethical problems, so the charter program will probably slowly disappear. TPPF terms charter schools and even magnet schools as "school choice," but this is a euphemism for vouchers, not magnet schools, which are legitimate public schools. Removing restrictions on charter schools is not a recommendation I can accept.

G. TPPF wants to replicate the best practices of high performance schools. This may or may not be a good recommendation, since high performance schools may have several reasons for their success, some of which cannot be replicated elsewhere. It is doubtful that TPPF was able to isolate specific best practices that promoted high performance in these schools. For example, one best practice TPPF promotes is to RAISE science and math class size, since this increases teacher salaries and decreases teacher shortages in math and science. How this happens is not explained. Why not pay math and science teachers more and keep class size at a proper level? This recommendation is problematic.

H. Finally, some perfectly acceptable recommendations include giving students incentives for better performance and for taking AP courses, to minimize TAKS intrusion on classroom time by restricting TAKS instruction to poorer-performing students, and by increasing parent-student communication.

In conclusion, except for two recommendations (F and G above), the TPPF suggestions are serious, mainstream, and acceptable, in some cases even exemplary. I agree with most of them and can advocate these to the SBOE.

Steven D. Schafersman, President, Texas Citizens for Science
Email: tcsATtexscience.org (please substitute @ for AT to help avoid spam)
Phone: 432/352-2265
Last revised: 2007 December 2