Thursday, January 08, 2009

Yet one less catastrophe to worry about (maybe)

Tipped of by a post on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, I read this story from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about a new and positive development regarding Texas state science education standards.

I've written a few posts chronicling Texas's adventures in revising its state science standards: last September I introduced the issue, and in December I wrote about what science is and why that matters for state science standards, and why religion doesn't belong in the science classroom.

Why does this matter to you if you are not in Texas? Because Texas is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the nation, so many publishers edit their textbooks to follow Texas state standards. What happens in Texas doesn't stay in Texas.

First, the good news. The final draft on science standards sticks to science. It does not try and inject religion (which, I would argue, can be freely taught in houses of worship and, as one commenter on my post mentioned, can also be covered in comparative religion courses in public schools). The standards are not antagonistic to religion, either. They simply cover science, which is all they should do.

Second, the bad news. Texas has a history (from last year!) of ignoring the recommendations and substituting their own standards, without opportunity for discussion or public input, at the last minute. Given nearly half of the Texas State School Board are on the record as favoring the teaching of some flavor of creationism in science classes. It would, alas, not be surprising if the school board tried to pull the same sort of stunt.

Such a move should be viewed as wrong, no matter what your religious inclinations. What is to stop some future school board from using such a move as precedence for adding or cutting other topics? What's to stop the school board from recommending that grade 6th students use Playboy as reading for English class? Or to stop them from deciding not to teach addition or subtraction?

I'm stretching things beyond what would probably happen, but it is to make a point. We demand that our government be open and not make decisions without at least considering the will of the people. For that reason, government committees such as the state school board set up expert panels, request reports, and hold public comment sessions before a decision is made. It would be wrong of the Texas school board to ignore this process just because they don't like the results of the process. I'm hoping that they don't go down that road again.

In short, this week we've dodged two bullets: a gamma-ray burst mass extinction and a science education meltdown. But we're not out of the woods yet. Alas, I'm infinitely more confident in my safety from gamma rays than I am in the science standards fight.

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