Several states present evolution as unsettled science—“according to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection,” say New York State's standards. Such iffy, wishy-washy standards are a green light for some poor science teaching. Good old Lincolnland gets a D for its science standards, which don’t even use the word evolution, although things are couched in statements like “describe processes by which organisms change over time using evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, embryology, the fossil record, genetics and biochemistry”. This was done “to be less controversial”, as if evolution is still a matter for debate.
Standards are a very tricky thing. If you remove standards and just let teachers teach, a lot of good things are going to happen, but a lot of bad things will happen too. You’d be amazed at how many high school teachers are iffy to downright negative about evolution; many of them actually think in all fairness alternatives should be taught so students can make up their own minds, as if things like this are up to the individual. In Missouri students may soon be able to avoid any subject, any topic, that might be troubling or bring them to question their core beliefs. The GOP platform in Texas wants to abolish critical thinking entirely! Is the USA on a path to pig-ignornance?
So high science standards are important because they determine how curricula and courses are shaped, however if you mandate too many things, then it becomes a check list for your average teacher. Really good teachers will figure out how to educate no matter what. In my youth the state of New York had regents exams, state-wide achievement exams in a number of subject areas, and if you were college bound you took these exams, and if you passed them you got a NY State Regents diploma. We also got a regular high school diploma, but it was a consolation prize. Our best teachers figured out how to push us along such that the regents exams were the easiest thing we’d done all year. The worst teachers plodded along topic by topic to cover all the “necessary” things. Terrible. So science standards should present levels of knowledge, concepts, but not too many specifics.
Still a great deal about science education rests with having really good teachers. You see science is not just a subject area, it’s a process, but many high school teachers have never done science. And if you don’t know how some knowledge is acquired, how we know various things, what is taught can begin to sound like “this is what we believe” to which others will say, “well, we believe something different”. A science teacher that hasn’t done science is just like having a swimming coach who can’t swim. Put that way it seems pretty ludicrous doesn’t it? You may wonder why this is the case, and the problem is really quite simple, a 4-year education degree has so many education requirements that the amount of science students take is minimal. There isn’t enough time in a 4 year degree to do anything else. TPP was assigned to a blue ribbon committee to consider how to upgrade teacher education. Since no one else was offering any suggestions, TPP suggested that all high school teachers get a regular undergraduate degree in their subject area, and then get certified by getting a master’s degree in education. In other words, treat them and educate them like professionals, a radical idea. The idea of having no undergrad degrees in teacher education was too much for this committee to deal with, and it has been reported that they continued to meet, to no apparent success, but you-know-who never found out about any subsequent meetings.
If a professional educational plan were adopted students on their way to teaching science would have more courses in science and have time and the opportunity to do some research, to experience the process of science, and without question this changes how you view and how you teach science. Our biology department actually looked into such a change, but we were told it was a state mandate that we have an undergraduate degree in teacher education. Maybe that committee did have an effect!