Even as a contentious Supreme Court nomination deepens political rifts, Democrats seek to grab Republican House seats by playing to the center
Propaganda trumps teaching
by Elise Grafe in Atlanta
At this July’s National Education Association (NEA) annual convention in Atlanta, T-shirt clad teachers pushed advocacy and debated lunch options. Explicit rap music blasted over speakers, and attendees waited in line for a chance to enter a giant game-show plastic tube with dollar bills blowing around inside. Union leaders dressed in suits led campaign chants while waving posters printed with pictures of themselves.
But no one talked much about teaching.
A handful of booths in the convention’s exhibition hall did promote teaching-related materials, especially “Common Core-aligned” curricula. Those new standards, adopted in nearly every state, have birthed a plethora of shiny new curricula, and representatives were on hand to cajole teachers into testing their products. A representative from BugbrainED LLC acknowledged that his company’s bright, bug-themed reading apps don’t have any real learning objectives except to drill Common Core test material. The new curricula promise a competitive advantage for schools trying to boost standardized test scores.
Attendees showed more interest in gay rights than student achievement. If the NEA was a typical high school, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus (GLBTC) would be the jocks and prom queens, and rainbow ribbons would replace Abercrombie shirts and letterman jackets as status signifiers. At packed-out GLBTC meetings, attendees celebrated the recent Supreme Court decisions. One speaker mocked the “group of bigots” fighting for traditional marriage, calling them small and crass, to the cheering and laughter of attendees.
But the GLBTC wasn’t just cheerleading. It pushed the convention to pass a new resolution: “NEA will encourage all states and NEA Affiliates to use existing means of communication to promote developmentally appropriate instructional resources in order to help all educators integrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history, people, and issues into their instruction, such as, but not limited to ‘Unheard Voices’ an oral history and curriculum project for middle and high school students created in collaboration by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Story Corps.”
The Unheard Voices program includes lessons with interviews of gay individuals, like Jamison Green explaining his journey to becoming transgender (“my first lover suggested to me that I might enjoy having a sex change”) and a lesbian mom’s 8-year-old boy asking, “Mom, we’re lesbians right?”
A few brave pro-life educators manned a booth showing the growth stages of a human baby. Their booth proudly displayed the verse, “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14). The group submitted a proposal to the assembly to “prohibit the use of dues money to support abortions.” But many NEA members booed the pro-life speakers, and the NEA assembly promptly squashed the motion. It kept instead support for “school-based family planning clinics” and abortion at any time.
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS)—a group that works to raise the quality of teaching across the country through board certification—seemed to be the only organization at the convention focused on educational excellence. NBPTS compared the current teaching profession to the medical profession in the early 1900s, when doctors happily provided services from surgeries to shaves. Only 3 percent of teachers have earned board certification, which requires them to submit self-evaluations and teaching videos, and earns them higher salaries in almost every state.
One bit of good news: NEA membership is declining, giving the NEA less money to push its causes. According to the Education Action Group, membership fell almost 7 percent from 2008-09 to 2011-12, with 44 state affiliates losing members. One recent blow came when the 3,000-member University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA) voted to disaffiliate. Although the NEA president traveled to Hawaii, he couldn’t persuade the group to stay. Other reasons for the decline: teacher layoffs, right to work laws that permit teachers to opt out of union membership, and laws that permit teachers to request “fair share” exemption from the political portion of their dues.
—Elise Grafe is a WORLD intern
As California goes, so goes the nation?
by Angela Lu in Los Angeles
Martha Lin holds her squirmy 7-year-old daughter Lucia as she lists her concerns about sending her two children to public school in Los Angeles.
“I worry that they teach evolution over creationism,” she said, then looks down at Lucia: “They want to tell you that you came from a monkey.” That’s not exactly true, because Darwinism teaches only that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor, but Lucia responded with a logical question: “Because I’m good at the monkey bars?”
The kids learn at home and at church that God created the world, and that God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman. But Lin can’t shield them from what they see at school: A classmate of her 11-year-old son has two mommies. Still, Lin says she’s found many Christian teachers at the school by talking to other parents at church. Once Lucia walked into school with her AWANA vest on, and the magnet coordinator said, “Oh, my husband leads AWANA at my church.”
But even good teachers have little recourse now that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed AB1266: The new law allows students K-12 to use school facilities based on their perceived “gender identity” rather than their biological gender. For instance boys who feel like girls will be able to use girls’ bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms, as well as join girls’ sports teams.
“That’s scary,” Lin said. “What’s the line for gender?” Maggie Liu, a fourth-grade teacher at Vintage Math and Science, said she could just imagine how uncomfortable the new rule would make her elementary-aged students: “My girls, they would be screaming if they saw a boy in the bathroom.” When she first heard of the bill, though, her biggest concern was for her daughters in the sixth and 11th grades who attend local public schools. She fears boys will take advantage of the free pass to the girls’ bathroom. “For me that’s totally wrong.”
Tiffany Wada, who teaches science at a charter high school in South Los Angeles, notes that many students will not want opposite-gender students in their bathrooms: “When the government says it’s trying to protect all students, you are going to choose which students will feel hurt or offended or violated.” Wada always saw working with at-risk low-income students in the school system as her life’s calling, yet says she plans on homeschooling her own children. She wonders why her school allows lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) clubs but won’t allow Christian or other religious clubs, and she asks why LGBT advocates should “push that upon Christians. It’s a double standard.”
Gay advocates are still trying to implement their victory in 2011—requiring history classes to include gay historical figures in the curriculum of all grades—in the face of the school system’s bigger problems: high drop out rates, underperforming students, and an inability to discipline. Christian teachers feel exasperated, yet still see how their presence makes a difference.
Tom Carrano, a eigth-grade history teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School in Los Angeles, said his curriculum looks exactly the same as before the law passed. His class already has so much to cover to pass standardized tests that it’s incomprehensible to add extra material: “Right now all [the school’s] energy is not focused on gender or diversity, but the Common Core [standards], to get them up to speed with the rest of the nation,” Carrano said. “There’s bigger fish to fry.”
And that bigger fish is the sobering fact that of Carrano’s students, 99 percent of whom are Hispanic and low-income, only about 60 percent are expected to make it to graduation day. California public schools are dealing with budget cuts and teacher shortages: Carrano has taught in three different schools in the past six years and has watched principals moving in and out.
Teachers have some autonomy in what areas of the state standards they focus on in the classrooms. For Carrano, a Christian, this means he can dwell on topics like ancient Hebrew history, have students read the primary text of Isaiah 53, and study its connection to the Christian faith. During a section on the Second Great Awakening, he shows video of pastor Greg Laurie’s Harvest Crusade to show modern-day Christian gatherings. This could all change once standards include LGBT material, or when new textbooks are published, although with budget constraints, the time line is uncertain.
Carrano said teaching in the public school setting is often demoralizing. Many of his students aren’t disciplined by their parents at home, so they’re often unruly, rude, and unwilling to learn. Carrano said a culture of bullying pervades his school, including not just other students but also teachers. With a new law in the Los Angeles Unified School District banning suspensions, Carrano said he has his hands tied in terms of what he can do to discipline his students.
Sarah, an eigth-grade math teacher whom WORLD agreed not to name because she has legitimate fear of reprisal from her school administration, said the heart of the issue is that “as a believer you know what is right and wrong, but the school doesn’t have that kind of compass so it’s very cloudy when you’re trying to discipline the students. You’re not supported in any way.” Students talk back to teachers and sometimes come to class on drugs, but she cannot discipline them unless she finds the drug on them.
Sarah is considering quitting after six years of teaching and perhaps working at a Christian school with a foundation of right and wrong. She constantly asks herself: “Am I perpetuating a system that is very broken, where I see a lot of wrong? Am I being a part of that wrong?”
But others believe Christians are especially needed in these dark places. Carrano and Sarah mentioned holding Christian clubs or Bible studies for their students, and being able to pray with other Christian teachers at school. Wada says he can be a role model for students, someone they feel safe talking with, someone who can speak truth into their lives–to an extent. When students ask about her personal life, Wada talks about how important going to church is, and is vocal to her students that marriage should come before having a baby.
by Casey Luskin
Public education curricula in the United States have traditionally been controlled by local and state boards of education, but under newly crafted national guidelines called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), K-12 public school students across the country may learn essentially the same uniform science curriculum, one that proselytizes for Darwinism.
The drive to nationalize science standards intensified in 2009 when a study found American students had fallen to 23rd in science internationally, ranking behind China, Japan, Germany, and Canada. In 2011 the National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, released its Framework for K-12 Science Education, outlining specific science content and thinking skills that students should learn. The nonprofit corporation Achieve.org coordinated the team that drafted the final NGSS, published in April of this year.
Five states so far—Rhode Island, Kentucky, Maryland, Vermont, and Kansas—have adopted the standards, and states including California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Washington will soon be considering them. Proponents argue that nationalized standards will ensure a higher quality of instruction regardless of state or local policies. Critics respond that these national standards weren’t developed through a democratic, publicly transparent process. The NGSS drafting process excluded Darwin-skeptical groups and invited pro-Darwin advocacy groups like the National Center for Science Education.
NGSS makes biological evolution a “core idea” and urges that by the third grade students should be presented with “evidence of common ancestry” of humans and animals. Middle-school students should “infer evolutionary relationships,” and in high school they should hear that “common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”
NGSS requires students to learn that similarities among vertebrate embryos indicate common ancestry, but says nothing about the significant differences between embryos in their earliest stages. A 2010 paper in the world’s foremost science journal, Nature, explained, “Counter to the expectations of early embryonic [similarities], many studies have shown that there is often remarkable divergence between related species both early and late in development.” Under the NGSS, such evidence would be excluded.
Once students hit high school, NGSS has them learning that “similarities in DNA sequences” across different species also support common ancestry. But NGSS does not note that the scientific literature is filled with studies where DNA similarities conflict with the predictions of common ancestry. A 2009 article in New Scientist, “Why Darwin Was Wrong About the Tree of Life,” observed, “Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded.”
Although NGSS encourages inquiry-based learning and lauds “open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism … and honest and ethical reporting of findings,” it downplays those virtues when it comes to teaching evolution. The evolution section does mention, though, that students should “evaluate the evidence behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments,” and that may provide a bit of cover to teachers who emphasize open-mindedness on evolution.
Polls suggest most parents will find the NGSS objectionable not because students will learn about biological evolution, but because they will hear only the evidence for Darwinism and none against it. According to a 2009 Zogby poll, 78 percent of likely American voters agree that “Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.”
Some states are resisting NGSS. Barbara Cargill, chair of the Texas State Board of Education, says Texas has a “zero percent chance” of adopting the new national standards. This is largely because in 2009 Texas completed an arduous process of updating its own science standards, which now require students to “analyze and evaluate” Darwinian concepts like common ancestry and natural selection.
In other states, teachers who cover required NGSS elements may still have freedom to discuss additional evidence. Tennessee, for example, is one of 26 “leading state partners” that helped draft NGSS, and has pledged to consider implementing them. But last year Tennessee adopted an academic freedom law, encouraging teachers to discuss both the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics like climate change and biological evolution.
—Casey Luskin coordinates research at the Discovery Institute
Banned in Nashville
by Leigh Jones
During the 2012-2013 academic year, Vanderbilt administrators told members of the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) at Vanderbilt University that they could not wear T-shirts with “Vanderbilt” on them. GCF gave in and printed shirts simply saying “WE ARE HERE” in large letters across the back, with the group’s logo on the front.
GCF was not alone. Administrators succeeded in making 13 other Christian groups also nonpersons on campus: The organizations couldn’t use Vanderbilt’s name, reserve rooms for on-campus meetings, or attend the annual organization fair where most students learn about the clubs they can join. GCF’s influx of new students was about half that of previous years.
The reason for the administration’s attack on dissident Christians: In January 2012, Vanderbilt adopted a “nondiscrimination” policy that forced all student-led religious groups to accept leaders who might not share the beliefs of the group. Sparked by one group’s decision to remove an openly gay student from elected office, the policy would have governed other aspects of orthodoxy as well. For example, under the policy groups would be powerless to remove a Bible study leader who suddenly decided he no longer believed in scriptural inerrancy.
GCF and the 13 other groups did not sign the policy. School administrators banned them while continuing to say they support religious diversity on campus, and even made one ironic request: Although the Catholic student group refused to sign the policy, school administrators still wanted a Catholic priest to serve as an official campus chaplain. Somewhat reluctantly, John Sims Baker agreed to fill that role, taking an office in the school’s Religious Life building even though his student group no longer exists as far as the school is concerned. Baker vocally opposed Vanderbilt’s discrimination and consistently refuted administrators’ claims they weren’t trying to target religious groups.
About a half dozen evangelical Christian groups, including Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), chose to sign the policy and continue operating under the school’s authority. Whereas GCF allows students to pick their leaders, RUF relies more on the guidance of an ordained campus minister. The policy does allow the school to punish a group like RUF if the campus minister decided to remove a student from a leadership role, but until that happens, RUF plans to continue operating on campus as usual.
Although dissatisfied with a lack of resolution to the situation at Vanderbilt, GCF ministry staff member Tish Warren last year took heart that many universities, even private colleges with the freedom to restrict religious liberty on campus, chose not to: “We weren’t able to change the argument at Vanderbilt—we lost that battle. We hopefully influenced a better conversation [nationally] about religious identity and how that needs to be preserved and not stamped out.”
Both Warren and Greg Jao, national field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, called Tufts University’s decision to allow religious groups to set their own criteria for leadership a harbinger of the approach more schools are taking. InterVarsity’s almost 900 campus groups ran into more challenges from administrators last year than in previous years but managed to resolve most of the incidents, Jao said.
One that wasn’t adequately resolved: At Colby College, a private college in Waterville, Maine, administrators revoked InterVarsity’s official student group status but gave them equal services and access to school facilities and funding under a religious group designation. Jao worries about the larger cultural implications of an approach that contributes to the long-term privatization of religious groups: “The idea is that [those who disagree] can avoid them by just not looking.”