Most of the time, we don’t think of Alabama as a state at the forefront of STEM education. Education Week gave Alabama’s public education system a D+ rating for 2015, ranking it 45th out of 50 states, and Alabama’s eighth graders were dead last in the country in math in 2013.
Facing a poor history of student achievement and a pessimistic prognosis for improvement, Alabama surprised everyone by doing the logical thing.
For the past three years, the Alabama State Board of Education has been working to revamp the state’s science education standards to bring them out of the Bible and into reality. On September 10, the Board voted unanimously in favor of a new curriculum that embraces evolution, discusses climate change, and encourages hands-on exploration.
Alabama’s top teachers are elated about the change. A science teacher at one of Alabama’s best public schools told NPR’s All Things Considered,
“You might not accept it, but that doesn’t change the fact,” says science teacher Ryan Reardon, who isn’t a fan of the old standards. “Talking about evolution in a classroom is controversial, but there is no controversy about how all the organisms on the planet are related to each other.”
Alabama’s educators are well aware that some parents will be outraged, and the new curriculum leaves teachers wiggle room on hot-button topics. For example, it requires teachers to cover climate change but does not insist that they recognize humans as the primary cause of rising global temperatures. The Preface to the Course of Study document ends with an acknowledgement of “the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.” But the seventh-grade content standards include several activities designed to prove to students that evolution makes sense:
16. Construct an explanation based on evidence (e.g., cladogram, phylogenetic tree) for the anatomical similarities and differences among modern organisms and between modern and fossil organisms, including living fossils (e.g., alligator, horseshoe crab, nautilus, coelacanth).
17. Obtain and evaluate pictorial data to compare patterns in the embryological development across multiple species to identify relationships not evident in the adult anatomy.
18. Construct an explanation from evidence that natural selection acting over generations may lead to the predominance of certain traits that support successful survival and reproduction of a population and to the suppression of other traits.
These content standards require students to use critical thinking to come to their own conclusions — skills that they’ll need throughout their lives, whether or not their parents like it. The Course of Study constantly draws attention to how many jobs require science literacy. Even if Alabamans don’t accept evolution or climate change, they need to understand those principles if they want to make a living.
Even so, it will take more than a Board of Education vote to change individuals’ minds or shake off a statewide reputation for ignorance. I’m counting the minutes until a teacher somewhere in the state grabs headlines for refusing to comply with the new standards. But in the meantime, Alabama’s seventh graders will be having too much fun making posters about alligators to care about the political dispute.
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