Freshwater Day 9: An Expert Witness and Two Teachers

Previous posts on the hearings: Days 1 & 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, and Day 8. Other relevant posts can be found by searching The Thumb on “Freshwater”.

On Day 9 we had testimony from Joseph E. Faber, a biology professor and former Ohio Department of Education science consultant; William Oxenford, long-time middle school science teacher and one-time Academic Achievement Coach for middle school science; and Charles Adkins, middle school science teacher and former ODE employee.

Day 10 saw testimony by Patricia Princehouse, a Lecturer in evolutionary biology and the history and philosophy of biology at Case Western Reserve University and a leader of the effort to prevent intelligent design creationism from being included in the Ohio State Science Standards for public schools. That summary will go up in a day or two.

More below the fold.

Joseph E. Faber

Joe Faber is an evolutionary biologist, Assistant Professor of Biology at Ohio University’s branch campus in Lancaster, and was an employee of the Ohio Department of Education and later a consultant to ODE while the development of the new Academic Content Standards were being developed in the 2002-2004 period. Faber was involved in the development of a model curriculum aligned with the new standards, benchmarks, and indicators in those standards.

Under direct examination by David Millstone, the Board of Education’s attorney, Faber testified at length about the development and structure of the state science standards. Basically, there are three levels of analysis, standards, benchmarks, and indicators. Briefly, Standards are overall goals, Benchmarks are more grade oriented, and Indicators are specific skills/knowledge associated with specific benchmarks.

Faber testified that there are no standards, benchmarks, or indicators for chemistry in the 8th grade science standards (recall that Freshwater had his students memorize the periodic table). Faber testified that there was no good pedagogical reason to memorize the periodic table and that memorizaing it did not contribute to understanding. He testified that there are no 8th grade standards, benchmarks, or indicators associated with rgw origin of the earth or Big Bang cosmology. There are standards, benchmarks and indicators associated with evolution, though, in particular the development of the diversity of species over generations and an explanation of extinction.

Faber testifed that there are no standards, benchmarks, or indicators associated with creationism, intelligent design, or with debates between creationism and evolution. With respect to an indicator under “Ethical Practices” that says “2. Explain why it is important to examine data objectively and not let bias affect observations,” Faber explained that the use of “bias” there applied to how observations are made and the importance of replication of observations, and that a debate between creationism and evolution doesn’t address that indicator.

Faber had reviewed the “Watchmaker” video that previous testimony (see here and here) has established was shown in Freshwater’s science class. He testified that the video does not meet any science standard.

Faber was asked about hydrosphere ‘theory’ and testified that it is not a scientific theory – there are no data to support it and there are no tests of it. He testified that it was not consistent with any standard at any grade level.

Asked how a scientific theory comes to be accepted, Faber identified the generation of predictions, testability, and that it relies on observations of natural phenomena. As it passes continued testing without being failing those tests a theory acquires more and more acceptance, though always being open to revision or abandonment if future tests require it.

Asked whether creationist claims (for example, on AIG) that coal was formed in the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption, Faber testified that was false; that a precursor to coal (peat) was formed, but not coal. He testified that the claim was not consistent with any science standard, benchmark, or indicator.

Asked about the film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Faber testified that he had not seen it, but from viewing the trailer and reading reviews of it, he did not believe it was consistent with any science standard, benchmark, or indicator.

Faber had reviewed a handout allegedly used by Freshwater titled “Darwin’s Theory: The Promise and the Problem” (which I have not yet read), Faber testified that it was not consistent with any science standard, benchmark, or indicator.

Asked about Jonathan Wells’ article Survival of the Fakest, Faber testified that it was not consistent with any science standard, benchmark, or indicator.

To summary questions on direct examination Faber testified that (1) the Watchmaker video was inconsistent with the science standards, benchmarks, and indicators (S/B/I); (2) presenting hydrosphere theory is inconsistent with S/B/I; and (3) assigning Answers in Genesis as a resource is not consistent with S/B/I.

Faber cross examination

On cross examination, R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, asked whether Faber had ever been in an 8th grade science classroom. He had done so for two months as a student teacher. Asked about the dynamics of 8th grade classes, Faber said they could sometimes be chaotic and an exercise in crowd control. (An 8th grade teacher, Mr. Adkins, was asked in his testimony – summarized below – if he agreed that an 8th grade classroom was characterized by chaos and crowd control. Adkins replied “Not my classroom!” Good laugh from the gallery on that.)

Faber testified that 8th grade students are a mix, with some thinking only concretely while others are capable of more abstract thought. He was apparently using those terms in their Piagetian meaning.

Asked whether the S/B/I represented minimums, Faber replied that they were not; that the developers were encouraged by ODE to regard them as expectations, rather than minima. The same was true of the model curriculum: the contents are models, not minima.

In response to a series of questions Faber testified that he wasn’t aware whether there was specific training for teachers on using the S/B/I, that the S/B/I does not contain explicit instructions in their use, and that teachers are not prohibited from teaching “beyond” the S/G/I and model curriculum. Faber also testified that memorization was not favored as a pedagogical technique by ODE. Hamilton asked if memorization serves a purpose. He replied that it can help pass a test but does not serve long-term memory well since it doesn’t involve understanding.

Asked what the definition of evolution is, Faber identified the original – descent with modification – and the more recent population genetics based definition, change in allele frequencies over time. Asked if that represented a disagreement in biology, Faber replied that they were two ways of saying the same basic thing.

Asked for a definition of creationism, Faber replied it is a faith-based explanation of biological diversity. Asked about intelligent design, Faber replied that it is the belief that a designer is responsible for bio-diversity. Asked if ID requires a deity or a god, Faber replied that it relies on a creator. Asked if ID requires a belief in the Judeo-Christian god, Faber replied that he didn’t know, that he is not an expert on ID. Asked if one has to have a belief in a god in order to be an intelligent design theorist, Faber replied that there was a strong connection.

Hamilton asked how Einstein changed Newtonian physics. Faber replied he doesn’t have a deep understanding of physics.

Hamilton asked whether “Darwinianism” (sic) distorts the evidence. Faber replied that it did not.

Hamilton asked how biology explains the origin of life. Faber replied that it involves the assembly of self-replicating molecules. Hamilton asksed if we can get to the beginning of life through the theory of evolution. Faber replied (clumsily, in my view) with an involved answer about atoms and molecules and lipids leading to replicators.

Hamilton asked if it is reasonable to talk about the Big Bang. Faber replied that it was consistent with the S/B/I. (Parenthetically, the first occurrence of “Big Bang” in the S/B/I is in the Grade 9 Earth and Space Sciences Indicators.)

Hamilton asked how old the earth is. Faber replied approximately 4.6 billion years. Hamilton asked if that was an estimate. Faber agreed.

Referring to an evaluation (apparently of Freshwater), Hamilton read a definition of “hypothesis” as “educated guess.” Faber agreed that was OK. From the same document Hamilton read that a theory is an established fact. Faber disagreed.

Faber agreed that acknowledging one’s biases can lead to the potential for rational discussion.

Hamilton spent some time pressing Faber on his opinion about “Expelled” given that he hadn’t actually seen the film.

Hamilton asked whether someone with lesser academic credentials than Faber would have the same level of understanding of hydrosphere theory. Faber replied “Yes.”

Finally, Hamilton asked if Faber would be surprised to learn that Freshwater’s 8th grade science class had a higher average score on the Ohio Achievement Test than the other 8th grade classes. Faber replied that he wouldn’t be very surprised.


The question about the performance of Freshwater’s students on the OAT requires comment. The claim is that on average Freshwater’s students scored higher in science on the Ohio Achievement Test than the averages of the other 8th grade classes. The implication being offered, usually unspoken but clear from the context, is that he is therefore a better science teacher than his colleagues.

There are two problems with that. First, the 8th grade OAT covers 6th, 7th, and 8th grade materials, not just 8th grade. Further, the test is given in the spring, in April, after about 7 months in Freshwater’s classroom and 18 months in other teachers’ classrooms. So in effect, Freshwater is being given credit for performance in which his teaching accounts for only about 28% of those kids’ time in middle school classrooms.

Second, assignment of students to 8th grade science classes is not random. Freshwater has slightly more IEP – special needs – students than the other 8th grade classes. In classes which have more IEP students the Mt. Vernon schools at least used to make an effort to also assign academically better performing students than average, so the special needs kids have good academic models and not the average run of kids. (I’m married to a woman who has been a special ed teacher in the Mt. Vernon schools for over 30 years.) If that’s still the practice, then Freshwater’s class had disproportionately more good-performing ‘normal’ students. Further, special needs students often get extra time to complete the OAT, potentially raising their scores.

Further, we have no information on the variance of the mean scores across classes, and therefore don’t know whether the few percentage points difference is ‘real’ or merely random variation due to sampling error.

The end result is that the fact that students in Freshwater’s class scored a few percentage points higher than the average of other classes tells us precisely nothing about how well he taught the science.

William Oxenford

Bill Oxenford is a long-time (> 30 years) science teacher in the middle school currently teaching 7th grade science. He has been science department chairman, an Academic Achievement Coach (AAC), and a Technology Leader for the middle school. AACs are charged with developing strategies with teachers to improve student performance on the Ohio Achievement tests.

Oxenford testified that 8th grade students as a whole did not perform satisfactorily on the science OAT in 2007-2008, where “satisfactorily” means scoring 70% or better. Freshwater’s students, he said, did on average perform over 70% (see my remarks above). Oxenford said that he was not surprosed by that, since efforts were made to improve students’ performance.

He was asked how students he had taught in 7th grade performed on the 8th grade OAT, but he said he hadn’t done an analysis of that and the scores weren’t broken out that way.

Oxenford testified that on instructions from Bill White, middle school Principal, to gather the Tesla coils in the science department shortly after the reported burning incident, he originally believed the two in White’s office at that time were all there were. Some time thereafter Elle Button, who knew where they were kept in a storage room, brought two or three more to him. When he some time later asked Freshwater if there was another one, Oxenford testified that Freshwater told him that it was destroyed and that was all he could say.

Oxenford used to use a Tesla coil to demonstrated light emission by ionized gases. He testified that after such demonstrations, students were eager to see how it felt, so he would hold it turned on and students were permitted to bring their fingertip near it to draw an arc. He said he ceased allowing that as concern about implanted medical devices became more apparent and when publicity surrounding the use of Tasers became widespread. In cross examination he testified that he did not share his reservations with other middle school science teachers.

Oxenford demonstrated how the Tesla coil would ignite paper with just a few seconds of exposure. During the demonstration he inadvertently shocked himself. Later, in cross examination, Hamilton pressed Oxenford on the safety precautions he hadn’t taken in the demonstration, pointing out that he hadn’t inquired about spectators with implanted devices or noted a pregnant lawyer sitting at a nearby table.

Oxenford testifed that the science department had monthly meeting at which they discussed and shared teaching strategies, techniques, and concerns, among more mundane topics. Asked whether they had training on using the new Academic Content Standards, he replied that there was in-service training on them.

He told the hearing that the National Science Teachers Association sent an email to him about the impending release of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” warning that it was part of a movement to organize students around an effort to bring intelligent design into the schools. Because he know Freshwater was interested in that topic, he asked if Freshwater could handle questions about it he (Oxenford) couldn’t answer. At a subsequent science department meeting Freshwater showed the trailer from Expelled. After that meeting Freshwater told Oxenford that he intended to try to get Expelled shown at the Mt. Vernon theater. Oxenford testifed that Freshwater referred to Answers in Genesis once during a science department meeting around the time of “Expelled” but couldn’t remember the context.

Oxenford Cross Examination

As noted above, Hamilton first pressed Oxenford on the lack of safety precautions associated with his demonstration.

Referring to its classroom use, Oxenford asked if any administrator was aware of it. Oxenford thought not. Oxenford testifiefd that he had last allowed a student to be shocked by the device roughly 10 or 12 years ago, and that he has never seen an injury due to its use. Showed the pictures of the alleged injury, Oxenford said he wasn’t surprised at it, since the potential for injury depended on the length of exposure.

Oxenford testifed that he had never had any concerns about Freshwater’s teaching and never heard of concerns from others. He said that no other teacher he knows of teaches beyond the standards.

Asked whether he had ever heard of “doubling up” in science and history classes, Oxenford replied he had not. (I have no idea where that question came from.)

Oxenford redirect and recross

In redirect Oxenford was asked what part of students’ bodies he permitted them to bring near a live Tesla coil. Their fingertips, he replied, where there are more nerve endings. Oxenford emphasized that students had full control over the length of the exposure. He never touched a student’s arm with it, and never made passes over students’ skin with it.

On recross Oxenford testified he’d never had any training on what part of a body one should or shouldn’t touch with it.

Charles Adkins Testimony

Charles Adkins is an 8th grade science teacher in the middle school, a former Assistant Director of Science Instruction K-12 at the Ohio Department of Education, and a consultant on the development of the state science model curriculum.

At the request of former Superintendent Jeff Maley and Linda Weston, Director of Teaching and Learning, Adkins and Richard Cunningham, chair of the high school science department, reviewed the handout titled “Darwin’s Theory: The Promise and the Problem” that Freshwater allegedly used in his class. Adkins testified that Cunningham and he elected to do their reviews independently and then compare findings.

He testified that the handout appeared to be sourced from creationist sites, and in particular from sites linked to

Asked about its appropriateness for 8th grade science, Adkins testified that

(1) it was very slanted/biased in its presentation - it seemed designed to discredit and plant doubt in readers’ minds that Darwin’s theory of evolution could be possible;

(2) it didn’t seem to stand alone – there were indications in its text that it was to serve as a viewing guide for a video or something similar;

(3) it referred to “we” and “us” but there was no indication who that was; and

(4) its source seemed to be a Christian creationist site. Using software licensed to the school to detect student plagiarism, Cunningham found a 100% similarity score with material on a site called All About Science. Adkins testified that site’s domain name is linked to the All About God site via the contact information on its About Us link, the contact info being in Colorado Springs.

Adkins testified that he and Cunningham concluded that the handout was not suitable for 8th grade science based on the reasons sketched above, and reported that to Weston and Maley in a memo describing their reasons.

Adkins and Cunningham were included in a meeting with Freshwater along with others – possibly one or more administrators, though that wasn’t clear – about the handout. At that meeting the original complaint from Paul Souhrada, an editor of the Columbus Dispatch and the parent of a student in Freshwater’s class in .

Adkins testified that Freshwater was given the opportunity to justify his use of it, and though Adkins didn’t recall Freshwater’s explanation, he (Freshwater) thought it was appropriate. Adkins testified that he deemed Freshwater’s explanation to be inadequate justification for using it. Adkins was not aware what action, if any, was taken about the matter by the administration.

Asked whether he had ever used a Tesla coil on a student Adkins replied he had not.

Millstone asked Adkins if it was appropriate to teach outside the standards. Adkins replied that it would be appropriate only if the teacher(s) had consulted with those teaching in subsequent grades so the coverage and approaches were consistent. Adkins testified that chemistry was not in the 8th grade standards, and that he knew of no agreement with high school science teachers that it be taught in 8th grade.

Asked if creationism or intelligent design were part of the 8th grade standards Adkins said they were not.

Adkins cross examination

Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, asked Adkins if he had seen a document from Freshwater (which I haven’t seen) in which Freshwater denied going to the “All About Science” site, and which asserted that a search performed by someone whose name I didn’t get couldn’t find evidence on Freshwater’s classroom computer that he had done so. Adkins had not seen that.

In that same document Freshwater apparently provided what he considered to be ties between the “Darwin’s Theory” handout and the state standards. In Redirect Examination Adkins briefly reviewed that document and testified it was not an adequate justification for using the handout. Adkins agreed there was no source or citation given in the handout.

Asked if it is permitted to teach beyond the standards, Adkins agreed it was provided the appropriate professional discussions and negotiations about content and approach with colleagues were done and they have agreement from the teachers in higher grades. Adkins testifed that he reviews 6th and 7th grade material in his 8th grade class in preparation for the OAT.

Asked if he uses materials not in the text, Adkins said that he did. Asked about an approval process for those materials, Adkins said he wasn’t aware of such a process. HE said teachers have the professional freedom to choose appropriate mateirals and resources.

Adkins is currently teaching in Freshwater’s old room. Asked about materials left in the room by Freshwater, Adkins testified that a number of the cabinets had material in them. He declined a request from the administration in August 2008 to pack up the personal material left by Freshwater on the ground that he didn’t want to make the decision of what was personal and what was school property. When he later went to the room the material was packed up in boxes and was later removed from the room.

Adkins Redirect and Recross

Millstone gave Adkins the document prepared by Freshwater to justify his use of the handout. On brief review, Adkins testified that it did not change his opinion of the inappropriateness of the handout.

In Recross Hamilton noted that it took less than a minute for Adkins to reach that conclusion. Adkins agreed.

Thus endeth the 9th Day. See also the Mt. Vernon News story and the Columbus Dispatch story.

I’ll get the 10th day summary up tomorrow or Monday – I actually do have a real life here somewhere.