Publicly funded parochial school in Fort Collins, Colorado?

I have not seen the new movie, “Waiting for Superman,” but I have read a handful of articles about it, most notably those I detail in the Appendix, and I strongly suspect that it is a puff piece that blames the teachers for the supposed failure of the American education system and recommends charter schools as a panacea. Speaking of puff pieces and charter schools reminded me that one of our faithful readers directed me to this very amateurish article in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. The article reads like advertising copy for the Liberty Common School, a charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado. As nearly as I can tell, most charter schools are in effect private schools operated with public funds; the Liberty Common School is a private religious school operated with public funds.

I do not want to discuss charter schools in general, but I will discuss Liberty Common’s science policy, which reads like a Compendium of Creationist Canards. Under the heading, Principles for Teaching Science, they write,

Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are limited to those based on observations and experiments that can be reproduced and substantiated by other scientists. Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not a part of science. … [S]cience cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces might play in such events because such hypotheses cannot be tested and are outside the realm of science.

No one teaches anything to the contrary. Why do they bring supernaturalism into a discussion of science anyway?

  • Scientific knowledge is subject to modifications as new information challenges prevailing theories and as a new theory leads to looking at old observations in a new way.

  • Some matters cannot be examined usefully in a scientific way. Among them are matters that by their nature cannot be tested objectively and those that are essentially matters of theology.

Again, pabulum.

  • No matter how well one theory fits observations, a new theory might fit them just as well or better, or might fit a wider range of observations. In science, the testing, revising, and occasional discarding of theories, new and old, never ends. This ongoing process leads to an increasingly better understanding of how things work in the world, but not to absolute truth.

Ah! Now we get down to brass tacks. Though this statement is technically true and was emphatically true before the development of modern science, it seems extremely unlikely that any mature scientific theory will ever be completely overturned. Rather, it will be extended or shown to be accurate only within a range of validity, as Newtonian physics is accurate with low velocities and largish masses. The theory of evolution, in particular, will not be discarded; descent with modification, which is commonly called evolution, is an established fact, and the modern theory of evolution, which is also commonly called evolution, accounts for descent with modification brilliantly.

· Teachers are encouraged to include discussions of alternate scientific theories and the data that supports and contradicts [sic] existing theories. This is consistent with the Poudre School District policy IMB: “Teaching about Controversial/SensitiveIssues.”

What alternate scientific theories? If they mean an alternative to the modern theory of evolution, there is none. “Alternate scientific theories” is code for casting doubt on a well-established theory and opening the door to creationism. No one who reads that paragraph will think otherwise.

· Students should understand the difference between science based on direct observation and/or experimentation, and historical science, which is based on the study of past events. Historical science can be found in the fields of astronomy,geology, evolutionary biology, and archeology, and has led to such theories as the”Big Bang,” tectonic plate theory, and the theory of evolution. Because it is based on past events, historical science generally depends on a higher degree of inference than science based on direct observation and experimentation.

The idea that inferences based on “historical” science are any weaker than inferences based on direct experimentation is particularly insidious. In science, we use logic and evidence, and scientific evidence that is based on past events is as good as any other scientific evidence and just as amenable to logic. In short, an inference is an inference; you can convict someone of murder by videotaping him committing that murder, or you can use a chain of circumstantial inferences (it was his gun, his fingerprints were on it, he had traces of gunpowder on his hands, he left a footprint, he was seen leaving the building at the right time, he had a motive, and so on) to arrive just as firmly at the same conclusion. Similarly, just as no one has ever seen a living dinosaur, no one has ever seen an electron; we infer the existence of dinosaurs and electrons in precisely the same way. Even so, had we never discovered a single fossil, we still would have developed the theory of evolution based on other lines of evidence; evolution is not a historical science.

Under Principles for Teaching Evolution, they continue

· A clear and accurate description of terminology will be taught. The term”evolution” has become highly politicized and often misused to include a very broad spectrum of processes; [sic] from genetic mutation to gradual change over time to the origin of the human species. It is essential to distinguish between manifestations of evolution which can be directly observed and reproduced in the laboratory (microevolution of prokaryotic cells) and those which cannot be experimentally reproduced and involve a higher level of inference and historical science (macroevolution, origin of species[,] etc.).

See above, under “historical science.” The claim that microevolution is somehow real but macroevolution cannot happen is not supported by any scientific investigation. To the contrary, there is no clear demarcation between microevolution and macroevolution, and macroevolution is usually little more than a long sequence of microevolutions.

· In this context it is important to note that many biology textbooks present all aspects of evolution—from microevolution to macroevolution—as being equally supported by experimental and empirical evidence. Liberty will strive to accurately present the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory and seek textbooks which present a more scientific and unbiased analysis of evolution.

Again, a creationist canard. Microevolution and macroevolution, to the extent that the distinction is meaningful, are equally well supported by lines of inference from taxonomy, genetics, the fossil record, biogeography, and more. It is inexcusable to claim that textbooks written by experts in their fields present unscientific and biased analyses of evolution.

· Discussions of evolutionary theory can lead to discussions of whether or not supernatural forces play a role in the mechanism of evolution or the origin of life. These topics extend beyond the scope of science and will not be taught at Liberty Common School.

I am gratified to read that last sentence.

For comparison, I checked out another charter school, the Peak-To-Peak Charter School in Boulder. I could not find a science policy, but I found this no-nonsense description of an advanced-placement biology course:

Science 90: Advanced Placement Biology: 10 credits. Weighted. Prerequisites: Science 20 or 25 and Science 30 or 35 and departmental approval. This is a full-year course in general biology as commonly offered to college freshmen. The course prepares students to take the AP Biology exam in the spring. Students will explore molecules, cells, heredity, evolution, organisms, and populations. The themes of science as a process, energy transfer, continuity and change, relationship of structure to function, regulation, interdependence in nature, and science, technology, & society are woven throughout the course. The course places a heavy emphasis on laboratory investigations, with 12 required labs designed specifically for AP Biology. Students in this course are expected to take the AP Biology exam.

Not a word about supernaturalism, teaching the controversy, macroevolution, alternate scientific theories. Why not? Because not one of those topics is relevant to teaching biology in a public school. Why then does Liberty Common have an explicit science policy, and why does it single out biology almost exclusively? I can’t read their minds, but I can suggest two possible reasons: First, to send a coded message to parents who want creationism taught to their children. Second, to cover their collective flanks, so that when they are challenged they can say that they told the school district all along what they intended to do and they were permitted to do so.

Acknowledgments. Jason Wiles, Kim Johnson, Richard Hoppe, and Paul Gross read and commented on this article, but I alone am responsible for any errors or omissions.

Appendix. I do not want to review a movie I have never seen, but I recommend these articles about “Waiting for Superman”: Dana Goldstein in The Nation, Rick Ayers in the Huffington Post , Gail Collins in the New York Times, and Brent Staples in the New York Times. It is a bit off task (after all, what is an Appendix for?), but I would like to allow Gail Collins the last word:

But plot-wise, the movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.”

In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” …

Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions. The movie’s heroes are people like the union-fighting District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, the chief of the much-praised, union-free Harlem Children’s Zone.

“I want to be able to get rid of teachers that we know aren’t able to teach kids,” says Canada.

That’s unarguable, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers. But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back. Finland, which is currently cleaning our clock in education scores, has teachers who are almost totally unionized. The states with the best student performance on standardized tests tend to be the ones with the strongest teachers’ unions.