It’s true that a lot of Americans don’t have a very good grasp of science. Only about half of Americans believe that human beings evolved over time, fewer parents are vaccinating their children, and while most people accept that climate change is happening, they don’t think it will affect their lives.
But are public schools to blame for this?
That’s what astrophysicist and “Cosmos” star Neil deGrasse Tyson seemed to say when he recently tweeted, “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.”
Tyson also told an interviewer for the Huffington Post, “I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world.”
Tyson was likely reacting to news stories about the dramatic growth in the flat Earth movement. Yes, there really are people who believe the Earth is flat. Among them, in fact, is NBA star Kyrie Irving who says, “The Earth is flat,” and any evidence of its alleged roundness “is a lie.”
But the hallmark of any good scientist, which Tyson certainly is, is to create a hypothesis and then weigh the evidence. So what’s the evidence that public schools are the main cause of science ignorance?
School Bashing, A Time-Honored Tradition
First, bashing public schools for America’s perceived disadvantages in science education is practically a time-honored tradition.
In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite, the Eisenhower-era political establishment, fearing the nation was losing the “space race,” pointed a blaming finger at American schools.
Driven by paranoia that Communists were spying on us, “the nation responded to the security threat by targeting education” as the reason why the nation was falling behind, noted a Harvard review on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.
“The schools never recovered from Sputnik,” the late Gerald Bracy wrote in 2007. “Sputnik wounded their reputation and, as the scab formed, something else always came along to reopen the lesion.”
The scab would reopen again during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
In the early 1980s, Bracey recalled in a 2003 article, the danger was not “the Red Menace” but the competitive threat posed to the nation’s economy by German, Japanese, and Korean manufacturing.
A new report commissioned by the Reagan administration, called “A Nation at Risk,” blamed public schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity” that was allegedly crippling the nation’s ability to compete with the new industrial titans of the world. Using that report, Reagan helped launch a campaign for “greater accountability” from public schools that would stretch into the current century.
Battling False News
Today, when public schools and science teachers aren’t contending with the continued bashing by lawmakers and policy leaders, they have to address an around-the-clock onslaught of propaganda and “false news” which their still highly-impressionable students encounter every day.
As NPR reports, “Kids come in with all sorts of questions about things they’ve read online or heard elsewhere,” and teachers have more false information they have to dispel.
Conservative think tanks know this, the NPR reporter notes, and are carpet bombing schools with glossy information packets designed to provide teachers with convenient – albeit false – answers to students’ myriad questions about climate change and other scientific subjects.
Media celebrities frequently ply students with erroneous “facts” about the world. Among those celebrities is Kyrie Irving with his flat-Earth theory.
The NPR reporter quotes a science teacher whose middle-schoolers believe the Earth is flat because Irving told them so. “As hard as they try,” the article notes, “science teachers aren’t likely to change a student’s misconceptions just by correcting them.”
Against this background of the near-constant criticism and undermining of science learning that schools have to contend with, in steps Tyson with his charge of educational malfeasance.
His charge hardly seems fair.
The Vanishing Curriculum
First, Irving didn’t get his high school and college education in public schools. He went to private high schools Montclair Kimberley Academy and The Patrick School, both in New Jersey, and spent a year at Duke University, also a private institution. His beliefs about the world certainly aren’t a direct product of public schools.
Similarly, neither President Trump nor his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos got their educations in public schools.
Second, what Tyson and other critics of public schools don’t take into account is the challenging context science teachers have to contend with.
As a report from the National Education Association explains, fiscal austerity and policy decisions have been shrinking school curriculum.
NEA explains, “Critical subjects have been crowded out of schools or even eliminated entirely by the lethal one-two punch of deep budget cuts and the singular focus on improving reading and math,” which are the two subjects currently tested under federal government mandates.
The “obsession” with testing math and reading performance, the NEA contends, “has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science.”
NEA points to a 2011 national survey, which found 27 percent of teachers noticed science was being crowded out of their schools’ curriculum due to the over-emphasis on state tests in math and reading.
Recent calls for more education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) may rescue science from the vanishing curriculum. But there’s a new threat.
As NPR reports, a new state law just passed in Florida “allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable.”
Among the subjects that proponents of the new law intend to address is the teaching of “Darwinism” in public school science textbooks.
“Under the law, school districts will still have the final say,” NPR reports. “Even so, some worry the law will have a chilling effect” on what public schools are able to teach without fear of controversy and objections from local critics.
South Dakota is considering a similar bill.
This is not to say there aren’t problems with science teaching in public schools.
A recent study finds that over two-thirds new teachers who want to teach science are routed into teaching other subjects.
Further, not all science teachers accept scientific conclusions about the world. For instance, there are estimates that nearly one in eight high school biology teachers believe Earth and the human species did not evolve over time.
But this does not necessarily mean these teachers are brainwashing students with creationist beliefs. Good teachers demonstrate all the time that they can present objective information about a subject while not letting that subject matter challenge their own belief systems.
Finally, if Tyson believes science ignorance is more-so a problem of system design rather than the people in it, then fair enough. But he should be aware that, historically, criticism of public schools is turned into negative attitudes against the people in them.
If Tyson wants to blame science ignorance on someone, he should aim higher.