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(Last in a series of six. Start here.)

appledartsI wanted to blog the process of confronting non-science in the science classroom in part to lay out a few basic principles for parents to consider. Situations vary, so principles are better than a script.

My particular situation took place in a top-ranked high school in a top-ranked district with a (mostly and so far) sane and competent school board that is in the U.S. South (Georgia) but not really (Atlanta).

Thanks to a recent surge in business transplants, the area is surprisingly diverse, including an impressive worldview mix. School administrators here tend to be smart and responsive. The Fordham survey puts the relatively new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) for science in the top tier nationally. The teacher’s excursion into ID was somewhat subtle, though his anti-evolution rant was anything but. By the time we began our exchange, my son was no longer in his class.

Some of these mattered more than others. If I had less reason to trust the good sense of our school and district administrators, for example, I might have wielded the double-edged saber of GPS and Kitzmiller more strongly from the start. And if I had reason to believe serious incursions of religion into the science curriculum were a more endemic issue in this district — as it is, I have reason to believe otherwise — I might have used this opportunity to build a further-reaching case.

Instead, I tried to apply just enough pressure to wake the principal to a possible liability time bomb in his midst, to let that time bomb know that the clippers are now poised over his red wire, and to get myself connected to existing efforts to keep good science in our classrooms.

I know some of you wanted to see Mr. Taylor’s head on a pike at the gates of Down House, but I’d suggest it’s the wrong goal. Among other things, that creates an irresistible victim narrative for ID folks to rally around and distracts from the issue of keeping good science in the classroom and non-science out.

So some principles, IMO, for approaching this kind of situation:

  • Check with your child before taking any action that might impact him or her;
  • Keep the right goal in mind: good science in the classroom;
  • Do your homework (NCSE, Kitzmiller, district policy, state standards);
  • Assume the best for as long as possible;
  • Approach the teacher first — in person if possible (one of the changes I would have made);
  • Make sure your tone doesn’t become the issue;
  • Focus on a single question if possible;
  • Move up the ladder by step if necessary;
  • Approach administrators as allies (and remind them why);
  • Recognize that not all good resolutions are clear-cut.
  • Even without the severed head, and even if I never get my hands on those damn overheads, I think the results in this case have been plenty gratifying:

    1. A science teacher who thought he could undercut good science standards without consequence has learned otherwise;

    2. A high school administrator with plenty of incentive to do the right thing now has a weather eye on one of his teachers, as well as a heightened awareness of the issue and a positive relationship with a parent science advocate;

    3. I learned that my son is capable of recognizing bad science when he hears it;

    4. I discovered and applied to join a citizen’s coalition dedicated to integrity in science education in our state;

    5. I learned that Georgia’s science standards are unusually strong and clear, and that they include explicit, repeated references to evolution by natural selection at all three school levels;

    6. I stumbled on the wonderful story of Pat New, a middle school science teacher in Georgia who courageously resisted pressure from her community, colleagues, and administrators for 14 years to drop the teaching of evolution, choosing instead to weave it into every unit and topic in her course, and how much easier the new state standards of 2004 made things for her;

    7. I fell in love all over again with the Kitzmiller decision, which has given both parents and educators the strongest foundation ever on which to stand when fending off non-science in the classroom;

    8. I was reminded that the judge in Kitzmiller was a Lutheran Republican, which nicely blurs the bright line we too often draw;

    9. I re-connected with brilliant resources like Panda’s Thumb and the National Center for Science Education;

    10. I took the opportunity to model an approach to parent-teacher conflict that has seldom been articulated.*

    In talking to hundreds of secular parents over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of the intrusion of a particular religious view into the public school classroom. Parents are often stopped cold at the thought of speaking up — worried about the repercussions for their kids, worried about the response of their neighbors, unwilling to get into a public shouting match or even a legal challenge.

    In some situations, a public row is exactly what’s needed. If a few courageous parents in Dover, Pennsylvania weren’t willing to go to the mat, I wouldn’t now have the privilege of speaking softly while carrying the big Kitzmillian stick. If I ever find myself in their shoes, out on the bleeding edge instead of back here reaping the rewards of their courage, I hope I’d rise to the occasion.

    But I wanted to blog this Taylor situation to demonstrate to those parents who are hesitant to speak up that it’s often possible to do so in a way that is both low-key and effective, that yields positive results for the long term, and that moves us closer to the day when we can simply expect science, and nothing but science, in our science classrooms.

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    *One excellent example: Stu Tanquist’s essay “Choosing Your Battles” in Parenting Beyond Belief.

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    Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.