Scientifically Wrong, But Politically Correct

Science textbooks are riddled with junk science, but they're always politically correct, writes Pamela Winnick in the Weekly Standard.

Thus, a chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth — not by the return of the crows.

... Affirmative action for women and minorities is similarly pervasive in science textbooks, to absurd effect. Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse. In the same series, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, is shown next to black scientist Lewis Latimer, who improved the light bulb by adding a carbon filament. Edison's picture is smaller.

Middle-school science textbooks are riddled with errors, a Packard Foundation Study found.

British students will study "science lite" under the new national curriculum. The Telegraph reports:

The science that all pupils study from the age of 14 is to focus more on "lifestyles," general knowledge and opinion and less on chemistry, biology and physics, says the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

... Instead of learning science, pupils will "learn about the way science and scientists work within society."

They will "develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others' decisions about lifestyles," the QCA said.

In addition, they will be taught that "there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address." Especially, if nobody actually knows science.

Who Needs Math?

Some parents and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist flubbed the algebra and chemistry questions on California's STAR exam. I don't think it means much that people who haven't used chemistry for several decades don't know the material any more. Thanks to my tutoring of ninth-graders, I could do all the algebra questions; I didn't try chemistry, which I took in 1966-67. I question C.W. Nevius' assertion that teaching to the test requires ignoring concepts. He writes:

Instead of critical thinkers, the ideal STAR test students would be multiple-choice experts who have memorized catch phrases and equations.

Finally, many of the questions in the math and science sections are incredibly obscure. Unless you are a mathematician or scientist, why would you need to know that information later in life?

So should we stop teaching algebra, geometry, trig, chemistry and physics to all but future mathematicians and scientists? That would require teenagers to decide what fields — business, medicine, engineering, etc. — they want closed to them forever. We can't all be newspaper columnists. (And it would be nice if Nevius had the mathematical sophistication to understand the basic concept of "adequate yearly progress." It's not a fixed number.)

Here are links to California standards for various subjects — students must do more than memorize formulas — and sample questions .

In a Stanford Magazine feature, Jo Boaler, an education professor, says students taught with reform techniques outperformed students in traditional classrooms.

Although students at the urban school were the weakest in math when they entered high school, within two years they were scoring better than their counterparts at the traditional-approach schools on tests designed by the study, and performing well on district exams. However, they did poorly on state standardized tests. Boaler says that’s largely because the state exams test language comprehension in addition to mathematical competency. Some students, she relates, emerged from the standardized exams saying things like, “What’s a soufflé?”

The fact that students excel on the researcher’s tests but do poorly on the state exams seems suspicious to me. If students understand math so well, why can't they do it?

More than 40 percent of the reform students took calculus, compared to 27 percent of traditional students, the story says. That’s impressive. I wonder how many were able to pass the AP calculus exam.

For another point of view, read Ten Myths About Mathematics Education, an analysis by New York City HOLD (Hold Open Logical Debate), which argues that most students do better in traditional math classes.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

Respond to the Writer