Why A New Generation of Teachers is Angry at Self-Styled Education ‘Reformers’

This is an excellent essay at Medium that I learned about from Peter Greene of Curmudgucation. I copy and paste it in its entirety in case you don’t like signing into Medium.

Why New Educators Resent “Reformers”

Let’s consider why so many young educators today are in open rebellion.

How did we lose patience with politicians and policymakers who dominated nearly every education reform debate for more than a generation?

Recall first that both political parties called us “a nation at risk,” fretted endlessly that we “leave no child behind,” and required us to compete in their “race to the top.”

They told us our problems could be solved if we “teach for America,” introduce “disruptive technology,” and ditch the textbook to become “real world,” 21st century, “college and career ready.”

They condemned community public schools for not letting parents “choose,” but promptly mandated a top-down “common core” curriculum. They flooded us with standardized tests guaranteeing “accountability.” They fetishized choice, chopped up high schools, and re-stigmatized racial integration.

They blamed students who lacked “grit,” teachers who sought tenure, and parents who knew too much. They declared school funding isn’t the problem, an elected school board is an obstacle, and philanthropists know best.

They told us the same public schools that once inspired great poetry, art, and music, put us on the moon, and initiated several civil rights movements needed to be split, gutted, or shuttered.

They invented new school names like “Green Renaissance College-Prep Academy for Character, the Arts, and Scientific Careers” and “Hope-Horizon Enterprise Charter Preparatory School for New STEM Futures.” They replaced the district superintendent with the “Chief Educational Officer.”

They published self-fulfilling prophecies connecting zip-coded school ratings, teacher performance scores, and real estate values. They viewed Brown v. Board as skin-deep and sentimental, instead of an essential mandate for democracy.

They implied “critical thinking” was possible without the Humanities, that STEM alone makes us vocationally relevant, and that “coding” should replace recess time. They cut teacher pay, lowered employment qualifications, and peddled the myth anyone can teach.

They celebrated school recycling programs that left consumption unquestioned, gave lip-service to “student-centered civic engagement” while stifling protest, and talked up “multiple intelligences” while defunding the arts.

They instructed critics to look past poverty, inequality, residential segregation, mass incarceration, homelessness, and college debt to focus on a few heartwarming (and yes, legitimate) stories of student resilience and pluck.

They expected us to believe that a lazy public-school teacher whose students fail to make “adequate yearly progress” was endemic but that an administrator bilking an online academy or for-profit charter school was “one bad apple.”

They designed education conferences on “data-driven instruction,” “rigorous assessment,” and “differentiated learning” but showed little patience for studies that correlate student performance with poverty, trauma, a school-to-prison pipeline, and the decimation of community schools.

They promised new classroom technology to bridge the “digital divide” between rich, poor, urban, and rural, while consolidating corporate headquarters in a few elite cities. They advertised now-debunked “value-added” standardized testing for stockholder gain as teacher salaries stagnated.

They preached “cooperative learning” while sending their own kids to private schools. They saw alma mater endowments balloon while donating little to the places most Americans earn degrees. They published op-eds to end affirmative action but still checked the legacy box on college applications.

They were legitimately surprised when thousands of teachers in the reddest, least unionized states walked out of class last year.


The No Child Left Behind generation continues to bear the fullest weight of this malpractice, paying a steep price for today’s parallel rise in ignorance and intolerance.

We are the children of the education reformer’s empty promises. We watched the few decide for the many how schools should operate. We saw celebrated new technologies outpace civic capacity and moral imagination. We have reason to doubt.

We are are the inheritors of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We have watched democratic institutions crumble, conspiracies normalized, and authoritarianism mainstreamed. We have seen climate change denied at the highest levels of government.

We still see too many of our black brothers and sisters targeted by law enforcement. We watched as our neighbor’s promised DACA protections were rescinded and saw the deporters break down their doors. We see basic human rights for our LGBTQ peers refused in the name of “science.”

We have seen the “Southern strategy” deprive rural red state voters of educational opportunity before dividing, exploiting, and dog whistling. We hear climate science mocked and watch women’s freedom erode. We hear mental health discussed only after school shootings.

We’ve seen two endless wars and watched deployed family members and friends miss out on college. Even the battles we don’t see remind us that that bombs inevitably fall on schools. And we know war imposes a deadly opportunity tax on the youngest of civilians and female teachers.

Against this backdrop we recall how reformers caricatured our teachers as overpaid, summer-loving, and entitled. We resent how our hard-working mentors were demoralized and forced into resignation or early retirement.

Our collective experience is precisely why we aren’t ideologues. We know the issues are complex. And unlike the reformers, we don’t claim to have the answers. We simply believe that education can and must be more humane than this. We plan to make it so.

We learned most from the warrior educators who saw through the reform facade. Our heroes breathed life into institutions, energized our classrooms, reminded us what we are worth, and pointed us in new directions. We plan to become these educators too.

Were All Religions Started As Con Jobs?

Steven Ruis makes a very good case that all world’s religions started out by some bullshitter making up a story (out of whole cloth) in order to gain power, prestige, wealth, and so on, and then somehow figuring out how to get his/her fellows to believe the bullshit story.

Those of you who are religious (as I used to be), probably believe that all the OTHER religions are made-up lies. Naturally, one is far more likely to see the wrong things in what OTHERS believe than in what we ourselves believe …

We all agree now (don’t we?) that all that stuff about Zeus and Hera and Minerva and Thor and so on was all made up: the Greek, Roman, and Norse myths were not accurate accounts of how the world began or guides to how we humans should behave. However, the Roman poets that I read back in Latin class in high school got a lot of praise and wealth by helping make up those myths  — and I don’t even recall Homer, Ovid, or Vergil pretending that they actually watched the gods or heroes doing any of that stuff they wrote about. I don’t know of anyone who seriously believes in the old ‘Classical’ religions today, but at one point you could be killed for not doing so.

And as far as my Buddhist or Hindu friends are concerned, I don’t recall there being any technology being around under that Bo tree to verify whatever it was that Gautama was (or was not) experiencing when he got ‘enlightened’ (or whatever), and we certainly don’t have anybody claiming to be an objective reporter on the doings of Krishna or any of the other pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses.

And Scientology? The only amazing thing about that total pile of bullshit* is that anybody at all believes any of it!

* (Actually, I should apologize: that’s an insult to male bovine feces: they are excellent fertilizer for your garden, as long as you let them ferment in your compost pile for a while. They sometimes contain a lot of weed seeds that will germinate in your garden where you don’t want them to. Horse manure is much less useful to most gardeners, because horses don’t ruminate (chew their cud and digest and re-digest their food in the presence of lots of microorganisms in various stomachs order to extract every gram of nutrients). Horse manure is the best thing for growing many types of mushrooms… But I digress. Maybe I should call it ‘blatherskite’ or  ‘codswallop’?)

You can certainly extend that skepticism on to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are all based on the first five books of what we call the ‘Bible’ or Tanakh. Think about it. While many folks (including me at one point) believe(d) those stories literally, if you look at it objectively, we don’t have any trustworthy witnesses that recorded the words, thoughts, or deeds of God, Adam, Eve, or Moses at the time or right afterwards… I mean, how could you be present at the creation anyway?

Also this: historians and archaeologists have shown by very careful, painstaking research that pretty definitively that essentially none of the Exodus story ever happened in real life: Serious Biblical scholars now conclude that the first five books were all made up during the Babylonian Captivity (which really DID happen). The later books did have some historical basis, but they are far from being an objective source. (Nor are the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, Livy or anything else. If you think today’s news stories are biased (and of course they are – even the choice of what stories go on the front page or are the teasers on the TV broadcasts are editorial choices), then try journals of 100 – 200 years ago. Even Faux “news” almost looks even-handed compared to reporting during the Civil War, etc. It seems to me that today’s reporting is much more complete and makes much more of an attempt to be unbiased and objective than ever before. But I digress)

Back to Ruis’ thesis, the ‘Old Testament’ then served to cement the Hebrews into a separate tribe which obviously still exists today (no mean accomplishment). Don’t forget that Judaism (as with all other religions from Central America to Africa to Europe) ended up supporting a privileged caste of priests, who got to eat the fatted calves and perfect poultry that was brought to the temple as offerings to God. ‘God’ got to smell the aroma, the priests got to eat the nice barbecued meat… Nice work if you can get it and don’t have a conscience!

Again: it’s not like people really thought that calamities were because so-and-so didn’t sacrifice his/her own children. They didn’t exactly do a double-blind test to see what would happen, unlike scientists of today who do their level best to weed out their own biases, LEST THEY BE MOCKED BY OTHER SCIENTISTS for falling into a logical fallacy! In which case, the ideas exposed by the erring scientist are discarded or modified by others. Unlike with religion, where somebody who lived a long time ago supposedly knew everything, predicted everything, and nothing in the writings can ever be changed; anybody who dares to try to make changes is accused of heresy. That’s completely the opposite of the way science works. As scientists keep learning more and more about the way the universe actually works, the more they discover that their initial ideas were incorrect. No doctor is going to use the theory of the Four Humours to diagnose your ills, for example. NASA’s spacecraft don’t use astrological signs or the Ptolemaic model of the universe, and they keep finding brand-new worlds that we never dreamed of even a few decades ago!

That’s one of the reasons why I prefer science to religion or even novels: there’s always something new being discovered; there is lively debate about what evidence is admissable and what it proves; and nobody is considered to have all the answers. (Yes, any serious amateur astronomer today can point out to you places where both Einstein and Newton were wrong — as great as their insights were!)

There are still billions of people who take on faith one or the other version of the Big Six Religions; one clue that these religions might not be all so wonderful is that throughout history, governments have waged untold wars and committed countless massacres, supposedly because other people didn’t believe as they did and didn’t offer worship and respect to their own doctrine and group of ‘spiritual’ leaders.

Now, when scientists propose explanations

Now, there are plenty of wonderful people that believe all kinds of nonsense, and I am very sure that I, too, believe a lot of things that are just plain wrong. But what one thinks, believes or says doesn’t necessarily dictate how one behaves. I bet that there are all kinds of really cruel things advocated in the sacred texts of any religion. Fortunately, most people do NOT practice those things any more. Unfortunately, there are those who do: those who bomb, behead, blow up, beat up, imprison, incinerate, or shoot others for not following the rule of God or the Leader …

Here’s the link:


Trump Administration Opposes Actual Science, Because That Would Cost Money to the 0.001% and Instead Help Ordinary People and the Planet

I predict that history will judge that this Administration is by far the worst that the American people ever elected. Yes, worse than Bush2, Harding, or Buchanan.

Unless future history is written by flunkies hired by Jerry Fallwell or the Koch brothers.

God forbid! (If there is one; if God actually exists, all the evidence shows that he/it/it/she/they is/are incompetent, when you think of all the mass murderers, swindlers, and dictators who have lived to a ripe old age surrounded in luxury, while millions if not billions of people suffer in unimaginable squalor in slums, favelas, tent cities, or refugee camps, while we simultaneously wipe out all the big land- and sea-dwelling mammals and pollute the air, land, and oceans for posterity with poisons, plastics, and poop.)

One piece of evidence comes from this rather long article in the New York Times which points out how much they have been either attacking science directly or simply ignoring it: science advisory positions that have existed since World War Two aren’t filled, science advisory panels to government agencies are ignored or eliminated, scientific data is ignored or denied, and instead, polluters who used to be regulated and fined by agencies are instead put in charge of them.

Here is the link.

And, yes, this is new. There are many things for which you can find fault with previous American administrations, including Obama (who was worse on education even than GWBush, and we know that all American governments lie constantly [eg Gulf of Tonkin Incident, The Sinking of the Maine, Iraq’s nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction, etc, etc), but actively fighting science was never one of them.

#45 is even going to try to ‘negotiate’ next week with North Korea without having actual advisors on nuclear weapons. What could possibly go wrong with that?

It’s really scary.

Compare ‘Education Reform’ to Ineffective but Profitable Quick-Weight-Loss Schemes

John Viall compares the past 15 years of education ‘reform’ to the past 30 or 40 years of completely counterproductive weight-loss schemes — in both cases, the results are exactly contrary to what they were promised to be. In one case, we can see that America’s obesity rates are some of the worst in the world. In the other, we have certainly not ‘raced to the top’ on TIMMS, PISA, or any other international test, despite all of promises by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

He concludes (I added some color):

“For a sixth time the PISA test was administered in 2015.

Now, 15-year-olds from seventy countries and educational systems took the test. How did U. S. students fare?
The envelope please.
In reading U. S. students scored 497. In other words, after fifteen years of school reform and tens of billions wasted, reading scores were still down seven points.
Fifteen years of listening to blowhard politicians—and U. S. students averaged 470 in math, a depressing 23-point skid.
Surely, all that meddling must have done some good? No. Science scores averaged 496, still down three points.
Fifteen years of diet plans that couldn’t possibly fail and, metaphorically, we were all just a little more fat.
PISA scores had been the foundation on which all school reform was built; and after all these years, America’s 15-year-olds were scoring 33 points worse.

Probability and Vote Rigging

A fellow in one of my astro clubs is a vehement Trump supporter — mostly because of 2nd amendment issues, he told me. But he also greatly dislikes Hillary Clinton, believing that she rigs everything. I believe he said that the fact that Hillary beat Bernie in 5 out of 6 coin tosses used to settle dead heats in some small mostly-white northern caucus state (I forget which), proved that she cheated.
I’d like to go into that here.
He also wrote: “Read the leaked DNC emails. Look at the videos of voter fraud. Tell me they are not true. The emails alone are dam[n]ing…”
My reply was:
“Lessee, the leaked DNC emails are, what, a million or so pages? It’d take me HOURS to read all that (sike – decades!) Mind giving me a clue as to what to look at first? Help me out here?
 “And which voter fraud videos? The ones where this one person, or another person (gosh, possibly as many as a full DOZEN?) voted twice? Or the ones where racist politicians wipe tens of thousands of their political enemies off the voter list, and enact policies that they know good and well will further reduce the voter turnout of their enemies’ supporters by tens of thousands more? Which one do you think is more serious []?” — I continued…
I haven’t seen his response yet.
And by the say, to get 5 heads out of six flips is not all that unlikely – I think it will happen about 10% of the time if you reproduce the experiment a few million times on a computer. Here’s how I calculate that: we only really need to figure out what are the odds of getting exactly one tails in the experiment, which is much easier to calculate. For each of the six coin tosses, I am going to assume that the probability of getting heads = p(tails) = 1/2 or 50% or 0.5. [Obvviously if the game is rigged, then the probabiolity is gonna be different, and wer’ll look into that in a bit.
So the probability of getting tails on the first toss and all the others heads is 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/1 * 1/2 because the coin tosses in our ideal experiment are completely independent – nobody’s cheating, no magnets or tiny weights or two-headed coins. Or (1/2)^ 6 , or 1/64. Now if you think about it a bit, the probability of getting tails on throw #2 and heads everywhere else is exactly the same: 0.5 ^ 6, or 1/64. And in fact, there are six places that your solitary heads can come up – first, second, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th, and the probabilities are all the same, so we can just add them or all together, or else multiply 1/64 by 6, and we get 6/64, of 3/32, 9.375% of the time. So I was off a bit, it’s closer to 9% than 10% . Not a big deal.
In fact, if you use something called the binomial theorem, or better yet, Pascal’s triangle which you can write on a piece of scratch paper in a minute or less, you can calculate what is P(0 tails), P(1 tail), and P(2 tails) all the way up to P(6 tails.)
P0 = 1/64 = P6 = 1.5625%
P1 = 6/64 = P(5) = 9.375%
P2 = 15/64  = P(4) = 23.4375%
P(3) = 20/64 = 31.25%
I hope you underrstand my shortcuts. if not, please tell me and I’ll explain more clearly.
In any case, the chance of getting exactly 1 head or exactly 1 tail adds up to about 19% of the time — not impossible.
If, howebver, the coin (or whatever it was they were using) was rigged, then things are different, and I’ll look into that later. Gotta run now.

Who is responsible for most carbon emissions?

An article in Nature* profiles a meticulous researcher who has shown that a small handful of companies were responsible for the vast majority of all carbon emissions, and that well over half of those emissions happened since my own children were in elementary school. Scary.

“The result, peer reviewed and published in Climatic Change, showed that just 90 companies contributed 63% of the greenhouse gases emitted globally between 1751 and 2010. Half of those emissions took place after 1988—the year James Hansen of NASA testified to Congress that there was no longer any doubt that global warming had begun.”


(* Nature is the magazine of the AAAS (formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Most of its articles are quite dry and technical descriptions of rigorous scientific experiments in every field that currently exists. It is not a propaganda sheet!)


Another Area Where the ‘Common Wisdom’ is wrong: Diet and Exercise

The most recent issue of Scientific American features an article that claims to be what science tells us about the current obesity epidemic, and what to do about it. Unfortunately, there is very little science in the article, and lots of wishful thinking, such as finding ways to keep everybody hungry all the time.

The author’s thesis is that simple overeating is what causes Americans and others to get fat. Their solution is the usual mantra: eat less meat and more grains and other carbohydrate-rich foods, and do lots of aerobic exercise. The problem is that this prescription isn’t based on history, and it isn’t based on science. There are no studies that show that that sort of diet and exercise regime actually leads to losing any significant amount of body fat.  (I do NOT consider losing 6 pounds of fat after a year of near-starvation and 20 or more hours of aerobic activity to be a significant weight loss. My bathroom scale can have me losing that amount after a large bowel movement or two!)

In fact, almost any farmer can tell you that if you want to make your cattle fat, then you should feed them lots of grains, instead of their normal diet of grass.

What’s more, the author manages to write an entire article about obesity without once mentioning the ‘elephant in the room’ that has changed many formerly fit pre-colonial people into people who are simultaneously malnourished and obese, all over the world.

The big change has been from high-fat, relatively meat-rich diets to more Western diets consisting of cheap, starchy vegetables and grains filled with carbohydrates that humans did NOT evolve to eat. Over and over again, native societies – like our own Native Americans here in the USA – that have made this dietary shift have developed diabetes, obesity, nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, strokes, dental cavities, and much more in their adult populations, while the children simultaneously suffer from serious dietary deficiencies, often being on the verge of starvation.

Looking at sub-Saharan Africa, it’s hard to think of people who work harder, all day long, than most African women, and they eat a diet high in grains, beans, and starchy vegetables and fruit (yams and plantains, for example). Yet many of them are fat or obese.

It seems to me (though I am not an expert at all) that it’s much more likely that the USDA nutritional pyramid, and the current, anti-scientific propaganda in favor of low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, are causing, rather than curing, the current world-wide obesity epidemic. The author of the article apparently thinks that high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets are mere fads to be dismissed out of hand; he doesn’t even analyze any evidence in favor of, or against, their effectiveness at all.

How can a major article in 2011 that purports to be on ‘what science teaches us about obesity’ fail to even acknowledge Gary Taubes’ ground-breaking review and synthesis, now in two books and several articles, concerning the relevant literature on nutrition and obesity? Or are all the studies that were read and cited by Taubes also mere fads? You can look at some of his articles and books here, here, and here, and you can find his blog here.

Why does no-one mention Finland?

Here is a table that gives the latest PISA results in science, reading, and math.

The NYT highlighted Shanghai, Macao, and Hong Kong, individual cities within China. A number of people have pointed out that Shanghai, in particular, probably attracts some of the brightest students within China.  I don’t think there is any way that American students would tolerate the extremely long hours and hard work that Chinese students put in.

Notice that I highlighted Finland.  Finland used to score at extremely low levels on international tests like this, but has risen dramatically in the past few decades. But NOT by using any of the methods currently popular among the US Educational Deform movement. Instead, they do just about the opposite. See my previous blogs on that.

Learning Science and Math Outside the Classroom

Most people learn science mostly outside the classroom, according to a fascinating report printed in the American Scientist. (The URL is http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2010/6/the-95-percent-solution/1 or here but unless you are a paid subscriber, you can’t read it online.)

“When I talk to my Nobel colleagues,” said Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “More than half of them got interested in science via fireworks.”

Sounds good to me.  Not that I’m a Nobel Prize winner nor anything remotely similar, but I have taught myself a fair amount of science, particularly astronomy, in a very hands-on way. What I learned in the classrooms I was in as a student and as a teacher helped, but a lot of it was self-taught. And yes, I learned a lot of chemistry by helping my brothers do the experiments needed to produce satisfactory family July 4 pyrotechnical displays, funded and supplied by our parents. (As I got older and my brothers went away to college (etc), I kinda took over the fireworks department…)


Here is the text of the article, which I thank Jerry Becker for supplying:


The 95 Percent Solution
School is not where most Americans learn most of their science
By John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking

The scientific research and education communities have long had a goal of advancing the public’s understanding of science. The vast majority of the rhetoric and research on this issue revolves around the failure of school-aged children in the United States to excel at mathematics and science when compared with children in other countries. Most policy solutions for this problem involve improving classroom practices and escalating the investment in schooling, particularly during the precollege years. The assumption has been that children do most of their learning in school and that the best route to long-term public understanding of science is successful formal schooling. The “school-first” paradigm is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policy makers question it. This despite two important facts: Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.

We contend that a major educational advantage enjoyed by the U.S. relative to the rest of the world is its vibrant free-choice science learning landscape-a landscape filled with a vast array of digital resources, educational television and radio, science museums, zoos, aquariums, national parks, community activities such as 4-H and scouting and many other scientifically enriching enterprises. The sheer quantity and importance of this science learning landscape lies in plain sight but mostly out of mind. We believe that nonschool resources-used by learners across their lifetimes from childhood onward-actually account for the vast majority of Americans’ science learning. If this premise is correct, then increased investment in free-choice (also known as informal) learning resources might be a very cost-effective way to significantly improve public understanding of science. Taking this view, though, requires dismantling a widespread misconception that out-of-school educational experiences only support superficial science learning and the recreational interests of a limited percentage of the curious public, rather than the learning of real science by all citizens. 

Traditional assumptions about the source of science knowledge are deeply held. Historian of science Steven Turner locates the beginning of today’s Public Understanding of Science movement in the 1980s. Its hallmarks were “new, vigorous efforts to promote public knowledge of science and to instill confidence and support for the scientific enterprise.” The major focus of this effort was a widespread reassessment of the content and goals of school science teaching and a shift of curricular reform efforts toward the needs of the substantial majority of students who would not pursue scientific and technological careers or postsecondary training in technical subjects. This reform movement went forward under the catchy slogan “scientific literacy,” but its other motto, “science for all,” better expresses its true political and pedagogical objectives.


The unquestioned focus was to increase the quantity of qualified science teachers and by doing so, the quality of teaching. This assumption shaped years of research on the public understanding of science, summarized biannually by the National Science Board in their Science and Engineering Indicators series. National organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies of Sciences commissioned white papers focusing on the issue, and science-education reform efforts were funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education.

Over the ensuing years, the content and approach to teaching science in schools has varied from year to year and from district to district. However, the general commitment to science for all has remained a basic tenet of school-based science education. Also fundamentally unchanged over the past 25 years is the assumption by virtually all within the science education community-scientists, science educators, science learning researchers,education policy makers and the public-that if science for all is the goal, then schools are the most effective conduit.

However, a range of data are emerging that suggest other interpretations that at the very least raise important questions about the prevailing paradigm that schooling is the primary mechanism for public science learning. For example, for more than a decade, performance by U.S. school-aged children on international tests such as the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has followed a consistent pattern. Elementary-school-aged U.S. children perform as well as or better than most children in the world, but the performance of older U.S. children has been mediocre at best. Interestingly, however, for more than 20 years, U.S. adults have consistently outperformed their international counterparts on science literacy measures, including adults from South Korea and Japan, as well as Western European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. If schooling is the primary causative factor affecting how well the public understands science, how do we explain these findings?

For starters, most in the U.S. science learning community agree that the quality of school science education is better at the secondary level than at the preschool and elementary levels. Recent statistics show that only about 4 percent of U.S. school teachers of kindergarten through second grade (K-2) majored in science or science education as undergraduates, and many took no college-level science courses at all. However, the quality of science instruction at that level is almost a moot point because science instruction itself so rarely occurs. Indicative of the situation nationwide, a 2007 study of San Francisco Bay-area elementary schools found that 80 percent of K-5 multiple-subject teachers who are responsible for teaching science in their classrooms reported spending 60 minutes or less per week on science; 16 percent of teachers reported spending no time at all on science. Consistent science instruction in U.S. schools only begins at the middle-school level, when every student takes at least one or two science courses, usually taught by individuals with some science background. Interestingly, it is just at the point when school-based science instruction begins in earnest that American children start falling behind their international peers. Meanwhile, what accounts for the high performance of American adults?

Although data show that taking college-level science courses dramatically improves public science literacy, only about 30 percent of U.S. adults have ever taken even one college-level science course. Thus, the superior science literacy of the U.S. general public relative to other countries cannot be easily explained by schooling either at the precollege or college levels. Developers of the large-scale national science literacy tests, the results of which are compared internationally, claim that these measures reliably measure the knowledge of representative samples of target populations, so it follows that other factors beyond schooling must explain or at least significantly contribute to the U-shaped pattern of Americans’ comparative performance on science literacy measures.

Science in the Wild

A growing body of evidence supports the contention that the public learns science in settings and situations outside of school. A 2009 report by the National Research Council, Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People and Pursuits, describes a range of evidence demonstrating that even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment. Adults visit settings such as national parks, science centers and botanical gardens not only to relax and enjoy themselves, but equally to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and enhance their understanding of the natural and human-made world. Even more common is the science people learn while engaged in efforts to satisfy their personal need to know. Sometimes the need is fleeting. For example, individuals may choose to watch a nature show on television, or invest time, energy and money in supporting their children’s science learning by taking them to national parks, science centers and zoos, or encourage their children to participate in a wide variety of extracurricular experiences such as scouting and summer nature camps.

One specific example of the role that out-of-school institutions play in the support of the public’s science learning comes from more than a decade of research at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Findings from one part of this series of studies-large-scale, random telephone surveys-found that more than 60 percent of Los Angeles residents had visited the Science Center since it was renovated in 1998, including residents of all races/ethnicities, neighborhoods, incomes and education levels. Findings also showed that a majority of former visitors (95 percent) self-reported that the experience increased their understanding of science and technology as well as piqued their interest in science and prompted further inquiries after the visit. 

These data were validated by a “conceptual marker” in the form of a specific scientific concept-homeostasis. Prior to the opening of the new science center, only 7 percent of the Los Angeles public could define this term (including first-time visitors to the California Science Center). However, because of a popular exhibition experience designed to teach this concept-a 50-foot animatronic woman-a majority of Science Center visitors could define the term upon exiting the museum. The ability to correctly explain this one scientific concept has increased nearly threefold in Los Angeles over the decade following the reopening of the Science Center. By tracking this conceptual marker, we can directly attribute the increase in understanding to visits to the Science Center. These data, along with data from other science centers and comparable free-choice science learning settings, have shown that the majority of visitors significantly increase their conceptual understanding of science on a variety of levels-basic information, breadth and depth of understanding-immediately following a visit, and for most of these individuals this understanding persists and grows for two or more years after the experience. Similar science learning outcomes have been found for youth and after-school program experiences, and both print and broadcast media sources have long since been shown to be vital to both children’s and adults’ understanding of health, science and environmental issues.


Historically, the majority of attention paid to out-of-school science learning, including most academic research, has been directed to experiences like visiting a museum, science center, zoo or aquarium, or watching broadcast media such as NOVA shows and the like. Although, as suggested above, these free-choice science learning experiences are undoubtedly important contributors to the public’s science literacy, they represent only the most conspicuous part of the free-choice science learning landscape. Equally important but much less discussed and studied are education situations that support long-term, more in-depth opportunities for science learning. A wide range of adolescents and adults are engaged in hobbies that involve science, including model rocketry, raising ornamental fish, gardening, rock collecting and star gazing. Hobbyists such as these often possess deep specialized knowledge of science and invest considerable amounts of money in equipment, travel, education and training to refine their craft. Equally important are the many events in life, often highly personal, which demand increased understanding of science “right now.” For example, when individuals are diagnosed with leukemia or heart disease, they and their loved ones invest large amounts of time researching websites and medical reports in order to learn as much as possible about the particular disease. Similar behaviors arise when an environmental crisis occurs such as a toxic spill or the discovery of radon gas seeping from the rock on which one’s home is built. With an increasingly accessible Internet, becoming informed about such issues is easy, even routine.
A small but compelling set of data is beginning to emerge showing that the nonstudent public also gathers in-depth science knowledge outside of school. Our research shows that free-choice learning experiences represent the single greatest contributors to adult science knowledge; childhood free-choice learning experiences also significantly contributed to adult science knowledge. Schooling ranks at the bottom of significant sources of adult science knowledge. Specifically, our research shows that science information sources such as books, magazines, discussions with experts, and the Internet represented the primary mechanisms the public uses to delve more deeply into a topic. During the recent dramas surrounding the deep-water oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, news websites such as CNN and CNBC, information websites such as www.theoildrum.com and even the government’s own NOAA website were humming with activity as the public tried to get below the superficial headlines of the six o’clock news. These and other data suggest that the importance of school as a source of science learning is actually declining among the public as citizens utilize an ever-broadening range of information resources, including most dramatically the Internet, which now represents the major source of science information for all citizens, including young children. According to research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006 was the tipping point when the Internet exceeded even broadcast media as a source of public science information. The medical profession has come to appreciate that the public today is far more likely to seek medical information online than from a “live” healthcare professional; as stated earlier, individuals with serious ailments use the Internet for continued, deep learning about their illnesses.

Science on the Side 

Another emerging area of research investigates science-related hobbies. Research conducted by Marni Berendsen, education researcher and project director of the NASA Night Sky Network, showed that amateur astronomy club members lacking college-level astronomy training often knew more general astronomy than did undergraduate astronomy majors. Research by others has also shown hobbyists, many with little formal training, exhibiting high levels of knowledge and depth of understanding. Such hobbyists often have collegial relationships with experts in the field and some, having put themselves in the right place at the right time, have contributed scientific discoveries. For example, on March 18-19, 2010, amateur astronomer Nick Howes was working from his desktop computer in Great Britain using a remotely controlled 2-meter telescope located in Hawaii and operated by the Faulkes Telescope Project. He dialed up the coordinates of a comet he had been observing, calibrated his camera and snared a set of six photos showing an object moving away from the icy nucleus of the comet. What he captured was the breakup of comet C2007 C3, an observation hailed by the International Astronomical Union as a “major astronomical discovery.”


Investigations of everyday science literacy have yielded other interesting data. For example, a series of studies by Canadian science-education researcher Wolff-Michael Roth and colleagues found that members of an environmental activist group working on the revitalization of a local creek and its watershed acted and learned using knowledge derived from a wide variety of resources, virtually none of which required or drew from school-based sources. Similar research by others reinforces that much of what is learned in school actually relates more to learning for school, as opposed to learning for life. One study found that the number or level of mathematics courses taken in school correlated poorly, if at all, with mathematical performance in out-of-school, everyday-life situations. In another study of mathematics learning, even individuals who did not do well or were not formally trained in school mathematics demonstrated the ability to use math successfully in everyday life-for example, sellers of candy in street markets and shoppers selecting good deals. Success in technical and scientific training courses for ship officers was shown to be unrelated to the relevant knowledge required onboard. As observed by Roth and his colleagues in their investigation of adults working on a local environmental issue, “There was little that looked like school science, and there was little done in school science that prepared these adults for this or any other similar kinds of problematic situations in life.”

Although the role of free-choice learning experiences remains contested, few would argue that out-of-school experiences support the public’s science interest and attitudes. However, recent research by Robert H. Tai and associates, utilizing data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), pushes the potential importance of this role far beyond what most have assumed. Tai’s research group found that attitudes toward science careers, formed primarily during out-of-school time in early adolescence, appeared to be the single most important factor in determining children’s future career choices in science. Among a random sample of 3,359 NELS participants who finished college, those who expected at age 13 to have a science career, compared to those with other career expectations, were two times more likely to have graduated with a degree in the life sciences and three times more likely to have a degree in the physical sciences or engineering. Interestingly, achievement in school mathematics, considered a critical filter and a major focus of today’s high-stakes testing, was not as important a predictor as was interest in the topic.

Despite alternative interpretations for U.S. adults’ higher science literacy scores internationally and the growing body of evidence supporting the critical role of free-choice learning experiences, most still consider such experiences a nicety rather than a necessity, an adjunct to the serious business of learning that takes place in classrooms. Most policy and funding initiatives continue to be directed towards improving in-school performance based on the rarely questioned assumption that classroom-based education is the exclusive route to achieving desired educational outcomes.
A major justification for these arguments is the issue of equity. After all, schooling is the “great leveler,” the mechanism for eliminating socioeconomic disparities. If only, the argument goes, schools could all be brought up to comparable levels of quality, historic inequalities could be overcome. A recent study on the “performance gap” in reading between advantaged and disadvantaged children in Baltimore was designed to highlight just this issue; however, the results ran counter to expectations. Data from this major longitudinal study showed that over the first five years of schooling, the in-school performance gains in reading of low-income, inner-city Baltimore children was completely equivalent to that of affluent, suburban Baltimore children; in fact in some cases the inner-city children’s gains were greater than those shown by their more economically and socially advantaged suburban counterparts. However, each and every summer of the study, the inner-city children fell woefully behind; the suburban children continued to gain in performance while the inner-city children stagnated or even declined in performance.

The authors concluded that much of the “gap” in performance between disadvantaged and advantaged children appeared to be the consequence of what happened outside of school. Interestingly, these authors, and many others who have read this research, interpret the findings as evidence that disadvantaged children need to spend more time in school! Of course, an alternative interpretation could be that what happens in school is not sufficient to ensure equity among all children and adults. If, as we’ve argued all along, school is not where Americans learn much of what they know, including science, then it follows that what happens outside of school profoundly influences learning. Rather than increasing school time, perhaps we should be investing in expanding quality, out-of-school experiences for disadvantaged children.
Nonacademic Academics

Supporting evidence for the important role that out-of-school experiences have on children’s learning is emerging from a variety of fronts. For example, a recent meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental evaluation findings for after-school programs showed that such programs need not be academically focused in order to have academic impact. In fact, because the authors were interested in programs with a socio-emotional learning focus, academic-only after-school programs were not included in the study, and investigators still observed gains overall in the grades children earned. Similarly, a recent evaluation of Chicago’s After-School Matters found that programs without an explicit academic focus (they focused instead on career awareness and development) had a positive effect on several school-related outcomes, including graduation rates and attendance. On a completely different front, data from the Programme for International Student Assessment showed that a major predictor of high achievement on the test was participation in out-of-school, free-choice learning experiences such as visits to science museums. 

As the Baltimore study and other research cited above make clear, not just summer experiences but all kinds of free-choice childhood experiences significantly contribute to a person’s science literacy; early childhood experiences form a particularly critical foundation for all future science learning. The 2009 report on learning science in informal environments from the National Research Council, cited earlier, found that not only do free-choice science learning experiences jump-start a child’s long-term interest in science topics, they also can significantly improve science understanding among populations typically underrepresented in science. The report recommended that to make informal science relevant to children and youth within a community, the development of programming and experiences should be a collaborative effort between the informal science organization, local education institutions, and other entities within the community such as science-related industries and businesses.


Similar ideas have recently been voiced by a range of organizations, such as the National 4-H Council and the American Youth Policy Forum. None has stated it so clearly and forcefully as the Harvard Family Research Project, which stated:  The dominant assumption behind much current educational policy and practice is that school is the only place where and when children learn. This assumption is wrong. Forty years of steadily accumulating research shows that out-of-school, or “complementary learning” opportunities are major predictors of children’s development, learning, and educational achievement. The research also indicates that economically and otherwise disadvantaged children are less likely than their more-advantaged peers to have access to these opportunities. This inequity substantially undermines their learning and chances for school success.

Fortunately, there are increasing opportunities for youth and families from poor and underserved communities to engage in out-of-school-time (OST) science experiences, driven by such efforts as the NSF Informal Science Education program, which invests in community-based science education efforts. According to the Harvard Family Research Project’s 2007 Study of Predictors of Participation in Out-of-School-Time Activities, participation rates in before- and after-school programs have increased at all levels of family income, with the greatest increase among the lowest-income youth. They attribute this trend to an increasing policy focus on the benefits of OST, along with extensive funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a program of the U.S. Department of Education. They suggest that policymakers and the public need to continue to focus on equity to ensure that this trend continues.

Serious Fun 

However, as the potential beneficial relationship between science learning and OST becomes better understood, there is a temptation to hand these programs over to schools. This would be a huge mistake. It is exactly because free-choice learning is not like school that it has such value. What is important is that children and youth perceive the free-choice learning experiences that often occur in typical OST programs as personally meaningful, engaging and, dare we say, fun-what educator David Alexander calls, “the learning that lies between play and academics.” The inclusion of free-choice science learning experiences in the lives of children is essential because young children in particular learn through play. The prevalence of a play-oriented medium for educational delivery, which is very common in the free-choice parts of the science education landscape, has been shown to encourage children to interact with each other, adults and the objects surrounding them in ways that significantly support the development of science inquiry skills.


If OST programs are merely devices to extend the school day with more hours of the same pedagogical experiences, they are unlikely to be successful, particularly in the long term. In fact, it’s quite likely that they will do more harm than good by reinforcing stereotypes of science and science professionals as dry and boring and schoollike. Our skepticism and concerns revolve around the fact that current discussions about increasing the scope and quality of OST programs, though well-intentioned, almost always focus on how such programs can support children and youth’s achievement in school, rather than how such programs should support children and youth in life.

It seems reasonable to assume that out-of-school science-learning experiences are fundamental to supporting and facilitating lifelong science learning. We would argue that the current state of science literacy in America cannot be explained otherwise. One of the major ways that U.S. adults and children under the age of 12 differ from their counterparts in other countries is their access to and use of free-choice science learning opportunities. Compared with other countries, the U.S. has a luxurious endowment of such destinations. In the same studies that demonstrated high correlations between adult science literacy and levels of schooling, utilization of the free-choice science learning landscape was a strong correlate, as was shown in the Los Angeles findings discussed earlier in this article. In other words, utilization of these resources could be a primary or at least a highly important causal factor in U.S. adults’ relatively high performance on international measures of science literacy and interest.

Similarly, the simplest explanation for why American 8-year-olds do so well compared with their counterparts in other countries on the TIMSS and PISA tests is that young American children have greater exposure to free-choice science learning opportunities than do children in any other country. Unfortunately, utilization of these learning opportunities declines precipitously after age 12 in the U.S. As has been shown repeatedly, the best predictor of student success in school is family life. The quality of parenting is more important than socioeconomic factors, race/ethnicity or quality of school. Children with parents who support their learning at home do better than children with parents who do not. A logical and perhaps more effective way for parents to support their children’s learning beyond providing homework help is through free-choice learning experiences. However, as the Baltimore research cited above so clearly highlights, the availability and opportunities for accessing free-choice science learning experiences arenot independent of income and geography.

By challenging the assumption that school is the primary place where Americans learn science, our goal is not to diminish the importance and value of schooling, but rather to suggest that what goes on in the other 95 percent of a citizen’s life may be equally important, and possibly more important to increasing science literacy among the public. Although we are not advocating any diminishment in the efforts to improve and expand school-based science education, we do strongly propose that it is time to seriously question whether, in the 21st century, schooling should continue to be viewed as the most important and effective mechanism for advancing the public’s scientific interest and understanding.

Insufficient data exist to conclusively demonstrate that free-choice science learning experiences currently contribute more to public understanding of science than in-school experiences, but a growing body of evidence points in this direction. There certainly are insufficient data to refute the claim that free-choice learning is vitally important. Surely the best informed and most science-literate citizens are those who enjoy maximal benefits from both in- and out-of-school science learning opportunities. Thus, we would argue for increased efforts to measure the cumulative and complementary influences of both in- and out-of-school science learning. However, given that at present school-based science education efforts receive an order of magnitude more resources than free-choice learning options, even a modest change in this ratio could make a huge difference. The data suggest it would be a wise investment.
John H. Falk is a Sea Grant professor in free-choice science learning, College of Science, Oregon State University. His research focuses on youth, adults, and families in free-choice learning environments such as museums, libraries and community organizations. He has a joint doctorate in biology and education from the University of California, Berkeley. Address: 237 Weniger Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331. E-mail: falkj@science.oregonstate.edu .Lynn D. Dierking is a Sea Grant professor in free-choice science learning, College of Science, Oregon State University. Her research focuses on youth, adults, and families in free-choice learning environments such as museums, libraries and community organizations. She received her Ph.D. in science education from the University of Florida, Gainesville. Address: 235 Weniger Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331. Email: dierkinl@science.oregonstate.edu
FIGURE 1: Recent findings challenge the longstanding belief that the place for science knowledge acquisition is the classroom. International comparisons of trends in science knowledge over lifetimes suggests that much if not most science knowledge is acquired outside of school. This raises important questions about where our efforts should be spent if we want to improve public understanding of science. A powerful example of free-choice exposure to science is the highly praised MythBusters television program, which exemplifies the central aspects of scientific exploration: hypothesis, experiment and measurement. Here cohost Adam Savage takes on the folk knowledge that sneezes are expelled at 100 miles per hour. A bit of snuff, a high-speed camera, a spirit of inquiry and a calculation of distance over time yields an engaging lesson in science. And an answer: Sneezes travel about 40 miles per hour.  —  Photograph courtesy of The Discovery Channel.
FIGURE 2: On average, only about 5 percent of an American’s lifetime is spent in the classroom, and only a small fraction of that is dedicated to science instruction. Emerging data suggest that the best way to increase the public understanding of science is to reach people during the other 95 percent of their life.  —  Illustration by Tom Dunne.
FIGURE 3: Tess, the 50-foot animatronic body simulator, is part of the World of Life permanent gallery at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. When she arrived, 7 percent of Angelenos could define the term homeostasis. That figure had almost tripled by a decade later.  —  Photograph courtesy of the California Science Center.
FIGURE 4: The U.S. public has a lush endowment of free-choice opportunities to learn science, which it uses extensively. The relative patronage of science-oriented institutions shown above may explain why the disappointing gap in science proficiency of U.S. youngsters compared to their most advanced peers worldwide disappears as the youngsters become adults.  —  Illustration by Barbara Aulicino.
FIGURE 5: The ubiquity of opportunities for informal science learning is often underestimated. Informative interludes range from strolling with a birdwatching manual to touring the hydrosphere at one of the nation’s great aquariums. Knowledge seekers can enter the boundless Web or curl up with the iPad app The Elements-sound, scholarly and hugely popular.  —  Top left image: Mitch Kezar/Getty Images; top right image: Galen Rowell/Corbis; bottom left image from WebMD.com; bottom right image courtesy of Touch Press
FIGURE 6: A great favorite of young and old: combustion chemistry. “When I talk to my Nobel colleagues,” said Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “More than half of them got interested in science via fireworks.”  —  Photographs courtesy of Bryan Jackson and Zambelli Fireworks.
FIGURE 7: This child at play receives lessons in the physiology of hearing, the physics of sound, and the mechanics of biological adaptation, as well as the chance to pretend to be a fox.  —  Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis
*  Bell, P., B. Lewenstein, A. W. Shouse, and M. A. Feder, eds. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. The National Academies Press, Washington. D.C.
*  Bowles, A., and B. Brand. 2009. Learning Around the Clock: Benefits of Expanded Learning Opportunities for Older Youth. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Policy Forum.
*  Dierking. L. D. 2007. Linking after-school programs and STEM learning: A view from another window. Commissioned position paper for the Coalition for After-School Science. New York, NY.
*  Dorph, R., et al. 2007. The Status of Science Education in the Bay Area: Research Brief. Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley.
*  Ferreira, M. 2002. Ameliorating equity in science, mathematics, and engineering: A case study of an after-school science program. Equity and Excellence in Education 35(1):43-49.
*  Fox, S. 2008. The engaged E-patient population. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
*  Harvard Family Research Project. 2007. Findings from HFRP’s study of predictors of participation in out-of-school time activities: Fact sheet.http://www.hfrp.org/content/download/1072/48575/file/findings_predictor_OSTfactsheet.pdf
*  Horrigan, J. 2006. The Internet as a resource for news and information about science. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
*  Rahm, J., J. C. Moore and M.-P. Martel-Reny. 2005. The role of afterschool and community science programs in the lives of urban youth. School Science and Mathematics 105(6):283-291.
*  Taylor, S. 2008. School science and its controversies; or, whatever happened to scientific literacy? Public Understanding of Science 17:55-72.


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