Kennedy lectures on challenges facing K-12 science education

Donald Kennedy

Donald Kennedy

Teaching creationism instead of evolution in the classroom discourages students from developing a set of critical thinking skills that are necessary for college-level science, according to Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy.

His comments came during an April 4 lecture delivered to a packed house in Cubberley Auditorium. The talk, "Teaching Science: How, What and Who Decides?" was part of the Cubberley Lecture series sponsored by the School of Education to encourage dialogue about current affairs.

A member of Stanford's biological sciences faculty since 1960, Kennedy is a longtime advocate of improving science education. He served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1979 and as Stanford president from 1980 to 1992. In 2000, he was named editor in chief of the journal Science.

In his speech, Kennedy addressed several challenges facing K-12 education in the United States, including the teaching of creationism—a religious concept that attributes the creation of life and the universe to a supernatural deity. In recent years, advocates of creationism and a related concept known as intelligent design have challenged school districts throughout the country over the teaching of Darwinian evolution, the scientific theory that life on Earth descended from a common ancestor and that diverse species arose through natural selection and random genetic mutations.

Kennedy argued that teaching creationism discourages students from applying the scientific method, which emphasizes conducting experiments with reproducible results and drawing logical conclusions from observable, measurable evidence. "What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity," he said. "If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there can be no incentive to do an experiment or undertake an analysis."

Critical thinking

Kennedy is currently serving as an expert witness for the University of California Regents, who are being sued by a group of Christian schools, students and parents for refusing to allow high school courses taught with creationist textbooks to fulfill the laboratory science requirement for UC admission. After reading several creationist biology texts, Kennedy said he found "few instances in which students are being introduced to science as a process—that is, the way in which scientists work or carry out experiments, or the way in which they analyze and interpret the results of their investigations."

Kennedy said that the textbooks use "ridicule and inappropriately drawn metaphors" concerning evolution to discourage students from formulating independent opinions. "Even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them—namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation—critical thinking is absent," he added.

Science education has two tasks, he said: "to produce a thin layer of outstandingly brilliant innovators" and "to produce a level of scientific literacy in the general population that can help our society apply better judgments to policy issues in which science and technology play crucial roles." A good program, he argued, should cater to both objectives, but the current system is falling short.

Even when innovative ideas are introduced, school systems often are reluctant to change, he noted: "In the education space, there is a strange barrier to the infectivity of good ideas and models."

At the root of the problem, Kennedy said, is a failure to attract and retain qualified teachers. To illustrate this point, he told the audience, "There is a rather sad, old joke that asks, 'What is the first name of the average high school physics teacher in Texas?' The answer is 'Coach.'"

Although he opposes paying math and science teachers higher salaries than their peers, Kennedy did express approval for some sort of "national certification system with a salary differential" as an incentive for bright minds to consider careers in education.

Despite all of the problems, Kennedy said, some positive efforts have been made in recruiting and training teachers. He cited the tutoring program at the Haas Center for Public Service, the Stanford Teacher Education Program in the School of Education and the New York-based Teach for America program, which brings young teachers to underachieving urban and rural regions of the country.

Kennedy encouraged Stanford to take the lead in education reform by increasing dialogue and collaboration between the university faculty and researchers and primary and high school teachers. In closing, he challenged the audience and Stanford to take an active role in solving the problem, asking, "If not here, where?"

K-12 Initiative

Prior to Kennedy's speech, university President John Hennessy introduced the audience to the Stanford Initiative on K-12 Education—a multidisciplinary, cross-campus effort to find novel ways of improving primary and secondary school education in the United States. The $125 million initiative is part of The Stanford Challenge, the university campaign dedicated to finding solutions to the most pressing challenges facing society.

Hennessy said that during a tour of the United States last year, he observed a "crisis of K-12 education in every city." Noting that science and math education seemed most in need of reform, he pointed to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that less than 25 percent of American 12th-graders tested proficient in math, and only 18 percent were proficient in science.

However, Hennessy maintained that the low scores have more to do with faults in the educational system than with the students themselves. "We have the ability to be successful here," he said. "What we need to do is to put together the resources and the commitment as a country to be successful, and Stanford needs to be an important part of that."

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.