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Why are science teachers prevented from teaching? - a letter from Leigh van Valen

Updated on November 1, 2009

To answer this question, Leigh Van Valen (the famous American evolutionary biologist who proposed the Law of Extinction, the Red Queen Hypothesis, and the Ecological Species Concept) once wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune a few years back. Unfortunately, his letter was never published. He recently posted the contents of his letter over the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology mailing list and I felt like his message was so on point for answering this question, that it had to be shared. Leigh Van Valen has this to say on the matter of why science teachers are prevented from teaching-

One of the things that is important in the modern world is a suitable background in science and mathematics. Many of us need it in our work, in one way or another. We all need it to see the kinds of distortions produced by advertisers and other self-serving advocates. We all need it in order to make sense of the changing world around us. And we all need it to help keep what remains of our natural environment.

We aren’t doing very well. Every year or so a study comes out that finds American children doing worse than those of many other countries. Partly this is due to our less challenging curricula. which are encouraged by the dumbing-down effect of the otherwise valuable No Child Left Behind. Partly, though, it is from a shortage of good teachers.

Good teachers present their subject in an interesting way. But good teachers also know a lot more about what they teach than the textbook provides. Many teachers don’t. In addition, there is the problem of not having kept up with the progress of knowledge since one’s own education perhaps decades ago. This problem is obviously more severe for the sciences than for literature.

There are, nevertheless, real scientists who, for one reason or another, are willing to teach in high schools. They are usually rebuffed. This happens because the certification process is rigged so that having gone through the puffery of a school of education is regarded as more important than a deep knowledge of what one will teach.

Here’s an actual example, someone who has a Ph.D. in a real science from one of the best universities in the country. She has even written a textbook and published her own scientific research. She is now a regular substitute teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, where she sometimes takes over the classes of a departed science teacher for months on end.

For this she receives only a substitute’s pay, and she is removed when the system manages to find a “qualified” teacher, i.e. an officially certified one, despite local recognition of her superb performance. Her actual performance and knowledge mean nothing.

Such bureaucratic stupidity is official policy, a policy that hurts our children. And we wonder why our schools are falling short!

If you agree or disagree, feel free to start a conversation about this in the comments or write a counter-hub! I think Van Valen's comments are not far from the mark at all.

Cheers,

RomerianReptile

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