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Both Sides Now, Terminating Tenure, and a Sickening Ploy

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, July 22-Aug. 4.

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While it may once have seemed an obscure fringe cause, it’s now safe to say that “intelligent design”—a creation theory holding that a guiding force is behind the development of living things—has friends in high places. In a wide-ranging interview with a group of Texas reporters, President Bush indicated that ID should be taught alongside evolution in schools. “Both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about,” he explained. The president’s comments gave a lift to advocates of ID but were bemoaned by science educators and other opponents, who argue that the theory—dubbed “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” some months ago by one Kansas professor—is merely a clever vehicle to bring religious thinking into schools. The president’s reference to “both sides” of the scientific debate caused particular apprehension. “It sounds like you’re being fair, but creationism is a sectarian religious viewpoint, and intelligent design is a sectarian religious viewpoint,” claimed Susan Spath, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Science Education.

Speaking of religious viewpoints, a Texas watchdog group is charging that a bible-study course offered at hundreds of public schools throughout the country teaches a Christian fundamentalist message. In a scholarly review of course materials offered by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the Texas Freedom Network found—in addition to an abundance of errors—numerous characterizations supporting the beliefs of conservative Protestants, including the suggestion that the Bible be considered the United States’ founding document. The National Council responded that the Texas Freedom Network is a “far left” extremist group that is “fearful of academic freedom.” Kathy Miller, president of the TFN, said her organization does not object to courses about the bible, only to “tabloid scholarship.”

Many teachers in California are praying—or at least strongly hoping—that a ballot initiative to weaken their tenure protections will be unsuccessful this November. Hatched by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a way to strengthen the state’s teaching force, the initiative would lengthen teachers’ probationary period from two years to five and allow schools to dismiss even those with tenure after two unsatisfactory evaluations. Proponents, including many principals and parents, say the measure is necessary because current tenure rules make it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers, resulting in a shuffling of such teachers from school to school known as the “dance of the lemons.” While acknowledging the need to make it easier to dismiss “lost causes,” some teachers worry about having their livelihoods threatened by impulsive principals and evaluators. Others fear the changes would affect their level of engagement. “You know to a certain degree that you’re disposable,” said art teacher Lisa Kantor. “So you don’t speak up at staff meetings, you don’t get political, and you mind your P’s and Q’s.”

Attempts to strengthen the profession, some experts say, should begin at schools of education. A number of analysts believe that teachers colleges have all but forsaken the practical elements of teaching—such as subject knowledge and lesson planning—in favor of progressive theoretical approaches. Which might be fine if it didn’t, as some believe, leave many teachers completely unprepared for the realities of the classroom—particularly in an era of standardization. There is “a sizable gap between what people are learning in schools of education and what they need in public schools,” observed David Levin, cofounder and superintendent of KIPP charter schools. As if to emphasize the point, KIPP is now among a number of groups working on developing their own teacher-training programs.

But if we really want to talk about the realities of the classroom, is there any kind of training that could prepare you for being intentionally vomited on? That’s what befell David Young, a high school Spanish teacher in Olathe, Kansas, as a vengeful failing student returned his textbook on the last day of classes. The student was subsequently convicted of battery and, in a creative judicial stroke, sentenced to clean up vomit in police cars across the county for the next four months. But the police don’t know yet how to make use of the teen’s services. “I’m sure we would, but nobody’s contacted our department and said, ‘If you have this happen, here’s the kid’s phone number,’ ” observed Ron Copeland, police captain in Shawnee, Kansas.

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