AUGUSTA, Maine – Teachers and science advocates are voicing skepticism about a Maine proposal to update standards to incorporate teaching about genocide, eugenics and the Holocaust into middle school science education. They argue that teachers need more training before introducing such subjects that are both sensitive and nuanced.
While critics of the proposed updates said they are borne of good intentions — the proposal states that science has “sometimes been used by those in power to oppress and abuse others” — they also said that injecting the materials into a middle school science curriculum could distract from conventional scientific principles and could jeopardize science education.
The proposal states that science education in the state should reflect that “misinterpretation of fossil observations has led to the false idea of human hierarchies and racial inequality.” The proposal also states that “historically, some people have misused and/or applied the ideas of natural selection and artificial selection to justify genocide of various groups, such as Albinos in Africa or Jews in Europe.”
The proposed updates have drawn the attention of teachers’ groups in the state as well as national organizations that advocate for a better understanding of science. The concern in Democrat-controlled Maine contrasts conflicts over education in some more conservative states, where criticism has focused on the teaching of climate change, U.S. history and evolution in recent years.
The Maine Science Teachers Association testified before the state that adding the proposed content to education standards without providing professional training for teachers could jeopardize science education. The updates, which are geared toward middle schoolers, could also make it harder for young minds to absorb the more basic science concepts they are encountering for the first time, said Tonya Prentice, president of the Maine Science Teachers Association.
“As far as critical thinking skills, middle school students are still developing those, and that’s just putting it at a level that is fundamentally higher than we should expect them to handle,” Prentice said. “That’s a lot for adults to take in.”
Others said they felt the state is well-intentioned to try to incorporate social history into science education, but agreed Maine needs to first ensure that its teachers are equipped to do it. The contributions scientists have made to theories like eugenics belong in science class, but it needs to be done right, said Joseph Graves Jr., a professor of biology who is on the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education, which includes hundreds of teachers.
“The question is, should those things be incorporated into science class? My answer is absolutely yes,” Graves Jr. said. “But it comes down to when to do that and whether the people doing it are doing it in a way that is knowledgeable and pedagogically sound.”
The Maine Department of Education is performing the update, which is part of a review of standards that is required every five years. The proposed updates would have to ultimately be approved by a committee of the Maine Legislature.
The Maine Department of Education took public comments about the proposal until the middle of November and the next step is for the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to make a determination about the standards, said Marcus Mrowka, a spokesperson for the education department.
The updates are the result of new requirements from the Legislature to include certain kinds of education into the curriculum, Mrowka said. Schools are now required to include content about Native American and African American histories as well as the history of genocide, including the Holocaust, Mrowka said. Mrowka said the update doesn’t constitute a change to the standards but rather represents the inclusion of a further explanation section to provide educators with additional contexts and opportunities to encourage critical thinking.
The recommended updates that are up for adoption were made by teachers, and the education department opened up the revision process to any science teachers who wanted to be involved, Mrowka said. A group of two dozen Maine science educators met several times over the summer to lead the review of the science standards, Mrowka said.
The teachers also worked with scholars and experts to include the additional content areas that the Legislature required, Mrowka said.
“The teachers included a further explanation section to provide educators with additional contexts and opportunities to encourage critical thinking that incorporate the additional content required by the Legislature,” Mrowka said.
The state sought public comments about the current science standards earlier in the year and received numerous comments from educators about the importance of challenging students. Middle schoolers can grapple with “rigorous and relevant learning for the world that we live in,” testified Robert Ripley, a sixth grade teacher in the Oxford Hills School District.
“We want our students to be the builders of tomorrow, and they need the skills to create that unknown future world,” Ripley testified.
Alison Miller, an associate professor at Bowdoin College who served on the state steering committee for science standards, called the revisions “misguided.” Miller said the heavy subjects of genocide and scientific racism seemed to be shoehorned into the standards.
“This is not a shoehorn-able subject,” Miller said. “This is about context and nuance, and asking teachers to do it without the context and nuance that it takes to take on a subject so large and so important is asking them to do it superficially or not at all.”
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