Why Is an Entire Generation Ignorant of Cell Biology? ⋆ Brownstone Institute

Twenty years ago, I changed careers from management at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to teach science to high school students. As cliche as it may sound, I teach to make a difference. That is why I am compelled to tell you a story — a not-so-sexy story with an outsized impact on society.

In Jeffrey Tucker’s piece ‘Choice Quotes from Bill Gates’s New Book,’ Tucker writes: “The less exposed a population is to a mostly mild pathogen, the more vulnerable they are in the future to more severe outcomes. Please don’t get bored with this review because you already know this. It is taught to everyone in 9th grade biology class. And there’s no sense in repeating this here, much less explaining the basics of human immunology.”

Unfortunately, we can longer assume that our public-educated citizens are capable of informed decisions about anything to do with human immunology. . . or infectious disease, vaccines, viruses, and many other topics that are essential for informed decision-making in a free society. This is because the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that influences the education and assessment of over two-thirds of our public-school students omits some of the most essential science topics.

The NGSS is marketed as K–12 science content standards — what students should know and be able to do. All but six states have adopted or developed their science education to the NGSS.

Ostensibly, the goals of the NGSS were “. . . to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives. . .” Source: NGSS framework, Page 1

Yet the NGSS does not even include the key terms: immunity, infectious disease, pathogen, virus, vaccine, biotechnology, and genetic engineering. You can search the NGSS.

How does an organization led by Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of both IBM and RJR Nabisco, and supported by the National Governors Association come to develop and promote science standards with such obvious omissions?

The Next Generation Science Standards have not only failed to achieve its purported goals, but deprived our students, and future voters, of the minimum knowledge and understanding required to engage in meaningful discussion of significant science-related topics of the day: COVID, the SARS -CoV-2 virus, immunization/vaccination, infectious disease transmission, genetic modification, human reproduction and embryology, sex determination, etc.

So, what’s a teacher to do? I am fortunate to work in a school district that permits flexibility to develop lessons for my students. For example, I have integrated discussion of important biology concepts, such as basic immunology, into the classroom learning experience. But liberty is not without risk to a teacher’s career.

Last year, someone made an anonymous complaint to my school administrators about our class discussion of the biological factors that underlie the likelihood of achieving herd immunity to COVID. A primary concern to school administration: Is this part of the curriculum?

While schools may supplement their curricula with topics that are not explicitly part of NGSS, state standardized assessments pressure school districts to narrow the curriculum. The effect of this pressure is most profound where schools are ranked by standardized test scores.

I experienced the impact of standardized testing during my first years of teaching. Animals and human systems biology, which at that time were not part of the state standards, were cut piece by piece from the biology curriculum as our district’s state science scores were slightly lower than those of a “competing” district.

Perhaps the gaps in a NGSS-based 9th grade biology class can be filled if we encourage more of our high school students to enroll in advanced courses like the College Board’s AP Biology?

Oh, wait, the human body systems and basic immunology were removed from the AP Biology curriculum during the same period the NGSS was rolled out.

But that’s a whole other story.

  • John has been teaching students in a variety of biology courses at Greenwich High School, CT since 2003, including UConn’s Principles of Biology as a certified Early College Experience Instructor. He holds a BS in Biology from Binghamton University, an MBA from Iona College, and a MS in Biology from St. Joseph College. Prior to changing careers to teach, he developed the capabilities of a new team to improve and innovate the global acquisition of data and information as Director, Knowledge Management and Business Information in the Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group, New York.

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