Evidence-based education: How do we truly know what we know?

This week the Education Committee heard two bills for which the testimony favoring and opposing seemed particularly irreconcilable.

1. The post-modern herd

One, LD 672: An Act Relating to Exemption from Immunization for Schoolchildren, responds to a recent national increase, mirrored in Maine, of parents who are choosing not to immunize their children.  Maine now ranks tenth in the country for kindergarten children whose parents have exempted them from immunization for “philosophical” reasons.

Noting that, as a matter of public health, decreasing levels of immunization risks an increase in catastrophic epidemics, the bill’s proponents seek simply to require school nurses to provide parents with information about the benefits of immunization and to have parents declining immunization for their child sign an acknowledgement that they have received the information.

Opponents of the bill testified that even the presentation of information is a government intrusion into parental rights.  Two citizens testified that the comprehensive and peer-reviewed science debunking an hypothesized link between vaccinations and autism was fundamentally, perhaps even conspiratorially, flawed and, as evidence, offered that citizens are unfairly blocked in the legal system to prove this via civil suit against the government.

In essence, the opponents argued that scientific knowledge is by nature imperfect and evolving and therefore, as a fixed point of fact, improperly the subject of official public endorsement.  Therefore any mission of public health must be subordinate to a greater inalienable individual freedom to mistrust and dispute.

…This feels a particular twitch of our times.

2. Inequality by choice

Might it improve kids’ learning if they were sheltered from the expected distractions presented by the presence of those of different sex?

A sizeable group of self-possessed students and parents from Sanford’s Willard Middle School made the trip to Augusta to make sure our committee clearly understood their belief that there’s merit in such segregation.

In response to requests from parents and students, from 2009 until 2012, the Willard School offered its fifth- and sixth-graders optional enrollment in a classroom segregated by sex.  The parents and students who testified said that, relieved from the discomforting gender-based interactions peculiar to the transitions of middle school, both boys and girls found it easier in segregation “just to be themselves” and to grow with increased self-confidence into “who they really are.”

Given that the separation was made by choice and that the curriculum was separate but assuredly equal, the Willard School was surprised last year when the Maine ACLU sent them a letter claiming the separated classrooms violated both Title 9 of federal educational statute and the equal protection clause of the US Constitution’s 14th amendment.

If the Supreme Court rules it’s impermissible for the Virginia Military Academy as a public school to segregate by sex, the ACLU argues, it’s not legal for the Sanford School Department either.

So, Sanford’s proponents of single-sex classrooms brought forward LD 699: An Act To Allow Public Schools To Offer Classes Limited to Students of a Single Gender, with the position that, as a matter of common sense, adolescent girls and boys are widely understood to have different learning styles, differently fragile  levels of confidence, and may be better taught in different ways.  What could be the harm in this as long as such segregation were optional?

Opponents on Thursday saw it differently, claiming that there in fact was no scientific evidence that children of different sex have inherently different learning dispositions and that presuming and enabling such a division represented exactly an institutional amplification of disproven and damaging stereotypes.

Others, including local College of the Atlantic professor Bonnie Tai, saw further potential complication with sex-segregated classrooms resulting from natural complexities of differently overlapping gender identities.

So what at first appeared to be a happy request for flexibility to respond to local initiative turned substantially complex.

So. respecting that all kids learn differently, at present I’m disposed towards not institutionalizing the first cut by kids’ reproductive gear.