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Provost’s first day at the U, Minnesota’s science standards dinged — and more

Today, Your Humble Blogger offers three slim items of note that she hopes add up to a news morsel — and buy her a little time to produce a couple of meatier news articles.

Karen Hanson
umn.eduKaren Hanson

Deep ties to the U

First, today is new University of Minnesota Provost Karen Hanson’s first day on the job. We introduced you to the good doctor — she’s a Ph.D. in actual philosophy — in October, when she was hired away from Indiana University’s Bloomington office, where she was provost and executive VP.

Hanson’s ties to the U of M run deep. She is a university alumna, earning her B.A. in philosophy and mathematics there in 1970; her Ph.D. in philosophy was conferred by Harvard University in 1980.

Her father, Lester E. Hanson, was on the Animal Sciences faculty for more than 30 years, retiring as department head in the early 1980s. One of her brothers earned a degree in chemistry from the U of M; the other earned a degree in economics and a J.D.

Hanson may have just begun drawing a U of M check, but she’s been in town and hard at work for the last couple of days. Yesterday she met individually with local higher-education beat reporters. I don’t know about the rest of the pack, but I canvassed the likely critics, wrote down their toughest questions and choked.

Hanson has yet to delve into the icky parts of her job, like her anemic budget, rising tuition or the painful lay of the legislative land. Questions that bear answering with facts will have to wait until after she has acquired a desk blotter and a copy of the U of M’s spreadsheet.

Other gleanings: Hanson really does seem like U of M President Eric Kaler’s natural counterbalance. He gives fast, sure answers; her pace is a little more moderate, her words scholarly. He’s a firecracker, while she is formidable. During our short meeting, she used the terms “pedagogy” and “professorate.”

A final fun fact: Because the U of M provost must be a tenured faculty member, Hanson spent the few weeks between her appointment by the Board of Regents and today winning tenure from the Philosophy Department. She asked 10 external references to submit letters attesting to her research chops, and was fortunate that as a former Hoosier state colleague, department Chair Geoffrey Hellman remembered her teaching statement from IU.

Epic fail

According to a report issued yesterday by the Fordham Institute, Minnesota’s science standards “are like the frustrating student who does excellent work two days a week but shoddy work on the other three. When the standards are ‘on,’ they are cogent and challenging. But too often they are marred by vague, incorrect or grade-inappropriate material, or are missing key content entirely.”

Adding insult to injury, nationwide the teaching of evolution continues to be remarkably problematic — even in this here supposedly blue state

Minnesota’s overall standards earned a “C” grade from Fordham, which granted them four of seven possible points for content and rigor and one of three for clarity and specificity. This is down from a “B” in 2005.

The institute’s 217-page report [PDF] sets out numerous examples of standards — the items a student must be able to demonstrate mastery of — that are too vague to be meaningful as well as too complicated to be realistic.

An example: “Other standards simply set unrealistic expectations. Students in sixth grade are, for example, asked to ‘use wave properties of light to explain reflection, refraction, and the color spectrum.’ That’s a tall order for middle school students, and it doesn’t help that it involves several quite diverse explanations involving the law of reflection, Snell’s law, and the phenomena of dispersion (for prisms) or diffraction (for diffraction gratings), together with the physiology of color perception.”

Yes, Pinky, I am thinking what you’re thinking: It’s a good thing I graduated from high school in this state in 1982, when Lake Wobegon’s children were all above average.

Where to even start?

I’ve been sitting in front of the keyboard for quite some time, unsure how to frame this last item, in which I will direct you to a Green Bay Press-Gazette story about a school newspaper opinion column opposing gay couples’ adoption rights penned by a 15-year-old Shawano High School student.

It begins thusly:

“In the United States only 11 states allow same-sex marriage. Most do not because our government is generally based off of religion and the Bible.

“Also, if one is a practicing Christian, Jesus states in the Bible that homosexuality is a detestable act and sin which makes adopting wrong for homosexuals because you would be raising the child in a sin-filled environment. Leviticus 20:13 states ‘If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they surely shall be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them.'”

The piece ran opposite a column by a different teen author who cites a number of secular sources who support her position, which is that children need good homes.

A kid in one of Shawano County’s 40 LGBT-headed households brought the paper home to his dads along with a host of disturbing questions. Worried about their very minority status and that whole “put to death” bit, the dads complained.

The district apologized, after which a Christian legal nonprofit and a student free-press group complained, and I was put to mind of the state of affairs in Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, which has endured a wave of suicides among bullied students and is struggling with whether to scrap its policy of “curricular neutrality” on matters concerning sexual orientation.

So many teachable moments, so little evidence many schools have a clue how to seize them.

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