Thursday, September 01, 2011

Genetic Education:

   A study by the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) is published today suggesting that few U.S. states have adequate standards in place for genetics education.  I forgot to ask for a link to the article that would go live post-embargo, but it should be on the website of the journal (CBE Life Sciences Education)

Educational standards are a hot topic right now in the U.S., with much heat and occasional light.  On the one hand, standards are an attempt to determine a minimum level of instruction in a subject and make that uniform across a state.  On the other, unless you test for the standard you can't really know whether students really know the material -- and even then it's hard to be sure.  Some folks are really good on tests and some are really poor; I'm in the former category and I have an old friend who I'm sure would have made a fine lawyer but was excluded due to poor LSAT scores.  Furthermore, if the tests don't count then students may not take them seriously -- but if they do count, then "teaching to the test" hijacks the curriculum -- or worse, leads to corruption of the process via teachers and/or administrators faking tests or assisting students (or simply keeping the worst students away from the test).  Other perversions can occur: Massachusetts is currently trying to avoid adopting U.S. standards for American History, because the existing state standards are far more rigorous.  But,, there's no simple inheritance here: adopting the Federal standards would mean testing for them, which would be forced to be separate from testing for the Massachusetts standards and hence increase the burdent of testing on students (and diminution of actual instructional time).

Still, I think there is value in having standards and trying to measure them.  One challenge education shares with pharmaceutical research is that there is a very long lag between when key steps are performed and when useful results are obtained.  In pharma, it's long after you change your R&D strategy before you can determine if it really improved your productivity at delivering new drugs to the clinic.  In education, instructional changes early in a child's education might have huge impacts, but those might not be apparent until that child tries to enter a profession as an adult.

The ASHG study broke things only down by state, which is reasonable but doesn't take into account that some localities (which could be large cities) may have their own curriculum standards which are more rigorous.  What is perhaps most striking is that states with "adequate" standards do not correspond to biotech/pharma  hotbeds.  On the standard of average quality of concepts, only Washington,  Kansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Michigan and North Carolina were deemed adequate.  Washington and North Carolina have serious life sciences hubs and to a lesser degree Illinois and Michigan, but note who isn't on that list: biotech powerhouses California, Massachusetts and Maryland or old pharma stomping grounds such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.   On another measure, the number of adequate concepts, New Jersey and Colorado were in the worst category and Massachusetts just up one from there.  

What were they measuring?  It is detailed in the report, though the state-by-state breakdown of specific points is unfortunately not provided as a supplemental table.   Some of the more commonly found points are "DNA is the genetic material for all living organisms" and the fact that genes are made of DNA and are organized into chromosomes.    Some of the lowest scoring concepts were "Polygenic (or complex) trains often show continuous variation within populations and are less predictable than single-gene traits" and "Polygenic traits are influenced by multiple genes and their products".  Only three of the points directly mention evolution, which unfortunately is a real hot potato issue in many states, but these actually scored better (but at a level of "inadequate") than many of the other points.  It's also not hard to see the list of points and think of missing items that are achieving great prominence.  For example, epigenetic inheritance is not covered.

Another well-made point is that the concepts which contain higher-level thinking tend to be the ones fewer states require and that many of these encompass general concepts which go across disciplines.  For example, knowing that genes are made of DNA is largely descriptive, but understanding that the expression of a gene can be regulated by complex positive and negative interactions is a more general notion which can be found in many other disciplines such as physics or economics.

It would be terrible if the revolution in the scientific analysis of genetics were utterly inaccessible to the majority of future adults (today's students) due to a lack of basic literacy in the concepts and terminology. I do note that TNG has yet, to my awareness (and I get asked for homework help routinely, so it would be surprising if it escaped me), had any formal exposure to this domain.  Sure, he's going to have a leg up due to his ursine advocacy, but that's not really enough.  At the one science fair he participated in, there weren't many genetics projects.  The one, by some boys I know well, extracted DNA and had some background on the structure of DNA (which I cringed at the wording, as to me it suggested Watson & Crick had blindly guessed at the structure, rather than cleverly piecing together a number of lines of evidence).  Genetics is tricky to work into such settings; an awful lot of such projects are put together in the time of only a few E.coli cell divisions.  

One aspect of education outside the scope of this study is assessing the teachers who are delivering this information.  A lot of science is taught by non-specialists, and even many science teachers may not have had in depth work in biology.  I had a quite decent high school biology class, and while that was eons ago I'm pretty sure a lot of topics in this paper were not covered.  In particular, multigenic traits tended to get swept under the rug in my memory - -there was some sort of plot somewhere showing additive effects on height of wheat, but that was probably about it.  The concept of different genes being active at different points in development (or different cell types) I don't remember hitting until college either.   And a lot of today's science teachers were either in my cohort or near it in school; they are probably working from a similar base.  If that wasn't fixed later, they may find teaching these areas challenging, and may also lack the understanding of how important some of these concepts are to the modern view of genetics.

This study is an important contribution to what needs to be an ongoing dialogue about what levels of genetic understanding should be required of students of various levels.  As I've suggested above, in depth examination of the standards for teachers of these subjects are critical to review as well, and also the standards for professionals in fields which abut genetics such as medicine.  


kris said...

You have said eloquently about the long lag between when key steps are performed and their useful results are obtained in both education and pharmaceutical research.
Standards are necessary, but when assessed by non experts with a sole aim of finding a scape-goat they bring unwanted outcomes. When you bring-in new knowledge into a curriculum you normally do not remove some old information that is irrelevant or inconsistent with the new knowledge. This extra burden may be one of the reasons for poor performance of students. Analyzing the role of teachers, as you pointed out, in the knowledge disparity is worthy of another study.

Having said that, I believe that America will have enough number of people with genetics knowledge to translate the cutting edge research into useful form to the benefit of whole society.

Anonymous said...

Better not let the state legislatures get involved with micro-managing education. Let the teachers and parents decides what's good. Bureaucrats and politicians don't always make good decisions.