The Battle over the Classroom

 
The fight to wedge religion, however indirectly, into the classroom continues apace. This page opens with two "report cards" on science education in the US classroom, the first from 2009, and the second from 2000. These are followed by news of contention is selected states.
 

Evolving Standards: A State-by-State Report Card

August 10th, 2009; National Center for Science Education News

How is evolution faring in state science education standards? NCSE's Louise S. Mead and Anton Mates pored over the latest standards in all fifty states. In a new study forthcoming in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, they report, "The treatment of biological evolution in state science standards has improved dramatically over the last ten years." Forty states received satisfactory grades for the treatment of evolution in their state science standards in Mead and Mates's study, as opposed to only thirty-one in Lawrence S. Lerner's 2000 study Good Science, Bad Science, conducted for the Fordham Foundation.

But the news is not all rosy. Five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia — received the grade of F, and a further six states — Alaska, Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — receive the grade of D. Moreover, the "treatment of human evolution is abysmal," Mead and Mates lament, with only seven states (and the District of Columbia) providing a comprehensive treatment. Many states "do not reference the Big Bang as the current scientific theory for the origin of the universe," they add, and only 17 states provide a comprehensive treatment of the connections among biological, geological, and cosmological systems.

Mead and Mates also consider a few states that furnish "excellent examples of the successes and failures of the standards-setting process." The grades for Florida and Kansas have vaulted from F to A, although not without controversy: "the Kansas standards have seesawed between abysmal and excellent no fewer than four times in the last decade." In Louisiana, however, the passage of the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act undermined the treatment of evolution in the standards, which now receive the grade of F. And in Texas, the state board of education's revisions in March 2009 served to undermine the treatment of evolution in the standards to the point where they, too, receive a failing grade.

In a companion article introducing the study, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, "On the basis of Mead and Mates’s results, there is reason to be pleased by the progress over the last ten years in the inclusion of evolution in state science education standards. That the treatment of evolution is inadequate in almost one in five states still suggests that there is considerable room for improvement, but we should be optimistic that teachers, scientists, and others who care about science education will continue — as science standards continue to be periodically revised — to work for the appropriate inclusion of evolution in state science education standards."

For the academic report, see Louise S. Mead and Anton Mates, "Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science Curriculum and How States Measure Up." Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009. Full-text  

 
 

Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States

September 1, 2000. by Lawrence S. Lerner, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: Advancing Education Excellence

More than one-third of the states get low grades for the standards they have developed for teaching evolution, according to this new report. This report is the first comprehensive analysis of how each state handles evolution in its science standards for the public schools.

Almost all of science is the study of the evolution of systems in time. Biology is no exception; its central organizing principle is the evolution of living things, just as geology centers on the evolution of the earth and astronomy on the evolution of the universe.

That evolution is the central organizing principle of all the historical sciences is not a controversial issue among scientists, nor among most of the world's educated persons. Consequently, the teaching of science worldwide stresses evolution as a routine matter. The United States is exceptional in this regard. In much of this country, the teaching to K-12 students of evolution as scientists see it -- particularly biological evolution -- evokes bitter controversy. Specifically, many persons object to the teaching of part or all of the facts and theory of evolution in the public schools at the primary and secondary level. This controversy is not really about science but about religion and politics. Those who object to the teaching of evolution often assert that evolution has not taken place, that scientists are profoundly misguided in the picture of the universe that they have developed over the past two centuries, that it is "only fair" to present creationist views to students in tandem with evolution, and that teaching evolution will lead children into immoral lives. In pursuing the first two of these assertions, many of the opponents have advanced what they call "creation science," a pseudoscientific rival to evolution that the courts have repeatedly held to be thinly veiled religion.

This essentially nonscientific controversy is reflected in the primary-secondary (K-12) science standards of many states.1 It is manifested in a variety of ways, which are discussed in detail in the body of this report. However, there are two principal ways in which objections to the teaching of evolution are expressed:

· The fundamental concepts and facts of evolution are covered to some extent -- usually briefly -- but the word "evolution" is carefully avoided, at least in the context of biology. Such incorrect and misleading euphemisms as "change over time" are used instead.

· The subject is avoided altogether or barely mentioned, reducing the sciences -- especially the biological sciences -- to disjointed lists of facts.

There are other ways in which the teaching of evolution is sometimes short-changed. In particular, a few states go much further in dismissing or obscuring important scientific knowledge. These states are considered on a case-by-case basis in the main text.

The states have been assigned letter grades for their treatment of evolution. The results are displayed in Tables 1 and 2 and Figure 1. Link here for the Tables, Figures, and the remainder of the report.
 

State News on Teaching Evolution

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. Today, with headquarters in Washington, DC, and a staff of approximately 50, AIBS is sustained by a robust membership of some 5,000 biologists and 200 professional societies and scientific organizations; the combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 250,000. AIBS advances its mission through coalition activities in research, education, and public policy; publishing the peer-reviewed journal BioScience and the education website ActionBioscience.org; providing scientific peer review and advisory services to government agencies and other clients; convening meetings; and managing scientific programs.

The federal education law, No Child Left Behind, requires states establish standards for student assessment. As a consequence, states across the country are working to develop K-12 science standards and model curricula that will ensure students meet these standards. This process has seemingly reinvigorated a host of organizations that oppose the inclusion of evolution in public school curricula or advocate for the inclusion of "alternative theories" ranging from young-Earth creationism to intelligent design.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences Public Policy Office works with various national and state organizations to monitor and report on state and local threats to the teaching of evolution in public school science courses. The AIBS Public Policy Office reports on these threats through its bi-weekly public policy report. To enable scientists and science educators to better track current and historic challenges to evolution, past public policy report items on evolution education are organized here by state and date.   

State-by-State Coverage from the NCSE.
For more information on legislative challenges state-by-state, see the News at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). From this page, use the "News Search" tool on the right, selecting your state of choice from the drop-down box. 
 

Creationism and the Law from the NCSE.

Looking for the legal skinny on the court cases that shaped the landscape of the creationism/evolution controversy? NCSE's new Creationism and the Law resource provides the details on seventeen key cases, from Scopes to Selman, that made a difference. Simply click on the name of a case to get a thorough summary; a list of source documents (typically PDFs, arranged in chronological order); and to relevant NCSE news stories, timelines, and presentations; and a selection of links to third-party sources. This new NCSE resource is free and aimed at journalists, lawyers, school administrators, school boards, and anyone interested in the legal history of evolution, creationism, and public school science education.

 
 
In Louisiana (2008-2009)
 
The Education Debacle in Louisiana
See the Oct 2009 news report from the National Center for Science Education
The Background: Louisiana’s Educational Assault on Darwin
 
Editorial. New York Times, June 21, 2008 

It comes as no surprise that the Louisiana State Legislature has overwhelmingly approved a bill that seeks to undercut the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The state, after all, has a sorry history as a hotbed of creationists’ efforts to inject religious views into science courses. All that stands in the way of this retrograde step is Gov. Bobby Jindal.

In the 1980s, Louisiana passed an infamous “Creationism Act” that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless it was accompanied by instruction in “creation science.” That effort to gain essentially equal time for creationism was slapped down by the United States Supreme Court as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. State legislators, mimicking scattered efforts elsewhere, responded with a cagier, indirect approach.

The new bill doesn’t mention either creationism or its close cousin, intelligent design. It explicitly disavows any intent to promote a religious doctrine. It doesn’t try to ban Darwin from the classroom or order schools to do anything. It simply requires the state board of education, if asked by local school districts, to help create an environment that promotes “critical thinking” and “objective discussion” about not only evolution and the origins of life but also about global warming and human cloning, two other bêtes noires of the right. Teachers would be required to teach the standard textbook but could use supplementary materials to critique it.

That may seem harmless. But it would have the pernicious effect of implying that evolution is only weakly supported and that there are valid competing scientific theories when there are not. In school districts foolish enough to head down this path, the students will likely emerge with a shakier understanding of science.

As a biology major at Brown University, Mr. Jindal must know that evolution is the unchallenged central organizing principle for modern biology. As a rising star on the conservative right, mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain, Mr. Jindal may have more than science on his mind. In a television interview, he seemed to say that local school boards should decide what is taught and that it would be wrong to teach only evolution or only intelligent design.

If Mr. Jindal has the interests of students at heart, the sensible thing is to veto this Trojan horse legislation. 

Louisiana Coalition for Science's Letter to the Governor

June 16, 2008

Honorable Bobby Jindal
Baton Rouge, LA 70802

Re: Veto of SB 733

Dear Governor Jindal:

SB 733, recently passed by both houses of the legislature, purports to enable teachers to help students “develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” This is a seemingly noble-sounding but deceptive goal.

SB 733 is a thinly disguised attempt to advance the “Wedge Strategy” of the Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think tank that is collaborating with the LA Family Forum to get intelligent design (ID) creationism into LA public school science classes. John West, associate director of DI’s Center for Science and Culture, has even presumed to interpret SB 733 on DI’s website so as to favor his group’s agenda. (See West’s “Questions and Answers About the Proposed Louisiana Science Education Act.”) Within minutes of the Senate’s passage of the bill on June 16, West posted the news of Louisiana’s passage of the “landmark” LA Science Education Act on DI’s website. According to one Louisiana news account, West indicated that DI hopes to see its own creationist textbook, the deceptively titled Explore Evolution, used in our science classes as one of the supplements that SB 733 will permit teachers to use (Opelousas Daily World, 6/16/08). DI apparently has a financial as well as a religious and political interest in this legislation.

Creationism, which includes both young-earth creationism and ID, is not science but a sectarian view based on the Bible. Young-earth creationism is based on Genesis, and ID is based on the Gospel of John, as was established in federal court in the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005). The Bible was never intended to be a science textbook. Evolution has long been accepted by the Catholic Church and most other mainstream churches. The late Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” (Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, October 22, 1996) As the pope recognized and other mainstream religions also recognize, there is no conflict between teaching children the scientific fact of evolution in school and providing religious instruction at home and in church. Millions of Americans lead committed religious lives while fully accepting modern science.

Since you hold a biology degree from Brown University, one of the nation’s most prestigious schools, you certainly appreciate Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous insight, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” You also surely understand that there is no scientific controversy over the fact of evolution. The current controversy is a political one, manufactured nationally by the Discovery Institute and here in Louisiana by the LA Family Forum, which does not represent the majority of Louisiana’s citizens but would impose its agenda on our entire state, even our children.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is violated when the government endorses a sectarian doctrine, as SB 733 would do, despite denials by the bill’s supporters. The section of SB 733 stipulating that the bill “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion” actually comes from the DI’s own model academic freedom act. If SB 733 were truly about teaching science, no such disclaimer would be needed.

If SB 733 becomes law, we can anticipate the embarrassment it will bring to the state, not to mention the prospect of spending millions of taxpayer dollars defending the inevitable federal court challenge. Consider also that federal courts have uniformly invalidated every effort to attack the teaching of evolution in public schools, including, among others, (1) Edwards v. Aguillard, a 1987 case that Louisiana lost in the U.S. Supreme Court; and (2) Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (pdf), a 2005 Pennsylvania federal court case in which a conservative Republican judge appointed by Pres. George W. Bush thoroughly examined and rejected a school board policy that presented ID to students as an alternative to evolution.

With our state still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, does Louisiana need the expense and embarrassment of defending – and losing – another lawsuit in federal court? What image will this legislation convey to high-tech companies and skilled individuals who might consider locating here? On your “Workforce Development” website, where you tell readers that “I am asking you to once again believe in Louisiana,” you acknowledge that because of a “skills gap,” the “training and education of our citizens does not meet the requirements of available jobs.” You state that “the lack of economic mobility discourages many Louisianans, including thousands of young people who have left our state in search of greater opportunities.” You also highlight Louisiana’s low educational ranking as one cause of the “workforce crisis in LA”: “In a 2007 national Chance-for-Success Index, Louisiana ranks #49 in the nation based on 13 indicators that highlight whether young children get off to a good start, succeed in elementary and secondary school, and hit crucial educational and economic benchmarks as adults.” SB 733 will degrade the quality of science education just when the state is so working hard to improve public schools.

Surely you agree that SB 733 sends the wrong message to the nation if we want to develop additional high tech companies such as the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, LIGO, and other research universities and centers across the state. SB 733 will sacrifice the education of our children to further the political and religious aims of the LA Family Forum and the Discovery Institute, an out-of-state creationist think tank whose only interest in Louisiana is promoting their agenda at the expense of our children.

You have repeatedly stressed your commitment to making Louisiana a place where our young people can build families and careers. You can help to make Louisiana that place by proving that you support the hundreds of science teachers and thousands of students in the public schools and universities across the state. You can demonstrate your commitment to improving both Louisiana’s image and our educational system by vetoing SB 733. The state and the nation are watching.

We call upon you to veto SB 733 in the best interests of our children and to protect the reputation of our state.

Sincerely,

LA Coalition for Science

 

For more on this front, see the Louisiana Coalition for Science

 

American Society for Microbiology and Molecular Biology

The American Society for Microbiology and Molecular Biology weighs in on the Louisiana Science Education Act. The Society is a non-profit scientific and educational organization with over 12,000 members.  Its mission is "to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology through publication of scientific and educational journals, ... organization of scientific meetings, advocacy for funding of basic research and education, support of science education at all levels, and promoting the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce."

"Academic Freedom is a Good Thing, Right?" Angela Hvitved, ASBMB Science Policy Fellow, August 2008. The link will open up the monthly journal. Click "Content" then select under "Special Interest" the article on page 10.

Paleontologists Decry Louisiana's Antievolution Law

In a September 4, 2008, press release, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) urged Louisiana citizens and legislators to repeal the recently enacted "Science Education Act" in their state, writing, "The Act was drafted under the guise of 'academic freedom' and appeals to cherished values of fairness and free speech.  However, SVP says the Act intends to garner support and legal protection for the introduction of religious, creationist concepts, including intelligent design, in public school science curricula.  By permitting instructional materials that are not reviewed by the state's science standards committees, the Louisiana Act and those like it encourage teachers and administrators to work outside these standards.  This makes it possible for local school boards to define science and science education to suit their own agendas, thereby compromising the quality of science education for students, and allowing religious discrimination in America's public school science classrooms."

 

Founded in 1940, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is the leading North American scientific and educational organization concerned with vertebrate paleontology.  According to its position statement on evolution education, "Evolution is fundamental to the teaching of good biology and geology ... The record of vertebrate evolution is exciting, inspirational, instructive, and enjoyable, and it is our view that everyone should have the opportunity and the privilege to understand it as paleontologists do." 

In decrying the Louisiana law, the Society joins a host of scientific organizations, including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (above), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and seven of its member societies, and (together) the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Society of Systematic Biologists.

 

In Florida (2008)

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash. New York Times, August 23, 2008

For more, cf. Florida Citizens for Science

 

 

In Texas (2008-2009)

 

The Battle for the Upcoming Revision of the State Science Standards (2008)

 

Exposing the Latest ID Strategies: Dr. Barbara Forrest, a leading expert on the Intelligent Design movement, explained "Why Texans Shouldn't Let Creationists Mess with Science Education" on November 11, 2008, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Now video and audio of her talk is available on-line. 

 

Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy by Laura Biel, New York Times, June 4, 2008

 

Articles in the Austin American-Stateman

 

· Committee recommends removal of "strengths and weaknesses" from science curriculum: The State Board of Education is expected to make a final decision on changes in March. Sept 24, 2008.

 

· Texas scientists challenge proposal to teach weaknesses of evolutionary theory:  Science curriculum draft that would remove ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature" from what Texas students are taught in biology classes. Oct 1, 2008

 

For more, cf. Texas Citizens for Science and the 21st Century Science Coalition.

 

See also Steven Schafersman's blog at the Houston Chronicle

 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science provides input on the situation in Texas.

Writing in the Houston Chronicle (October 22, 2008), the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan I. Leshner, deplores the recent appointment of three antievolutionists to a committee charged with reviewing a draft of Texas's state science standards.  "The new standards will shape how science education is taught in Texas for the next decade, and it would be a terrible mistake to water down the teaching of evolution in any way," he writes, adding, "At a time when most educators are working to prepare students for 21st century jobs, the board members' action threatens to confuse students, divide communities and tarnish Texas' reputation as an international science and technology center."

Leshner's op-ed emphasizes the strength of the scientific consensus on evolution ("Mainstream science and medical organizations in the United States and worldwide, representing tens of millions of scientists, accept evolution as the best explanation for how life developed on Earth"), the fact that many people of faith, including scientists and clergy alike, regard evolution as no threat to their faith, and the importance of preserving the integrity of science education.  But what he hammers home is the economic importance of a quality science education:  "To maintain the state's strength as an engine of U.S. research and innovation, Texas education leaders should stick to the basics.  Students need a solid science foundation to thrive in the 21st century."

In supporting a scientifically appropriate and pedagogically responsible treatment of evolution in the Texas state science standards, Leshner joins the 21st Century Science Coalition, the Texas Freedom Network, and Texas Citizens for Science, as well as the editorial boards of the Waco Tribune (October 3, 2008) and the Austin American-Statesman (October 6, 2008).  As the world's largest general interest scientific organization, the AAAS regularly defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and presents a useful collection of relevant statements, publications, resources, and links in a section of its on-line press room. (Article from NCSE.)

The article in the Houston Chronicle: Board's Actions Could Put Students at a Disadvantage

AAAS Evolution Resources

 

New Texas Science Standards Adopted (March 2009) 

A Setback for Science Education in Texas

At its March 25-27, 2009, meeting, the Texas state board of education voted to adopt a flawed set of state science standards, which will dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as provide the material for state tests and textbooks, for the next decade. Although creationists on the board were unsuccessful in inserting the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language from the old set of standards, they proposed a flurry of synonyms — such as "sufficiency or insufficiency" and "supportive and not supportive" — and eventually prevailed with a requirement that students examine "all sides of scientific evidence." Additionally, the board voted to add or amend various standards in a way that encourages the presentation of creationist claims about the complexity of the cell, the completeness of the fossil record, and the age of the universe. Full-text

Education Board in Texas Faces Curbs

By Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2009

Texas state legislators are considering reining in the Board of Education amid frustration with the board's politically charged debate over how to teach evolution.

The board last month approved a science curriculum that opens the door for teachers and textbooks to introduce creationist objections to evolution's explanation of the origin and progression of life forms. Other parts of the curriculum were carefully worded to raise doubts about global warming and the big-bang theory of how the universe began. Full-text

What's Wrong with the New Texas Standards? 

Writing in The Earth Scientist, the journal of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, NCSE's Steven Newton explains in detail what's wrong with the new state science standards adopted in Texas in March 2009, focusing on the Earth and Space Science (ESS) standards in particular. At the behest of the creationist faction on the state board of education, references to the specific age of the universe, common descent, and evolution were removed, and language that misleadingly suggests that established scientific results are in doubt was introduced. Newton concludes, "Although the original ESS standards were based on strong science and outlined an excellent course in earth sciences, a number of creationist and anti-science amendments have weakened the ESS standards and disrespected the hard work and expertise of the writing team. The standards are finalized and in place, bad amendments and all. The struggle for science education in Texas now shifts to the adoption of textbooks in 2011, when these deeply-flawed amendments may be used to force a creationist agenda into Texas science classrooms." For Newton's article (PDF, pp. 30-33), link here.  

 


 Next Section: The Biblical Accounts of Creation

  • Interpretations of Genesis 1
    • The lay of the land is here presented to acquaint us with the varied interpretive options within evangelicalism of Genesis 1.
  • The Ancient Science of the Bible and Three Interpretive Options
    • We introduce the scientific worldview of the ancient Near East that is assumed by the biblical authors. We also present three ways that biblical interpreters handle that ancient science.
  • Scholars Explore Non-concordism
    • Here biblical scholars, well-versed in its ancient Near Eastern context, clarify the ancient science assumed by the biblical authors. We also quote a variety of scholars who help us understand a non-concordist interpretation of Genesis 1, that is, where the ancient science can be left in its ancient context and not forced to agree with (or "concord") with more modern scientific discoveries.

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