Moves and Countermoves in Texas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Moves and Countermoves in Texas
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
1
Year: 
2009
Date: 
January-February
Page(s): 
4-7
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

The end of 2008 was replete with moves and countermoves in the controversy over the place of evolution in Texas's state science standards, beginning with the release of proposed drafts of the state's science education standards on September 22, 2008. Not surprisingly, the media focused on the place of evolution in the draft standards, with the Dallas Morning News (2008 Sep 23) reporting, "Proposed curriculum standards for science courses in Texas schools would boost the teaching of evolution by dropping the current requirement that students be exposed to 'weaknesses' in Charles Darwin's theory of how humans and other life forms evolved. Science standards drafted by review committees of teachers and academics also would put up roadblocks for teachers who want to discuss creationism or 'intelligent design' in biology classes when covering the subject of evolution."

In particular, a requirement in the current standards for high school biology that reads "The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information" would be replaced with "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing," and a description of the limits of science (adapted from the recent National Academy of Sciences publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism) — "Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods" — would be added.

Such revisions may seem small and unimportant, but in 2003, the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas state science standards was selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. At the time, board member Patricia Hardy observed that it was invidious to apply the language only to a single topic; while if it were applied across the board, "we'd need a crane to carry the books to the schools." In the end, all of the textbooks were adopted without substantial changes, but it was clear that the "strengths and weaknesses" language would be a matter of contention when the standards were next revised. As Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network told The New York Times (2008 Jun 4), "'Strengths and weaknesses' are regular words that have now been drafted into the rhetorical arsenal of creationists."

Groups supporting the integrity of science education unsurprisingly applauded the draft standards. In a September 23, 2008, press release (available on-line at http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5453), the Texas Freedom Network's Kathy Miller was quoted as saying, "These work groups have crafted solid standards that provide a clear road map to a 21st-century science education for Texas students ... These commonsense standards respect the right of families to pass on their own religious beliefs to their children while ensuring that public schools give students a sound science education that prepares them to succeed in college and the jobs of the future." "It's time for state board members to listen to classroom teachers and true experts instead of promoting their own personal agendas," she added. "Our students can't succeed with a 19th-century science education in their 21st-century classrooms. We applaud the science work groups for recognizing that fact."

In a September 23, 2008, blog post for the Houston Chronicle (available on-line via http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html), Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman also welcomed the addition of the description of the limits of science and the removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language, which he described as "the primary weapon that creationists have to attempt to damage and corrupt science textbooks." He expressed regret, however, that those revisions were not emulated in all of the standards. Schafersman also lamented the omission from the biology standards of any requirement to learn about human evolution in particular, commenting," I'm sure the competent teachers on the biology panel discussed a requirement for human evolution, but they ultimately decided against it. They should have included it and forced the [state board of education] members to remove it by majority vote rather than by giving their prior permission to continue censorship."

The chair of the state board of education, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, defended the "strengths and weaknesses" language, telling the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Sep 23), "I'd argue it doesn't make sense scientifically to take it out ... Evolution shouldn't have anything to worry about — if there's no weaknesses, there's no weaknesses. But if there's scientifically testable explanations out there to refute it, shouldn't those be included too?" The newspaper added, "he prefers the 'strengths and weaknesses' language because it allows the board to reject a textbook that doesn't cover the weaknesses of evolution." But Kevin Fisher, who helped to write the draft biology standards, told the American-Statesman, "Something doesn't become a theory if it's got weaknesses. There may be some questions that may yet to be answered, but nothing that's to the level of a weakness."

Clearly the treatment of evolution in the standards — and especially the omission of the "strengths and weaknesses" language — was going to continue to be controversial. Summarizing the political situation on the state board of education, the American-Statesman reported, "In previous public discussions, seven of 15 board members appeared to support, on some level, the teaching of the weaknesses of evolution in science classrooms. Six have been opposed, and two — Geraldine Miller, R–Dallas, and Rick Agosto, D–San Antonio — are considered swing votes." And, as Schafersman commented, "Since there are no scientists on the SBOE and since seven members are young-earth creationists — most of whom have publicly stated their intention to distort evolution standards and damage science instruction — it is likely that the public debate and approval will be contentious."

Schafersman was not wrong. The next focus of contention was the composition of a six-member committee appointed by the board to review the draft set of science standards. Included were three anti-evolutionists, and defenders of the integrity of science education were livid. "The committee was chosen by 12 of the 15 members of the board of education, with each panel member receiving the support of two board members," as the Dallas Morning News (2008 Oct 16) explained. Six members of the board "aligned with social conservative groups" chose Stephen C Meyer, the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture; Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Superior; and Charles Garner, a chemistry professor at Baylor University.

Meyer, Seelke, and Garner are all signatories of the Discovery Institute-sponsored "Dissent from Darwinism" statement (see RNCSE 2001 Nov/Dec; 21 [6]: 22–3). Meyer and Seelke are also coauthors of Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism (Melbourne: Hill House, 2008), which, like Of Pandas and People, is a supplementary textbook that is intended to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. A recent review by biologist John Timmer (available on-line at http://arstechnica.com/reviews/other/discovery-textbook-review.ars) summarized, "But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book." (Timmer's review of Explore Evolution will be reprinted in a future issue of RNCSE.) Garner, for his part, reportedly told the Houston Press (2000 Dec 14) that he "criticizes evolutionary theory in class."

Meyer and Seelke also testified in the 2005 "kangaroo court" hearings held by three anti-evolutionist members of the Kansas state board of education, in which a parade of anti-evolutionist witnesses expressed their support for the socalled minority report version of the state science standards (written with the aid of a local "intelligent design" organization), complained of repression by a dogmatic evolutionary establishment, and claimed to have detected atheism lurking "between the lines" of the standards (transcripts are available on-line at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/kansas/kangaroo.html). A version of the minority report was adopted in 2005, despite criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teachers Association, but the balance of power on the board changed, and supporters of the integrity of science education quickly restored a proper treatment of evolution to the Kansas standards.

Referring to the appointment of Meyer, Seelke, and Garner, Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network told the Austin American-Stateman (2008 Oct 16), "I think these state board members have really lifted the veil on what their real agenda is here ... It's clear they picked a few experts and a few people with a clear conflict of interest and a political agenda." Similarly, in a press release issued on October 15, 2008 (available on-line at http://www.texscience.org/releases/creationists-science-reviewpanel.htm), Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman lamented, "It is unfortunate that some SBOE members have such a poor regard for the education of Texas science students that they must resort to pushing their own anti-evolutionist and creationist religious ideologies into the science standards revision process."

The three remaining members of the committee — "veteran science professors from major Texas universities," as the Morning News observed — were David Hillis, a professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin; Gerald Skoog, a professor of education at Texas Tech University, and Ronald Wetherington, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University. The American-Statesman noted,"a seventh panel member could be nominated. The panel is expected to send recommendations on the proposal back to the board in the coming months." In the end, there was no seventh member. And although the recommendations of the individual committee members were completed and posted on the Texas Education Agency's website (available on-line at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/teks/science/expertfeedback.html), there was little reaction to or comment on their suggestions in the media. The panels that wrote the standards for the various subjects were furnished with the outside reviews as well as feedback from the public, a comparison of the draft standards to the Texas College Readiness Standards, and a comparison of the draft standards with the highly regarded Massachusetts science standards.

Meanwhile, the scientific community, both in Texas and nationally, was not remaining silent about the need for a proper treatment of evolution. The 21st Century Science Coalition's advisory committee published a pair of op-eds urging the state board of education to accept the draft standards, emphasizing the scientific centrality and the economic importance of evolution (see sidebar 1). The chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan I Leshner, argued, "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" (see sidebar 2). Barbara Forrest explained "Why Texans shouldn't let creationists mess with science education" in a November 11, 2008, lecture at Southern Methodist University in Dallas (video is available on-line at http://smu.edu/flashvideo/?id=248; audio is available on-line at http://smu.edu/newsinfo/audio/barbaraforrest-11nov2008.mp3). And a study conducted by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund and Raymond Eve demonstrated that a vast majority of scientists at public and private universities in Texas reject the arguments advanced by those seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in Texas's state science standards (see sidebar 3).

At last the day appointed for the Texas state board of education to hear testimony about the proposed new set of state science standards arrived, November 19, 2008 — and plenty of the testimony concerned the treatment of evolution in the standards. As the Dallas Morning News (2008 Nov 20) explained, the standards "will dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools and provide the material for state tests and textbooks. The standards will remain in place for a decade after their approval by the state board." The standards under consideration were not the version released in September 2008, but a revised version drafted in November 2008 and not posted on the Texas Education Agency's website until November 17, 2008. A significant difference is that the September version omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language of the old standards, which was selectively applied in 2003 by members of the board seeking to dilute the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks, while the November version included a variant of it: "strengths and limitations."

Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman told the board that the "strengths and weaknesses" language was unscientific and pedagogically inappropriate, according to the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Nov 20). He was not alone in defending the teaching of evolution at the meeting. In a story significantly headlined "Evolution proponents descend on state education panel," the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (2008 Nov 20) observed, "With few exceptions, the speakers — scientists, teachers, clergy and grassroots activists — took the side of evolution," a situation that evidently vexed the chair of the board, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, who complained,"This is all being ginned up by the evolution side."

Reflecting on the spectacle, the Corpus Christi Call-Times (2008 Nov 20) editorially commented, "Members of the state board of ducation, as they prepare to establish a new science curriculum, should certainly heed the advice of the state's top science teachers: Teaching the 'weaknesses' of the theory of evolution raises questions about its validity, questions that are not shared by established science. Public schools should teach evolution. Period. Texas students will have to compete in the real world, not the flat earth of the past." In addition to the newspaper reports, detailed running commentary on the meeting was posted on their blogs by representatives of two of the groups defending the integrity of science education in Texas: Texas Citizens for Science, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo. Sphere blog (http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html), and the Texas Freedom Network, on its own blog (http://tfnblog.wordpress.com). Both groups are going to continue to monitor the standards, which are expected first to return to the writing committee for revisions in December 2008, and then return to the board for consideration in January 2009.

AUTHOR'S ADDRESS

Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org

Glenn Branch is deputy director of NCSE.

Sidebar 1

COALITION DEFENDS DRAFT STANDARDS IN TEXAS

"The State Board of Education's decisions in the coming months will affect both the college preparation and future job qualifications of our children. Our students deserve a sound education that includes the latest findings of scientific research and excludes ideas that have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny." That was the message of the 21st Century Science Coalition's advisory committee — Daniel I Bolnick, RE Duhrkopf, David M Hillis, Ben Pierce, and Sahotra Sarkar — delivered in twin op-eds published in two Texas newspapers, the Waco Tribune (2008 Oct 19), and the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Oct 21).

In their op-eds, after describing the vast amount of scientific research that supports evolution, and the absence of any compelling evidence against it, Bolnick and his colleagues responded to the charge of censorship: "Evolution opponents who promote such phony 'weaknesses' claim we are trying to censor them, suppressing free speech. But the entire point of education is to provide students with the best information available, without wasting time on bogus arguments. We don't teach alchemy alongside chemistry, for example, or astrology alongside physics. We don't ask students to decide for themselves whether Earth revolves around the Sun or vice versa. Is that 'censorship'?"

They also emphasized the increasing economic importance of evolution education, writing, "We can't expect future citizens of Texas to be successful in a 21st-century world with a 19th-century science education. Once our children enter the work force, they will find that understanding evolution is central to many innovations in medicine, agriculture, engineering and biotechnology. Undermining biology education risks driving away biotechnology and other industries from our state." The Austin American-Statesman (2008 Oct 6) already editorially agreed, noting that biomedical industries "have not looked favorably on communities that water down science studies with vague and unproven ideas."

The 21st Century Science Coalition (on-line at ) was organized to resist attempts of creationists to maintain the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas state science standards, which are currently undergoing revisions. Already over 1300 Texas scientists with or working towards advanced degrees in life, physical, and mathematical science have signed the coalition's statement calling on the state board of education to approve science standards that "acknowledge that instruction on evolution is vital to understanding all the biological sciences" and that "encourage valid critical thinking and scientific reasoning by leaving out all references to 'strengths and weaknesses', which politicians have used to introduce supernatural explanations into science courses."

Sidebar 2

AAAS CONCERNED ABOUT TEXAS SCIENCE STANDARDS

Writing in the Houston Chronicle (2008 Oct 22), the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan I Leshner, deplored the recent appointment of three anti-evolutionists 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 wrote, 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 emphasized 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 hammered home was the economic importance of a quality science education: "To maintain the state's strength as an engine of US 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 joined the 21st Century Science Coalition, the Texas Freedom Network, and Texas Citizens for Science, as well as the editorial boards of the Waco Tribune (2008 Oct 3) and the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Oct 6). 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 (http://www.aaas.org/news/press_room/evolution).

Sidebar 3

TEXAS SCIENTISTS OVERWHELMINGLY REJECT ANTI-EVOLUTION ARGUMENTS

Scientists at public and private universities in Texas overwhelmingly reject the arguments advanced by the anti-evolutionists seeking to undermine the treatment of evolution in Texas's state science standards, according to a report released by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. "This survey leaves no doubt that the political crusade against evolution and other attempts to dumb down our public school science curriculum are deeply misguided," TFN Education Fund president Kathy Miller said in a press release (available on-line at http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5621). "Texas scientists are clearly worried that failing to provide a 21st-century science education in our public schools will harm our children's chances to succeed in college and the jobs of the future."

The report, entitled Evolution, Creationism, and Public Education: Surveying What Texas Scientists Think about Educating Our Kids in the 21st Century (available on-line as a PDF at http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/FinalWebPost.pdf?docID=861), details a survey conducted by the TFN Education Fund in conjunction with Raymond Eve, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, who is the coauthor with Francis B Harrold of The Creationist Movement in Modern America (Boston: Twayne, 1990). The survey was sent to the 1019 biologists and biological anthropologists on the faculty of all 35 public and the 15 largest private colleges and universities in Texas. The response rate was high — 45% of those surveyed responded. "Their responses should send parents a clear message that those who want to play politics with science education are putting our kids at risk," Eve commented.

The TFN Education Fund's press release summarizes five key findings from the survey: "1. Texas scientists (97.7%) overwhelmingly reject 'intelligent design' as valid science. 2. Texas science faculty (95%) want only evolution taught in science classrooms. 3. Scientists reject teaching the so-called 'weaknesses' of evolution, with 94% saying that those arguments are not valid scientific objections to evolution. 4. Science faculty believe that emphasizing 'weaknesses' of evolution would substantially harm students' college readiness (79.6%) and ability to compete for 21st-century jobs (72%). 5. Scientists (91%) strongly believe that support for evolution is compatible with religious faith."

Evolution, Creationism, and Public Education was released just as the Texas State Board of Education was preparing to consider a new draft set of state science standards from November 19 to November 21, 2008, hearing testimony from the public on November 19. The Dallas Morning News (2008 Nov 17) reported that "a majority of members have voiced support for retaining the current mandate to cover both strengths and weaknesses of major scientific theories, notably evolution, in science courses." But the TFN Education Fund's Kathy Miller told the newspaper that it would be a mistake for the board not to heed the clear consensus of Texas science professors: "This survey leaves no doubt that the political crusade against evolution and other attempts to dumb down our public school science curriculum are deeply misguided."

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.