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A quartet of articles on evolution education

In the seemingly endless stream of articles on challenges to evolution education from across the country, recent stories from California Schools, New York's Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun especially deserve a read. Discussing such challenges in a variety of contexts -- how local school boards in California need to be wary of proposals that would compromise the teaching of evolution; how science teachers in New York cope with questions about creationism and evolution from students; what experts in science and science education think of teachers who are teaching creationism in their science classrooms; how one teacher in South Bend, Indiana, taught about creationism in order to explain the scientific strength of evolution -- these stories help to emphasize the multifaceted nature of the controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution in the public schools. (It is of course also gratifying that they also rely on the acumen and expertise of NCSE's staff and board of directors!)

In the winter 2005 issue of California Schools, the quarterly magazine of the California School Boards Association, Carol Brydolf writes [Link broken], "Because overseeing is a major part of every school board's job, increasing numbers of school board members across the country are finding they have little choice but to enter the newest skirmishes in the decades-long battle over evolution." NCSE deputy director Glenn Branch is quoted as noting, "when school boards are involved, it's usually a bad sign"; Brydolf cites the just-concluded trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover as a case in point. Berkeley's Kevin Padian, who testified for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller and serves as president of NCSE's board of directors, is quoted as saying, "It may be appropriate for schools to teach about intelligent design, but it is not appropriate to teach students that intelligent design is science." Moreover, Brydolf notes, perhaps for the benefit of her readership of school board members, "Debates over the teaching of evolution can be expensive and counterproductive."

Writing in Newsday (November 27, 2005), Ellen Yan discusses [Link broken] how "intelligent design" presents a challenge to science teachers in New York. The story opens with Jack Friedman -- a retired teacher, the head of the New York State Council on Evolution Education, and a member of NCSE's board of directors -- coaching a group of middle school teachers about addressing the issue with their students: Friedman comments, "They didn't want to step on anybody's religion and have their parents come in and get them in trouble." Except for one piece of legislation, which died in committee in June 2005, New York is relatively free from organized assaults on evolution education. But Yan reports, "now and then, local public school teachers said, they've responded to questions on the issue from students and parents." Several teachers told Newsday about the various ways they have devised to handle such questions responsibly. Kudos to Friedman and his colleagues for helping them to prepare to do so.

In a carefully researched piece in the Baltimore Sun (November 27, 2005), Arthur Hirsch examines the other side of the coin: public school teachers who teach creationism in their classrooms. "There's a consistent, a significant number of biology teachers in public schools who are creationists," the University of Minnesota's Randy Moore told the Sun, a situation that Jay Labov of the National Academy of Sciences and Wayne Carley of the National Association of Biology Teachers both deplored. Reacting to a teacher who boasts of "teaching the controversy" in the sense recommended by the "ntelligent design" movement, NCSE deputy director Glenn Branch was quoted as saying, "Singling out evolution for special critical attention will have the effect of promoting creationism. ... And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that for [the teacher] it would be the purpose of the exercise." McGill University's Brian Alters, a member of NCSE's board of directors, told the Sun that even teachers who accept evolution still often feel pressure to avoid teaching it: "They feel guilt, or a certain amount of shame. But it's the easier route to take."

Finally, in his commentary in the Chicago Tribune (November 27, 2005), reporter Jeremy Manier describes [Link broken] how his high school biology teacher taught about creationism in order to emphasize the scientific strength of evolution, suggesting, "If more students could see the evidence presented that way, the dismal percentage of people who believe in evolution would skyrocket." To his surprise, NCSE didn't demur: "'Religious advocacy is what's forbidden, but acknowledging that there are religious controversies and objections around evolution is another thing,' said Glenn Branch, the center's deputy director. 'It would be perfectly acceptable for there to be a discussion of the fact that there are religious objections to evolution.'" Manier was refreshingly clear about the scientific status of evolution, writing, "On scientific grounds, any brand of creationism loses out to evolution." Also of interest in the same issue of the Tribune were commentaries critical of "intelligent design" by reporter Ron Grossman [Link broken] and Olivet Nazarene University biologist Richard Colling [Link broken].