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Victory over "Weaknesses" in Texas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Victory over "Weaknesses" in Texas
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
2
Year: 
2009
Date: 
March-April
Page(s): 
10–14
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

In a close vote on January 23, 2009, the Texas state board of education approved a revision of the state's science standards lacking the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language, which in 2003 was selectively applied by members of the board attempting to dilute the treatment of evolution in the biology textbooks then under consideration. The stakes are high: the standards will determine what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state for the next ten years. And the threat is real: seven members of the fifteen- member board, including its chair, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, are regarded as in favor of attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas schools. The removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language therefore represented a tremendous victory for science education in Texas, with the Dallas Morning News (200 Jan 23) describing the failure of a proposed amendment to reintroduce it as "a major defeat for social conservatives." But the struggle is not over, for a number of scientifically indefensible revisions to the biology and earth and space science standards were adopted at the last minute. Defenders of the integrity of science education in Texas plan to expose the flaws in these revisions and hope for a reversal when the board takes its final vote on the standards at its March 26–27, 2009, meeting.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

The "strengths and weaknesses" language occurs in the old Texas state science standards, which include a requirement 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." The first draft of the revised standards replaced the "strengths and weaknesses" language with "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing." The change was hailed by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Citizens for Science, and the 21st Century Science Coalition, as well as by the editorial boards of the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Oct 6) and the Corpus Christi Call-Times (2008 Nov 20). Additionally, a survey conducted by Raymond Eve and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund demonstrated that the vast majority of biologists at universities in Texas rejected the idea of teaching the supposed weaknesses of evolution (see RNCSE 2009 Jan/Feb; 29 [1]: 7).

Nevertheless, as previously reported (RNCSE 2009 Jan/Feb; 29 [1]: 4–7), when the Texas board of education began to hear testimony about the new standards on November 19, 2008, it was presented not with the first draft but with a second draft, in which the "strengths and weaknesses" language was replaced with a variant: "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations of scientific explanations including those based on accepted scientific data, and evidence from students' observations, experiments, models, and logical statements." At the meeting, defenders of the integrity of science education strongly argued that "strengths and limitations" was no improvement over "strengths and weaknesses." Indeed, 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, Don McLeroy, who complained, "This is all being ginned up by the evolution side."

Subsequently, a third draft of the standards appeared in late December 2008, reverting to the first draft's "analyze and evaluate" language. In its discussion of the nature of science, the third draft is similar but not identical to the first draft. According to the first draft, "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." The third draft reads, "Science, as defined by the National Academy of Sciences, is the 'use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.' ... Students should know that some questions are outside the realm of science because they deal with phenomena that are not scientifically testable." It was the third draft that was under consideration at the January 2009 meeting of the state board of education.

BEFORE THE VOTE

On January 21, 2009, the first day of the board's January meeting, the board heard testimony about the science standards from dozens of witnesses, including NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott, who urged the board to heed the advice of the scientific and educational experts who revised the standards and omitted the "strengths and weaknesses" language. The New York Times (2009 Jan 22) quoted her as explaining, "The phrase 'strengths and weaknesses' has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door." And the Dallas Morning News (2009 Jan 21) added, "Scott warned the board that if it adopts the requirement, it will lead to textbooks that contain pseudoscience and inaccuracies as publishers try to appease the state and get their books sold in Texas. 'If you require textbook publishers to include bad science, you're going to have problems,' she said, asserting that Texas students will suffer as a result."

Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, told the Times that the attempt to retain the "strengths and weaknesses" language is "an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution." And David M Hillis, a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin, concurred, adding, "Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science ... These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas." Ryan Valentine of the Texas Freedom Network worried about the consequence for Texas's image: "A misguided crusade to include phony weaknesses in the theory of evolution in our science curriculum will send a message to the rest of the nation that science takes a back seat to politics in Texas," the Morning News reported him as saying.

Also testifying were people who supported the "strengths and weaknesses" language, including a representative of the Discovery Institute, often betraying the connection between the language and creationism. A teacher quoted by the Morning News, for example, said, "As a creationist, I don't want creationism taught in science classes, but this proposal [to drop the strengths and weaknesses rule] smacks of censorship." A mechanical engineer quoted by the Times said, echoing a rhetorical theme prominent in creationist circles since the Scopes era, "Textbooks today treat it as more than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with halftruths, deception and hoaxes." (As NCSE's Glenn Branch and Louise S Mead recently wrote in Evolution: Education and Outreach [2008; 1 (3): 287–9], "[William Jennings Bryan's] position — that it is okay to teach about evolution but only as something conjectural or speculative, as 'just a theory' and not as a fact — continues to resonate.")

THE CRUCIAL VOTE

The crucial vote not to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language took place on January 22, 2009, the second day of the board's meeting. Board members who opposed the amendment cited the need to respect the work of the experts, according to the Morning News, with Mary Helen Berlanga commenting, "We're not talking about faith. We're not talking about religion. ... We're talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do," and Geraldine Miller similarly commenting, "We need to respect what our teachers have recommended to us." Rick Agosto, widely considered to be a swing voter, was quoted in the San Antonio Express-News (2009 Jan 23) as saying, "I have to consider the experts," and Bob Craig was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman (2009 Jan 23) as saying, "We appointed individuals, educators — good solid people — to review the (standards) in science. They made a recommendation, and, again, we are taking away from what the educators have indicated to us is the best wording."

Members of the board who favored the amendment seemed, however, to consider themselves to be experts. Ken Mercer — who is on record as claiming that evolution is falsified by the absence of any transitional forms between cats and dogs — was reported by the Express-News as saying that he was not going to rubber-stamp the recommendations of the experts who revised the standards. And he was also quoted by the Morning News as complaining, "The other side has a history of fraud. Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies." Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, who was blogging from the meeting (see sidebar), reported that Mercer cited "the bogus and misleading examples of Piltdown Man, Haeckel's vertebrate embryo drawings, the peppered moths that were glued to tree trunks, and the half-bird, half-dinosaur that were all 'evolutionary frauds'" — all of which are familiar staples of creationist literature attempting to discredit evolution.

Ultimately, as the Morning News reported, "The amendment failed to pass on a 7–7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat — who would have opposed the amendment — was absent." The significance of the vote was apparent to the Texas media: for example, the headline of the story in the Morning News was "Texas Board of Education votes against teaching evolution weaknesses"; the San Antonio Express-News began its story with the sentence, "A 20-year-old Texas tradition allowing public schools to teach 'both the strengths and weaknesses' of evolution succumbed to science Thursday when the State Board of Education voted to abolish the wording from its curriculum standards"; and the headline of the story in the Austin American-Statesman was "State board shuns disputed language on evolution." And the momentousness of the vote was not lost on NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott, who explained in a January 23, 2009, press release (available on-line at http://ncse.com/news/2009/01/weaknesses-removed-from-texas-science-standards-004231): "The misleading language [in the original science standards] has been a creationist loophole in the science TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] for decades. Its removal is a huge step forward."

A QUALIFIED VICTORY

The victory was not complete, however. A flurry of amendments introduced by creationist members of the board sought to compromise the treatment of evolution in the biology standards. Terri Leo successfully proposed a revision to the standards to replace verbs such as "identify," "recognize," and "describe" in section 7 of the high school biology standards with "analyze and evaluate" — no other section of the standards was treated similarly. Worse, Don McLeroy successfully proposed a revision to section 7 to require that students "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." It is significant that "sudden appearance" is a creationist catchphrase, associated in particular with young-earth creationist Wendell Bird. During oral arguments in Edwards v Aguillard, for example, Jay Topkis observed, "those buzzwords come right out of Mr Bird's lexicon. ... They're his."

Just as worrying were the amendments introduced by creationist members of the board that sought to compromise the treatment of evolution and related concepts in the earth and space science standards. Barbara Cargill successfully proposed revisions to the standards to add, in her words, "humility and tentativeness"; in the view of Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science, however," All five of the changes ... are not needed and were proposed to weaken and damage the ESS TEKS." The worst change was to a requirement that students "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution," which now reads, "evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence."

NCSE's Eugenie C Scott, who was at the meeting and observed the board's confusion over these amendments, commented in NCSE's January 23, 2009, press release, "They didn't ... have time to talk to scientists about the creationistinspired amendments made at the last minute. Once they do, I believe these inaccurate amendments will be removed." The Texas Freedom Network concurred, observing on its blog (see sidebar):

Board members — none of whom are research scientists, much less biologists — appeared confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to specific passages of the standards. That's why it's foolish to let dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they're scientists. The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall.

With respect to McLeroy's revision, TFN added, "What we saw is what happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than scientists do."

THE AFTERMATH

All of the action — the vote not to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" language and the flurry of amendments from creationist members of the board apparently eager to salvage a small victory from the defeat — occurred on the second day of the board's meeting. On the third day, January 23, 2009, there was virtually no discussion as the board voted unanimously to adopt the science standards as revised on the previous day, without hearing any further comments from those in attendance. The vote, again, is only a preliminary vote, with a final vote on the standards expected at the board's March 26–27, 2009, meeting. The Houston Chronicle (2009 Jan 23) reported, "Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March"; since the survey conducted by Raymond Eve and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund demonstrated that the vast majority of biologists at universities in Texas rejected the idea of teaching the supposed weaknesses of evolution, there ought to be no shortage of scientifically competent advice for the board to heed.

Reports in the press recognized that the overall result was a qualified victory for science, with the Houston Chronicle (2009 Jan 23), for example, reporting, "Texas schools won't have to teach the weaknesses of evolution theories anymore, but the State Board of Education ushered in other proposed changes Friday that some scientists say still undermine evolution instruction and subject the state to ridicule," and reporting Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science as concerned that McLeroy's revision, if not reversed, would make the standards a laughingstock. David Hillis, a distinguished biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, added, "This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert. He also told The New York Times (2009 Jan 24), "It's a clear indication that the chairman of the state school board doesn't understand the science."

In the same vein, editorials in Texas and nationally have praised the omission of the "strengths and weaknesses" language but lamented the creationist revisions. The Austin American-Statesman (2009 Jan 24) seemed pleased if not excited about what it termed "an incremental step away from dogma-driven curriculum decision-making," while the Waco Tribune (2009 Jan 26) was happy about the omission of a phrase that "was meant to open the door to the undermining of evolution theory" but dismayed by McLeroy's revision, which it described as "a fall-back attempt by the right wing of the board to hang tough in its effort to undermine evolution theory." The New York Times (2009 Jan 26), which earlier (2009 Jan 22) acknowledged that "[t]he debate here has far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material," editorialized, "The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education."


AUTHOR'S ADDRESS:

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

Glenn Branch is NCSE's deputy director.

FOR FURTHER READING

In addition to the newspaper reports cited, a variety of on-line sources provided detailed, candid, and often uninhibited running commentary on the proceedings. Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman blogged, and posted photographs, on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere blog: http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html; the Texas Freedom Network was blogging on its TFN Insider blog: http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/; NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was blogging on his personal blog, Thoughts from Kansas (hosted by ScienceBlogs): http://www.scienceblogs.com/tfk; and the Houston Press blogged the first day of the meeting: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/political_animals. For those wanting to get their information from the horse's mouth, minutes and audio recordings of the board meeting will be available on the Texas Education Agency's website via http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=5173 and http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=4473. NCSE's previous reports on events in Texas are available on-line at http://ncse.com/news/texas.