You are here
Texas Science Standards and March Madness
The revisions of my state's science standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, TEKS) by the State Board of Education (SBOE) are confusing and controversial. News articles following the March 25–27, 2009 meeting reported that the scientific community had succeeded in turning back proposals by the Discovery Institute (DI) and religious radicals on the SBOE that would have weakened science education. The DI and radical SBOE members, on the other hand, gleefully claimed a great victory in their blogs and reports. Who was right?
The correct answer is neither. The results were mixed: science education both won and lost. Texas Citizens for Science (TCS) worked during the past year with several partners — NCSE, the Texas Freedom Network, and several science and science education professors from Texas universities —to preserve the accuracy and reliability of science education in Texas during the state's science education standards adoption process. In the end, our efforts did not produce the results we wanted and that Texas's students deserved. It is important to examine why.
The political situation in Texas is such that the religious right is very strong and controls the state Republican Party. The 15-member SBOE has seven members who are religiously conservative Republicans: these individuals are biblical literalists and creationists, including the board's chair Don McLeroy (appointed by a governor who shares his religious views). We have always had some of these on the state board, but right now there are seven of them, and they are well-organized, well-disciplined, and immune to embarrassment despite their frequent public expressions of ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry. If they pick up just a single additional vote — and they did for a variety of reasons — they can do whatever they want.
The science standards writing panels ultimately produced an excellent set of standards that should have been adopted without change, but the SBOE felt the need to modify them. The outcome of the process was that the scientific method standard and many of the standards that concern cosmic and biological evolution in the biology and earth and space science (ESS) standards were compromised. It is true that the very worst language was avoided, but only by very close 8–7 votes for which the majority disappeared when qualifying or debilitating substitute amendments — suggested as "compromises" — were proposed. Getting rid of the really antiscientific language was a victory, but it was only a partial victory. When their very worst antiscientific amendments failed, creationist members immediately came back with a new substitutes that were less obviously antiscience. Some of these passed.
The creationist SBOE members voted together as a bloc every time. The eight pro-science members — five Democrats and three Republicans — did not vote as a pro-science bloc. Most of the pro-science board members are friendly, moderate-to-conservative individuals who believe in collegiality, cooperation, and compromise, so most were willing to accept the weaker but still flawed substitute amendments. I could sense the emotional compulsion in some board members to vote with a colleague for a less egregious amendment and to find some compromise on controversial issues. The antiscience SBOE members exploited this quality again and again.
The pro-science Republican members may have felt more pressure to compromise (they were being politically assaulted by their own party and by thousands of messages, letters, and phone calls from their fundamentalist and creationist constituents). Several had been attacked in their primaries — a political tactic that had increased the number of creationists on the board from four in 2003 to seven in 2008. Sometimes compromise is good, but compromise on science education standards should not result in students' being forced to learn inaccurate and misleading lessons about scientific knowledge.
The antiscience BSOE members were able to manipulate the process by passing a rule that the pro-science members probably thought was inconsequential: requiring votes on amendments without members' being allowed to talk to their science experts first or hearing scientific testimony during board debate. Thus, pro-science BSOE members — who were not scientists themselves — were forced to vote without understanding what they were voting on. Thus, the board approved several antiscience amendments in January and March.
I explained this problem to pro-science SBOE members and recommended that they always vote "no" to any amendment that the antiscience side proposed, but their plan was to seek a compromise on amendments and standards that were controversial within the board. The antiscience proposals ultimately succeeded because their supporters falsely claimed that their amendments were approved by "science experts" and scholarly publications, and in some cases presented their amendments in a form that did not reveal that vital subject matter was being removed.
Furthermore, the amendments ranged over the map. One SBOE member proposed thirteen bad amendments to ESS in approximately 20 minutes. She talked so fast and so confidently — repeatedly referring to her "scientific experts" who were actually "intelligent design" (ID) creationists — that she managed to convince fellow board members to pass five of them.
By far the worst amendment was to standard (3)(A) (formerly the "strengths and weaknesses" provision), which discusses the scientific method. The original proposal by the science writing panels said simply, "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observation testing." The SBOE changed this to:
The word "critique" was added to suggest that scientific explanations should be criticized by students, even though it is redundant and inappropriate, since "critique" correctly used means "analyze and evaluate", not criticize. Even worse, the phrase "all sides of evidence of those scientific explanations" awkwardly and inaccurately suggests that all scientific explanations have "sides" when in fact most do not, especially at the level science is taught in high school. The new words were deliberately added, of course, to attack biology textbooks in the future if they do not include "critiques" of evolution or present the bogus "evidence" that creationists mistakenly believe undermines or refutes evolution.
Curricular "time bombs"
SBOE chairman Don McLeroy said he would warn publishers to be sure to cover "all sides" of culturally controversial issues, such as evolution, as specified by these new standards or risk having their textbooks rejected. If SBOE members find "problems" with the books, the publishers could also be told to fix the "errors" to avoid rejection. What will publishers do when faced with this unethical and ugly extortion? If history is a guide, they will make whatever changes are necessary to make sure their textbooks are adopted in Texas or lose many millions of dollars in sales.
Similar time bombs inserted into the proposed biology standards by the SBOE are the requirements to:
To many, these new statements may be innocuous, but they were inserted to encourage publishers to include information in biology textbooks that may undermine evolution education and to punish publishers if they do not.
The first one was inserted because SBOE creationists believe that a "sudden appearance" of fossils means they were specially created, rather than reflecting an imperfect fossil record. SBOE members, using misinformation from the DI, will try to force publishers to suggest to students that this pattern in the fossil record is a weakness of evolution. Ideally, publishers could satisfy this standard by including accurate and reliable information about all rates and modes of fossil evolution, including gradual fossil evolution and transitional fossils, but the SBOE still can veto these texts.
Two standards were inserted to attempt to force publishers to tell students that the cell and information-carrying molecules are so complex that evolution cannot explain them (implying that some extranatural process is necessary). Cells and information-carrying molecules are complex and their chemical processes are not totally explained, but that gives no license to incorporate extranatural processes into the science curriculum. Again, the standard will try to make publishers include bogus or misleading information about complex processes and molecules that antiscience members believe demonstrates the inadequacy of evolution, and this could pose problems for publishers in the future.
Only one time bomb was inserted in the new ESS standards. This was a requirement to discuss the complexity of life in the origin-of-life standard (we can be relieved that the origin-of-life standard itself was not removed). Antiscience SBOE members did remove requirements that specify that the universe is about 14 billion years old and that discuss the rate and diversity of evolution of fossils. However, since two relevant standards require discussion of the age of the universe and the evolution of fossils, these will not hinder textbook authors and publishers from including this information in ESS textbooks. Furthermore the YECs on the board apparently overlooked standard (7)(C), which mentions "earth's approximate 4.6–billion-year history"; it remained unchanged. In light of the other compromises they racked up, the creationist members probably could have changed (7)(C) to "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" if they had just tried.
Finally, a Democratic SBOE member added a requirement to the Environmental Systems standards to "analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming", but this time bomb will backfire, too. Textbook authors and publishers of environmental science textbooks now may have to include common arguments against climate change, all of which are easily refuted by scientists (see "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic"; available on-line at http://www.grist.org/article/series/skeptics/).
Holding our own … for now
Textbook authors and publishers should still be able to use the new standards to write good textbooks. Despite all the problems with the process, the numerous substandard standards do not contain explicit requirements to include antiscientific information, so they do not force publishers to put inaccurate or unreliable science textbooks up for adoption — although they allow and even solicit it. For example, the requirement to "analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations" and to examine "all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations" can be easily met by textbook publishers and authors by (1) truthfully stating that there is only one side to most scientific explanations and all that are covered in a high school biology course; (2) pointing out that the standard specifically limits the required examination to "scientific" evidence and explanations, excluding antiscientific information or misrepresentations that some SBOE members and the DI claims should be included; and (3) interpreting the "all sides of…scientific explanations" requirement to mean a much broader discussion of evolution than they normally would present. Perhaps they could include discussions of evolutionary psychology, and the evolution of human intelligence or of religious belief, all of which do indeed have several scientific "sides". By following these guidelines, textbook publishers, authors, and teachers can successfully prepare textbooks and perform instruction that are completely scientific.
The first problem we face in Texas is that content in biology and ESS textbooks is no longer controlled by the Texas science education standards, but by the ability of textbook publishers and authors to stand up to the political whims of members of the SBOE. The second problem is that science textbooks come up for adoption in 2011, so scientists and science advocates will have to return to Austin and the SBOE to resist attempts to weaken science education. The composition of the SBOE may be different then, so attempts to damage science books may fail as in 2003. But if there are no changes, there will be another close fight.
The third and worst problem we face in Texas is that the science TEKS are also the basis for classroom curriculum and statewide end-of-course exams. Science teachers were already operating in a climate of uncertainty, and their situation is now even worse. They may downgrade their emphasis of or even hesitate to teach the topics that the SBOE has made controversial, for fear of being criticized and reprimanded. The Texas Education Agency — the state's Department of Education — is influenced by antiscience activists. Their end-of-course biology exams may contain questions focused on alleged problems with evolution and the history of life, not test whether the students have accurate and reliable knowledge of this field. Teachers and students will be forced to prepare for this pseudoscientific nonsense if they want to pass the exams.
The very bad situation in Texas will not change until there is a change in political leadership in this state. Science education and many other instructional disciplines have been politicized to an alarming extent in Texas (currently, the social studies standards are being subjected to the same attacks that science and English just endured). Under the new standards, students in Texas will receive a blighted science education and fall further behind their peers in other states and other countries. We science advocates still have much work to do.