Textbooks Approved in Texas

On Friday, November 7, the Texas State Board of Education (SBoE) voted 11-4 to place all submitted high school and advanced placement (AP) biology books on the “conforming” list, making them eligible for adoption by local districts.

The books' coverage of evolution -- in particular, whether they contained factual errors -- was an issue even on the final decision day. Arguments had been made that textbooks had to include “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution; board member Patricia Hardy commented that the “strengths and weaknesses” language required in the state standards (the “Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills,” or TEKS) applied to any scientific theory and was not intended to apply to all, or any single theory. As she commented, if the textbooks had to apply “strengths and weaknesses” language to every theory, “we’d need a crane to carry the books to the schools.”

Although the Discovery Institute (DI) and its Texas allies, Texans for Better Science Education, attempted to persuade board members to require publishers to incorporate wholesale changes in the coverage of evolution, the changes that publishers have filed thus far with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) have been largely cosmetic.

For example, the DI criticized many books for presenting a rank-and-file illustration of vertebrate embryos, which accompanies a discussion of the relationship of embryology to evolution. The DI argued that such photos were based on 19th-century drawings of Ernst Haeckel, some of which have been shown to be inaccurate. Although only a couple of books actually presented the original Haeckel drawings, rank-and-file illustrations of vertebrate embryos are a useful pedagogical tool for showing that more recent common ancestry is reflected in greater similarity of embryos, and that embryos at earlier stages (as opposed to “earliest” stages, a favorite distinction of the DI’s) are more similar than embryos at later stages. In response to the allegation of “factual errors,” textbooks redrew the embryo drawings, or substituted photographs for them, but left intact the text's discussion of the importance of embryology to evolution.

Thus textbook alterations have not weakened the coverage of evolution in the books, and Texas teachers are assured that their students will not have to cope with books dumbed down in the way recommended by the DI.

During the November 7 proceedings, Mavis Knight proposed that all books be adopted, and that a hard copy of a web-based document prepared by NCSE’s Alan D. Gishlick, entitled “‘Icons of Evolution’? Why Much Of What Jonathan Wells Writes About Evolution Is Wrong,” be placed in the permanent record of the meeting. This on-line document is a concise and readable but detailed critique of DI Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells’s book Icons of Evolution, upon which the DI’s analysis of the textbooks relies. Dr. Gishlick's essay is available here.

NCSE commends the SBoE for withstanding pressure to modify the textbooks to include erroneous information in the guise of “strengths and weaknesses.” And we commend the publishers for withstanding enormous pressure to compromise the scientific accuracy of their textbooks -- and encourage them to continue to do so.