Two Views: Listen to teachers and scholars this time

The long-running debate over what Texas public schools should teach students about evolution is one of the State Board of Education’s most counterproductive and embarrassing controversies.

It threatens to undermine the education of our kids and makes the state look like an education backwater. But here we go again.

Board members in 2009 added to the state’s science curriculum standards a number of requirements creationists hoped would undermine instruction on evolution in textbooks and classrooms.

At the same time, the board made those standards so detailed and confusing that teachers have voiced frustration with how to cover them all. Late last year it agreed to “streamline” the standards.

This week, board members will consider recommendations from teachers and scholars tasked with that job. For the sake of our kids, they should respect the knowledge and expertise of those professionals.

The board didn’t do that eight years ago. Teachers and scientists practically begged the board not to insert misguided and misleading requirements challenging evolution in the standards.

Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist who at the time served as the state board’s chair, led the charge to do it anyway.

A self-described biblical creationist, McLeroy insisted that “somebody’s got to stand up to experts.” He even argued that science classrooms should include instruction on “supernatural” explanations for various phenomena.

The board-approved standards echoed a number of discredited creationist arguments – in particular, that the fossil record and other evidence don’t support evolution.

Scientists have repeatedly shown that such arguments are just plain wrong. More than a century of scientific research has revealed overwhelming evidence supporting evolution. Many people of faith accept this evidence and see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the science of evolution.

But the opposition of McLeroy and other deniers of evolution is absolute. Now they are criticizing the science teachers on the streamlining committee for supposedly plotting to defend the teaching of evolution in the 21st century. They have even complained that the committee’s changes would somehow limit the ability of students to ask questions in their science classes. That’s simply not true.

It has been disturbing to hear such attacks on the educators and scholars who volunteered to serve on the committee. Even more appalling is that one of the critics, Board Member Barbara Cargill, the Woodlands Republican who last year pressured Texas Education Agency staff to include a prominent evolution denier on the committee. In an email obtained through an open records request, TEA’s professional staff respectfully told Cargill that the person she wanted was unqualified — but he ended up with a spot on the committee anyway.

The committee’s teachers have pointed out that the problematic standards they want to remove are confusing, duplicative and needlessly time-consuming. Educators responding to a Texas Education Agency survey last fall largely echoed those sentiments.

Frankly, they want politicians to stop forcing them to waste precious classroom time with misleading requirements designed to confuse their students.

State board members have the political authority to accept or reject the committee’s recommendations. But let’s be clear: It makes no sense to appoint teachers and scholars to streamline the curriculum standards if board members will reject their recommendations because they simply don’t like them or have ideological objections.

Rejecting the committee’s recommendations would send a message that this board – just like the board in 2009 – doesn’t really care what teachers and scholars have to say. Board members would be saying they care more about promoting their own personal beliefs than making sure Texas kids get a 21st-century education.

They would, in McLeroy’s careless words, be “standing up to experts.” It would not be a proud moment for Texas.

Our kids deserve far better.

Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a public education and religious liberties watchdog based in Austin.

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