How evolution is taught in Texas schools may stir new fight

A state committee has drafted preliminary recommendations that would no longer require Texas public high school biology teachers to teach theories that challenge the scientific understanding of evolution.

The State Board of Education has tasked a 10-member committee of school district officials and scholars to whittle down the state’s biology curriculum standards, also called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The streamlining comes as teachers have long complained that the amount of material the state requires them to teach in all subjects is too voluminous to cover in a school year.

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At its July meeting, a majority of the biology committee took a preliminary vote to remove, among others, four curriculum standards that some members say challenge the theory of evolution.

Skeptics of evolution say the standards in question — out of 58 total biology standards — are meant to spur students’ critical thinking on scientific evidence that evolution can’t readily explain. Evolution proponents say the four standards promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

“I don’t advocate for any kind of creationism to be taught in the school. That does not belong in the TEKS. I’m simply concerned about the fair representation of the evidence for evolution,” said Ray Bohlin, one of two committee members who opposed removing the four standards. Bohlin works for Probe Ministries in Plano and holds a doctorate in cell and molecular biology.

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Fellow committee member Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University, said he and others voted to remove the standards because they are redundant and irrelevant.

“How can we improve the TEKS by paring it down and giving you more time to teach what you need to teach? For the most part, we were looking at duplications, non sequitur and grammatical problems, and other structural problems in the TEKS that made it difficult to interpret,” Wetherington said.

He said he believes the standards he wants to remove promote creationism and intelligent design, but that wasn’t the primary reason he’s in favor of striking them.

Coming battle

If the committee — which will meet again Monday and Tuesday — finalizes its recommendations to remove the standards, the move could spark yet another ideological battle on the State Board of Education, which will make the ultimate decision on how to streamline the standards.

The pared down standards will go into effect next school year. They dictate what teachers teach in the classroom, what students are tested on in standardized tests and what appears in textbooks.

“If I have a concern, it is that the work the SBOE did in 2010 would be undermined under the guise of ‘streamlining’ or out of an exaggerated fear that religious thought will somehow creep into our classrooms,” board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, told the American-Statesman.

The board adopted the four standards in 2009 amid intense state and national media coverage.

Although the standards were meant to be a compromise between adherents of teaching evolution and those who question evolution, social conservatives on the board considered adoption of the standards a victory at the time.

The standards call on students to analyze “all sides” of scientific theory, why fossils show that some organisms suddenly appear without an apparent evolutionary predecessor, and the sophistication of cells and molecules such as DNA that skeptics say evolution can’t explain.

Wetherington says evolution skeptics want Texas students to learn that anything evolution can’t immediately explain is better explained through the hand of a higher power.

“What we should be doing is saying that this is a frontier which has exciting possibilities and all you need to do is dig in deeper and to keep looking and to wait until we make these further discoveries instead of saying that we don’t have anything before this; it must have been created energies by a supernatural entity,” Wetherington said.

Junk science?

Chuck Garner, an organic chemistry professor at Baylor University who joined Bohlin to cast the other dissenting vote to remove the standards, said evolution doesn’t answer important questions such as how life began.

He said his fellow committee members are waging a pointless political war on the standards. The standards don’t promote teaching creationism or intelligent design because Texas public school teachers are prohibited from teaching such topics in the classroom, Garner said.

The Texas Science Teachers Association discourages public school teachers from teaching creationism or intelligent design because they lack scientific evidence.

In addition, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of evolution is both constitutional and encouraged in public schools.

More recently, in 2005, a federal court in Pennsylvania found that alternative religious-based explanations of scientific phenomena, loosely associated under the umbrella term “intelligent design,” are not science and therefore should not be taught in public schools.

“The idea that this wording (of the four standards) could bring junk science into the classroom is frivolous,” Garner said. “I don’t know anyone trying to bring junk science or creationism or intelligent design in the classroom. I don’t know anybody who is trying do that or proposing it be done.”

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