IN THIS ARTICLE
The majority of biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution, two political scientists found after studying U.S. public school biology instructors. According to their research, creationism is given at least an hour of class time and “put in a positive light” by 13 percent of the nation’s biology teachers.
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 25. “But if we want to win the future– if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas,” he said, “then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.” But according to data from new reports, this may be far away from ever happening.
One of these reports, released by the Department of Education, announced that less than half of students are considered proficient in science and technology, and many have a minimal science knowledge. The other reported something even more shocking— the majority of high school students aren’t properly exposed to one of science’s most fundamental principles, evolution.
After examining data collected from over 900 public high schools, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the National Research Council’s recommendations on teaching evolution. The guidelines, which state, “if evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy they need,” call for a straightforward introduction of the evidence for evolution’s occurrence, as well as for lesson plans linking evolution as a unifying theme across disparate biology topics.
Creationism or intelligent design was explicitly advocated by 13 percent of biology teachers by “spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light,” read Berkman and Plutzer’s report. A “cautious 60 percent” of biology teachers do not endorse both evolution nor its nonscientific alternatives. Berkman and Plutzer attributed this to the instructors’ efforts to avoid controversy.
Robert Luhn, the director of communications at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) seemed to agree. “People in public schools don’t like the hassle,” Luhn said. He recalled a recent encounter with a parochial school science teacher who taught evolution at his religious school.
The teacher said it was easy for him to teach evolution because his school did not pressure him on how it should be taught. Luhn compared this to a public school biology teacher who had recently said his public school did not teach evolution due to its controversy.
“There is a lot of pressure out there that makes it easy to avoid teaching evolution,” Luhn said.
In the past, courts have ruled it is unconstitutional to teach creationism and require schools to teach evolution.
“On the legal front we have essentially won the war,” said Luhn. However, according to Luhn, many states and school boards have found loop holes for ways to teach evolution or creationism by their own standards.
In 2009, the Texas board of education voted to change the science standards and require students to examine “all sides of scientific evidence” by adding and amending various standards in a way that , according to the NCSE, encourages the presentation of creationist claims about the complexity of the cell, the completeness of the fossil record, and the age of the universe.
Because Texas is the largest distributor of textbooks, many states tend to follow suit with “Texas’ creationist agenda,” Luhn said.
In 2009, Louise Mead and Anton Mates of the NCSE released a “report card” assigning grades on how well evolution was treated in state science standards. The report, titled, “Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science Curriculum and How States Measure Up” discussed the importance of teaching evolution in public schools and said that science standards covered evolution more extensively than they did in 2000. “However,” read the report, “certain types of creationist language are also becoming more common in state standards.”
Contrary to many other countries where the education is very centralized, Luhn said in the U.S. it tends to be the school boards who make the decisions on how, if at all, evolution is to be taught.
“Even though some states have a fair amount of control over what schools teach, it is usually up to the school board,” he said, “It can be a very local thing.”
According to Steven Newton, the programs and policy director at NCSE, failing to properly teach evolution has long term effects.
“It’s rudimentarily harmful to the kids that go into science,” he said. “Evolution is the foundation of biology. To not teach the foundation of science can have very negative effects.”
“It’s a big unknown as to what is going down in the classroom,” he said. While Newton said he has no reason to dispute the numbers from Berkman and Plutzer’s report, he said if anything, they may be too conservative.
Luhn, who called the Berkman and Plutzer study the “latest and greatest out there,” seemed to agree. “The teachers aren’t saying anything, the parents aren’t saying anything— so these numbers can be very low,” he said.
The amount of schools teaching evolution has “definitely increased,” said Newton adding, “Sputnik was the moment we really started to teach a lot of it.” However, Newton said he still “finds it shocking” that one-in-eight teachers teach creationism as a valid scientific theory.
STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING EVOLUTION
Days before the report was released, President Obama said this is “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” in his State of the Union Address. But at this moment, the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries’ science education, the president later said in his speech.
So the question is: What do we do from here?
According to Newton there have been a lot of new ways of thinking in terms of how to teach science, such as an increased number of hands on, interactive activities for students.
Berkman and Plutzer said requiring education majors to take an undergraduate course in evolutionary biology would likely lead to a “meaningful improvement” in secondary school science instruction.
Newton said that while this recommendation sounds great, he wonders about its practicality. “A lot of schools don’t have the resources to teach a standalone class on evolution,” and said it may be difficult for this to play out in small schools where classes are already being cut.
Teachers already coming into the program believing in creationism would see it as one more hoop they have to jump through until they can get into the classroom and teach, Newton said. “Once people have made up their mind about to what to think, they are invested in it,” he said. “There’s almost a stubborn, prideful resistance to learning anything from these classes.”
He said he believes emphasizing the nature of science at an earlier age could increase the number of science courses that teach evolution.
“Someone who thinks creationism is a science really doesn’t understand the fundamentals of science itself,” he said. “They just don’t know.”
Newton said it is not just the facts and material that are important for students to learn, but also how science works. “Even if they want to reject evolution, they should still understand that it operates at a certain process.”
Many organizations have created resources offering guidance on teaching evolution as well as general information on the topic.
EVOLUTION TOOLKIT FOR TEACHERS
Other Links for Teachers
- Pew Research Center: Evolution and Religion in the U.S.
- The National Conference on the Teaching of Evolution
- PBS Online Course and Video on Teaching Evolution
- UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology Understanding Evolution