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Evolution Debate in Texas (4/14/09)

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Recent Action

Setback for Science Education in Texas
The Texas Board of Education voted on March 27 to modify both Earth and space sciences (ESS) and biology standards to allow creationists to further scrutinize and question evolutionary science in public schools. Despite receiving petitions against these amendments from 54 scientific and educational societies across the nation, the board passed the measure many feel will not only set back science in Texas, but could affect science education nationally.

Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and opponent to the amendments stated, “Let's be clear about this, it is a setback for science education in Texas, not a draw, not a victory. The revised wording opens the door to creationism in the classroom and in the textbooks. The decisions will not only affect Texas students for the next ten years, but could result in watered-down science textbooks across the U.S. There's a reason creationists are claiming victory.” As a result of the amendments, creationist claims of the inability of cells to evolve, the age of the universe, and gaps in the fossil record can now be part of scientific textbooks. (3/09)

Texas Considers Earth and Space Science Standards
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will be voting on revised and new science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), including those for the new Earth and Space Science (ESS) course for Texas public high schools, on March 25, 2009. A TEKS-ESS working group of ten individual Earth scientists including high school teachers, teacher trainers, college professors and industry geoscientists worked for about a year to develop the standards for ESS. In January, a subset of SBOE members requested changes to the standards that would add confusion about Earth science and question basic geologic concepts such as plate tectonics and transition fossils.

The ESS standards are open for public comment until March 25. The geoscience community in Texas and in the rest of the country is strongly encouraged to write the SBOE and offer support for the standards developed by the TEKS-ESS working group. Other groups have mobilized to oppose the standards and insert non-scientific standards, which may overwhelm the thoughtful and effective work of Earth scientists in Texas. In addition, because Texas is such a large state, the TEKS have a significant influence on textbook publishers throughout the country and while your state may not adopt non-scientific standards, the textbooks used in your classes might.

Comments can be sent to sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us. This email address will reach all board members, though you may also direct your comments to a specific member through this address by noting their name.

The recommended high school standards for science are available as a PDF here.
The transnational, non-partisan, non-profit Center for Inquiry provides more information about the Texas SBOE and TEKS here. (02/09)

Previous Action

Texas Science Standards Review Board Has Three Creationists
In mid-October, the Texas State Board of Education chose three creationists to sit on the six-member science review panel. Creationists, Stephen Meyer, vice president of the Discovery Institute, Ralph Seelke, a professor of the department of biology and earth sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Charles Garner, a professor of chemistry at Baylor University in Waco will review the school science standards. All three signed the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwinism” statement and Meyer and Seelke co-authored an anti-evolution textbook and testified against evolution at hearings for the Kansas State Board of Education in 2005.

The other three members of the panel include David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin; Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; and Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research.

Such a split panel is likely to make the review of the new Texas science standards difficult and contentious. (10/08)

Draft of Texas Education Standards Strengthens Teaching of Evolution
Proposed drafts of state science education standards were released by the Texas Education Agency on September 22, 2008. The new science standards strengthen the teaching of evolution by eliminating language requiring students to be taught about the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. The Texas Education Agency will solicit public comment on and expert review of the draft standards before submitting a revised copy to the state board of education for its approval. Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman predicts the “public debate and approval will be contentious." (9/08)

On April 24, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously denied certification of the Institute for Creation Research’s (ICR) master’s degree in science education.  Board members agreed that a program based on the creation of the Earth as described in the Bible was not adequate preparation for the resulting graduates to teach middle school and high school science courses. The ICR has 45 days to appeal the board’s decision or 180 days to resubmit a revised proposal for consideration. (4/08)

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The Institute for Creation Research located in Dallas, TX submitted a proposal for accreditation of a Masters of Science Education degree that does not include the teaching of modern geology, biology, or the scientific method.  Recipients of the degree however would be eligible to teach science in private or public schools.  A state advisory panel recommended that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which makes the final decision, approve the proposal.  The Board has received a large volume of public comment regarding the proposal and has postponed a final decision on accreditation until April. You can send comments to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) at http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/Comments/ (2-07-08)

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The Associated Press reported on November 29, 2007 that the Texas state science board director, Chris Comer, is being removed because of her alleged criticism of intelligent design. According to the report, Comer sent an email announcement about an upcoming presentation by Barbara Forrest, an author of "Creationism's Trojan Horse." The book suggests that creationists are behind the efforts to get intelligent design taught in public schools. According to documents obtained by The Austin American-Statesman, Texas education officials said "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that T.E.A. endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral"

The officials go on to say that Comer is being fired for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. Comer held her position for nine years and it is unclear how her ouster might affect the continuing review of the Texas science curriculum. The actions of the Texas Education Agency are of particular interest to the broader Earth science community beyond Texas in part because Texas has one of the largest public school systems in the nation and their standards affect curriculum and textbook content development throughout the country. (12-14-07)

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The Texas State Board of Education held its final public hearing on biology textbook adoption on September 10, 2003, in Austin. The hearing lasted nearly 12 hours and 140 people testified -- everyone from a gospel preacher to a high school junior, biologists, chemists, and engineers, among others. Members of the board voted 10-3 not to suspend the rules and allow people from out-of-state to testify but accepted written testimony from everyone. All textbook publishers must submit their final textbooks to the Board by October 3rd -- free from any "factual" errors. Most of the biology textbook authors signed a Statement on Evolution that is available on-line from the National Center for Science Education. The Board will vote to approve the textbooks on November 7th. In order for the adopted textbooks to be used, they must also be chosen by individual school districts, but state-approved textbooks are eligible for reimbursement. (9/12/03)

In July, the Texas State Board of Education began meeting to review biology textbooks for the 2004-2005 school year. Anti-evolution groups from in and out of state are arguing for the inclusion of "new scientific evidence" that points to holes in evolutionary theory. They claim not to be lobbying for creationism but rather the chance to show that evolution is only a "theory," arguments based on a misunderstanding of what a "theory" means within the scientific community. Proponents of evolution alternatives incorrectly equate scientific theories with hypotheses, which confuses many non-scientists involved in the evolution debate, including policy makers.

The new effort to include alternatives to evolution in biology textbooks is partly led by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, one of the nation's leading supporters of Intelligent Design. The Institute submitted a 55-page report to the Texas state board evaluating all of the proposed textbooks, and found all of them lacking. It also included four arguments that point to "weaknesses" in evolutionary theory. The Discovery Institute and its supporters are arguing that students should be presented with the controversies surrounding evolution and the alternative understandings of life's beginnings within the same scientific context and at the same time as their lessons on the scientifically accepted theory of evolution. Those who support the teaching of evolution argue that such discussions should take place in a social science or humanities class, not in a biology class, as alternatives such as ID are not considered peer-reviewed science.

Current state law requires that evolution be included in textbooks, and only allows the state board to reject books for factual errors or for not meeting state curriculum requirements. The Texas textbook proclamation of 2001 complicates the discussion by requiring textbooks to teach students to "analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information." If the state board believes the Discovery Institute's "scientific evidence," this language could enable the inclusion of ID in textbooks or curriculum. Alternatively, if the board does not accept ID "science," the language could protect the teaching of evolution in public schools. (8/5/03)

On May 10, 2003, the Texas House of Representatives passed HB 1172. Along with other educational issues, the bill restores the State Board of Education's absolute control over textbook content by providing it with the authority to reject textbooks for any reason. Previous legislation diminished the Board's power, which it has often used to censor or modify textbooks, including successful efforts last year to remove the age of the Earth from social studies textbooks. Due to the size of the Texas textbook market, its decisions exert considerable influence over publishers and the national textbook marketplace. The bill is currently being considered by the Senate Committee On Education. (5/15/03)

On March 25, 2003, the Texas House of Representatives Public Education Committee approved HB 1447, which will return control of textbook content to the State Board of Education. The bill, introduced by State Representative Charlie Howard (R), contains language that would allow textbooks to be rejected based on "factual or other errors" and at the "viewpoint discrimination" of the State Board of Education, which is similar to prior rhetoric used by anti-evolutionists. The bill has gained further attention because of successful efforts last year in Texas to remove references to the age of the Earth and criticism of human activities in contributing to environmental issues from social studies textbooks. Texas is currently in the process of adopting new biology textbooks. Because of the purchasing power of Texas, textbook decisions made there could influence content and availability in other states. HB 1447 will next be considered by the entire Texas House of Representatives. (4/28/03)

Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Associated Press, Association for Women Geoscientists, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Duluth News Tribune, Kansas Geological Survey, Library of Congress, Maryville Tennessee Daily Times, National Academies, National Center for Science Education, National Science Teachers Association, Pioneer Press, Rocky Mountain News, Santa Fe New Mexican, WCCO-TV, The Dallas Morning News, The Austin American-Statesman, The Houston Chronicle.

Previous Action section includes material from AGI's Update on State Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution for the 106th Congress.

Contributed by David Applegate and Emily Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program, 2003 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern Charna Meth, and 2003 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern Emily Scott.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on April 14, 2009.