Day 63: Science in Texas not out of the woods yet

Date posted: March 27, 2009
Posted in: 100 Days of Science | Creation/evolution | Culture & society | Science education
Comments: 3 Comments

Credit: Case Western Reserve University


Photograph by Martin Godwin

Scientific American usually does a great job — but today, I suspect their reporters weren’t listening very closely when they wrote this post: “Texas vote moves evolution to the top of the class.

I listened this afternoon to the Texas Board of Education as its members revised the state’s science teaching standards, and it sounded to me like science took a pretty solid beating — but not the kind that’s likely to make headlines.

At issue are the teaching standards for elementary school through high school. The context that’s being repeated is this: What Texas wants in its science textbooks, other states may have to swallow too, because of the demand the large state creates on the textbook industry.

Hm; I hadn’t really considered that until just now, but really? One of 50 states has that much sway?

I think this matters because science is science, and religion is religion, and our children should be competently and guilelessly educated in both.

When I’m praying, I don’t want some atheist coming around telling me there’s no God. The Christian creation story should absolutely be taught — alongside other worldviews in social studies, or (in a religious school) in religion class. And scientists should have no complaint with that.

But when my children (or, in my case, my nephews) are learning science, I don’t want interference from preachers. In the science classroom, students should learn to build and conduct rigorous and repeatable investigations using observable evidence. They should learn about evolution by natural selection, Big Bang cosmology, plate tectonics and all the other marvelous theories built by mountains of scientific evidence compiled from a variety of fields for hundreds of years.

One of my fears is that most science teachers have taken too few science classes; both during their studies and in their careers they’re reading more teaching literature than science literature, and when they get to a place in evolution or the Big Bang they don’t understand, it would be easy to invoke God. The ongoing attacks to the Texas science curriculum, in my opinion, take steps to grease those wheels. And that’s sad for our students. What’s more worrisome is that increasing numbers of students will graduate from schools with damaging baggage about science, if they’ve learned it at all. They’ll be under-qualified to evaluate emerging discoveries and innovations, and highly unlikely to contribute their own.

Most media outlets figured on a victory of science over the religious right on Wednesday, when the board appeared deadlocked against caveats in the state’s science curriculum that would have required teachers to raise doubts about evolution. It seems the Scientific American blurb was pretty focused on this one shiny piece: 

For the past 20 years, the state’s curriculum has instructed teachers to present the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories, opening the door to non-scientific, faith-based alternatives. Today’s vote strikes the old language and replaces it with instruction to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing … 

But the battle waged on, in the dark corners that don’t fit neatly into a 250-word update for a Friday afternoon.  

The Texas Freedom Network was live-blogging the meetings, and offers video and plenty of notes. And chron.Commons, an evolution blog hosted at the Houston Chronicle, contains an even more detailed account of today’s meeting. (Hat tip to Carl Zimmer for the recommendation; check out his website and blog.) Ian O’Neill says he plans to write a post about the meeting as well; check his astroengine blog to see that he steers clear of star-formation Web games long enough to deliver.

I was actually pretty shocked as board members methodically went through the curriculum, grade by grade and subject by subject, changing bits here and there that, when combined, weaken the case for strong science and open the door for the teaching of non-scientific descriptions in biology, chemistry and Earth science classes across the state.  For the rest of this post, you’ll see my Twitter responses to the hour-long portion of the meeting I heard. It’ll provide examples of some of the tiny crevasses in teaching standards where agendas take hold. I had never heard such a thing before, so I can’t be sure of my interpretations. The audio for the portion of the meeting I heard is available here, and other recordings of the several days of meetings are archived here.

From Twitter:

Did I just hear that right? The Texas board just opted to partly replace “investigative” techniques with “description,” in biology? about 3 p.m. from web

Now a teacher is arguing for the “flexibility” to teach and test chemistry and physics conceptually, without the “rigorous math.” about 3 p.m. from web

“To begin to eliminate material from a course like chemistry for fear that some students might not pass it . I can’t support that.” #science about 3 p.m. from web

Texas board of ed. just voted NOT to water down chemistry education ~ would have restricted state (EOC) tests to concepts, avoiding mathabout 3 p.m.ago from web

Texas now might replace the teaching of “different theories” in earth science with “information” about 3 p.m. from web

Texas now considering striking “common descent in the fossil record” as a teaching tool 3:30 p.m. from web

I’ve never heard anything like this: a sweep through every scientific discipline to weaken science teaching. 3:30 p.m. from web

Not sure, but I think the Texas board has just now voted to change where DNA exists inside a cell #science about 3:30 p.m. from web

Texas board now voting on the entire document Science changes carried. 13:2. about 4 p.m. from web

If I’m interpreting the school board proceedings right, #science just got shot up in #Texas … about 4 p.m. from web







3 Responses to “Day 63: Science in Texas not out of the woods yet”

  1. Nancy Devine on March 27th, 2009 9:05 pm

    It appears many don’t know the difference between science and religion and what a scientific theory is and isn’t. Additionally, I think often people perceive one must choose between science and religion…that no reasonable person could believe both.
    Do those who meddled with the Texas curriculum understand the differences between science and religion?
    What can and should be done so people can begin to understand this?

  2. Steve Bloom on March 28th, 2009 7:50 pm

    Nancy, the guilty parties on that board understand the disrinction perfectly well and have decided that they would rather not have public school children exposed to unadorned science.

    Something that could be done is to make sure that California’s standards (and those of as many other states as possible) don’t acquiesce to this crap. One might also hope for Obama’s DoEd to step in, but that’s probably hoping for too much.

  3. Day 64: Discovery lands, Texas simmers down and Yucatan’s water heads to the Midwest | on March 28th, 2009 7:50 pm

    […] Texas school board fiasco (I wrote about it in yesterday’s post) garnered a little more analysis in the blogosphere today. Phil Plait at BadAstronomy and the […]