Texas School Board Refuses to Evolve

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Against the recommendations of scientists, teachers and school district officials, the Texas State Board of Education preliminarily approved biology curriculum that challenges the theory of evolution.

Board members who supported that view said their votes were based on feedback from members of the public who want “critical thinking” taught in classrooms.

The State Board in July last year asked a committee of educators and school district officials to streamline the state’s science standards, to reduce the amount of material teachers must cover.

The biology committee recommended removal of four passages that require biology students to consider “all sides” of scientific theory, including questioning scientific explanations about the complexity of cells, the origin of life and the abrupt appearance and stasis in fossil records.

On Friday, the Republican-controlled board voted to keep most of that language in the curriculum standards, scrapping only the passage that required students to consider “all sides” of scientific theory — but they added similar requirements on considering scientific conclusions.

The Texas Tribune reported in November that committee members told the board their recommendations were not politically motivated, but were based solely on considerations that ninth graders would have trouble mastering the concepts.

But many scientists and teachers say the requirements challenge evolutionary theory and invite the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public schools, though the curriculum standards do not explicitly mention those religiously based concepts.

“While the wording of the controversial [standards] seems innocuous on its face, some of it is taken directly from creationist playbooks,” said Katie Lyons of Austin Science Advocates, which works to improve the understanding and advancement of science.

“While we think these topics are important to biology, it would be possible to interpret the wording of these four [standards] to promote intelligent design, which is not a basis for critical thinking.”

Lyons said many of the topics in the four standards at issue would still be covered in the recommended curriculum, to promote analysis of scientific evidence without “misrepresenting it as sides.”

At the Jan. 31 board meeting, several teachers and scientists urged the board to approve the standards as revised by the biology committee.

“You may not agree with all the panel recommendations and it is also clear that some of your constituents do not like those recommendations,” University of Texas biology professor Arturo De Lozanne said at the meeting. “But establishment of our educational goals should not be based on opinion polls but on the expertise of those who are intimately engaged with our students and with the content being taught.”

De Lozanna said in an interview that the standards the board adopted do little to promote critical thinking, and that the emphasis on covering so many concepts results in rote memorization rather than allowing students to examine and understand them.

“They are adding more concepts to cover in the exact same limited amount of time, and that means that there is really less time to do careful thinking about how do we use this information, how do we even know this information is correct,” De Lozanna said.

He said he was puzzled that the board would “disregard the very intense work” of the committee.

“If that’s the way it’s going to be, let’s not just waste the time and money on this process,” he said. “It’s deceptive.”

Board member Barbara Cargill, who proposed reinstating the language removed by the biology committee, said the biology teachers she talked to do not believe the standards open the door to teaching creation, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“They’re not thinking this way. It’s ridiculous. There’s been no lawsuits, no huge outcry that creation is being taught in the classroom,” Cargill said.

The curriculum adopted by the board could affect what is taught in public schools nationwide, because Texas is one of the biggest markets for textbooks, which gives publishers tremendous incentives to gear their books toward state standards.

The board will hold another public hearing and take a final vote on the standards in April.

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