States debate classroom challenges to evolution
Science | Texas, South Dakota want to give teachers freedom to present all the scientific evidence
by Julie Borg
Posted 2/09/17, 05:31 pm
Two states, Texas and South Dakota, are embroiled in controversies over teaching science in the public school system.
Last month, the South Dakota Senate approved by a 23-12 vote a bill that allows teachers to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information in their classrooms without fear of reprisal. The bill, SB 55, doesn’t specifically mention evolution or climate change but it would allow teachers to explain both the strengths and weaknesses of such theories. It must win approval in the state House before heading to the governor’s desk.
The current standards only permit teachers to teach the strengths of certain scientific theories, Sen. Phil Jensen told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
“In science it’s imperative that we not only show the strengths, but also the weaknesses,” he said.
The bill sparked a backlash from opponents, including the State Department of Education, state school boards, administrators, teachers, and scientists, who claim it could cause legal problems for school districts and could lead to teaching “unauthorized theories,” the paper reported.
But many lauded the change as an opportunity to allow a free exchange of scientific ideas in the classroom. Sen. Jeff Monroe said many teachers don’t feel comfortable discussing the weaknesses of evolution and climate change for fear of retribution. Legislation that allows such discussion and gives teachers the chance to provide alternate scientific theories would sharpen students’ critical thinking skills, he said.
Sen. Lance Russell touted the bill’s promotion of the free flow of ideas.
“One of the areas that’s been of concern to me is this idea that now we in some fashion call people deniers, if you don’t believe this you’re a denier or a bigot or something along those lines,” he told the Argus Leader.
Opponents suggested the bill will open the door for teaching religion and scientific theories that don’t support the idea of catastrophic man-made climate change. Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, Inc., fears the bill will lead to teaching creationism, climate change denial, and white supremacy in the classroom.
“They’ll be able to teach anything they please,” he told the newspaper.
But Sarah Chaffee, program officer in education and public policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, noted teachers still must follow the state’s science curriculum.
“The freedoms it gives teachers are in line with the state science standards,” she wrote on the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News.
In Texas, the state Board of Education took a preliminary vote this week to retain language in state science standards that allows teachers to give students scientific evidence challenging standard evolutionary theory.
In July, the board appointed a committee of 10 educators and experts to make recommendations on streamlining the standards. The committee voted 7-2 to remove standards allowing evolution criticism in high school classrooms. Some teachers on the committee said 14- and 15-year-olds are not capable of mastering the ability to question evolution.
But another teacher on the committee, Ray Bohlin, who disagreed with the group’s recommendations, told the Texas Tribune if the standards are removed “evolution gets a free pass.”
The committee also recommended deleting a clause that requires students to consider various explanations of the sudden appearance of organism groups in the fossil record. Creationists and some intelligent design advocates often point to this sudden appearance as an indication these organisms did not evolve from previous life forms. The committee said students didn’t have enough time to master such complex concepts, which were not cognitively appropriate for ninth graders, the Texas Tribune reported.
The board will take a final vote in April.
Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.