The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

As goes Texas, so goes textbooks

The case of a fired Texas Education Agency science director raises an interesting new development in the struggle in education between the definition of science and non-scientific forces seeking their way into the classroom [1]. It’s been a while since I paid close attention to these state-by-state developments [2], but this one is of particular interest due to my impending Texanification. The Texas case appears to be one with an interesting twist. I’ll try to summarize my understanding of the case.

A former director of science for the TEA, Chris Comer, brought suit against the TEA for dismissing her (several years ago) based on a TEA guideline which she claimed violates ” . . . the Establishment Clause, because it employs the symbolic and financial support of the State of Texas to achieve a religious purpose, and so has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion. By professing ‘neutrality,’ the Agency credits creationism as a valid scientific theory [3].” The guideline is a requirement of neutrality when speaking about evolution and creationism. The TEA dismissed Comer for forwarding an e-mail about a talk by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and critic of the intelligent design movement. This violated their guideline, and they acted very swiftly on Comer, citing also in the dismissal  “misconduct and insubordination”.

The excitement surrounding all of this is the concern that the dismissal of Comer’s lawsuit just a week ago, combined with recently adopted new science standards for Texas, seems to paint a grim picture for the future of Texas education. With Texas’s large school system, there is a lot at stake for U.S. educational integrity.

What about these science standards? I wanted to look at them, because they are alleged to ” . . . [encourage] the presentation of creationist arguments . . . ”

I could not find the actual standards, and minutes from the meeting do not appear to be posted on the TEA website as of right now. So, instead, I took a sampling of commentary on the new rules from three sources listed in the NCSE’s article [4] about the new standards. These cover a spectrum, outlined by the NCSE, of viewing it as a battle conservatives actually lost (Dallas Morning News [5]), to a battle where science was the loser (Wall Street Journal [6]), to a neutral view that science standards have changed in Texas (Austin American-Statesman [7]). Here are some quotes from each. From the Dallas Morning News:

“In identical 8-7 votes, board members removed two sections written by Chairman Don McLeroy that would have required students in high school biology classes to study the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of common ancestry and natural selection of species. Both are key principles of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

Earlier, McLeroy, a creationist [and chair of the State Board of Education], argued that many aspects of Darwin’s theory are not supported by fossil records – though he pointed out he favors the teaching evolution in the public schools.”

Those groups [representing science teachers and academics] also questioned board decisions Friday to adopt compromise language in other areas – on the study of fossil records and the complexity of cells. Those compromises were supported by McLeroy and most other board members.”

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Science standards in Texas resonate across the U.S., since it approves one set of books for the entire state. That makes Texas the nation’s single largest market for high-school textbooks.”

“Yet the board approved standards that require students to analyze and evaluate the fossil record and the complexity of the cell. Social conservatives on the board . . . have made clear they expect books to address those topics by raising questions about the validity of evolutionary theory. For instance, they want textbooks to suggest the theory of evolution is undercut by fossils that show some organisms . . . haven’t changed much over millions of years. They also want texts to discuss the explosion of life forms during the Cambrian Era as inconsistent with the incremental march of evolution.”

“It isn’t just evolution at issue: The board also approved an earth-science curriculum that challenges the widely accepted Big Bang Theory. Students are expected to learn that there are ‘differing theories’ on the ‘origin and history of the universe.’ Board members also deleted a reference to the scientific consensus that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old. The board’s chairman has said he believes God created the universe fewer than 10,000 years ago.”

From the Austin Statemen-American:

“The new standards remove current requirements that students be taught the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of scientific theories. Instead, teachers will be required to have students scrutinize ‘all sides’ of the theories.”

“Ronald Wetherington, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University who supports evolution, said the removal of words like ‘insufficiency’ and ‘weaknesses’ will make it harder for the state board to reject texts that discuss evolution uncritically. However, Wetherington said the inclusion of requirements that students consider that science can’t entirely explain the complexity of cells could open the door to publishers pushing pseudo-science. ‘The battle has been largely won today, but we are nowhere near winning the war.'”

I thought I’d close with something from one of my future colleagues at SMU. 🙂

The consensus view among the three sources is that several key areas of the standards have seen some notable changes. One of these areas regards using certain observations to call into question the principles of evolution. The one about using “fossils that show some organisms . . . haven’t changed much over millions of years” to undercut the idea that organisms change over time suggests a simple misunderstanding of what evolution does and doesn’t say. It does say that organisms, through natural selection, become attuned to their environment (or are wiped out). It doesn’t say that change HAS to happen; if there is no reason for a fern to change in order to adapt to its surroundings, then a fern doesn’t need to evolve. Evolution of an organism isn’t required; it’s just a good idea in  the face of competition or threat of extinction.

The one that worries me more, as a particle physicist, is this business about the age of the universe. The overwhelming evidence, from multiple independent sources, is that the universe is 14 billion years old. Leaving that off, allowing people to believe what they want to believe without understanding that science reveals the age to us, pretty much abandons science.

Science standards aren’t textbooks, but they do set the stage for textbooks. What if physics textbook for a high school states the age to be 14 billion years, based on nucleosynthesis, or the cosmic microwave background, or the expansion of spacetime? Can that book be rejected because it excludes other viewpoints, even if those viewpoints have no evidence supporting them?

Lots to think about.


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