Life Sciences

01
Dec

Still Fighting for Evolution in Schools

When I tell people that I work for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), I’m often asked, “What does NCSE do?” The short answer is that we work to keep creationism, “intelligent design” (ID), and other kinds of non-science education—such as climate change denial—out of public schools.

Often, the next question I get is: “Wait. Is that still a problem? People are still teaching creationism and “intelligent design?” Where? Not here, right?” Then I say, “Yes, it’s still a problem—even here” and launch into my long answer.

According to a 2007 national survey of biology teachers, 13% outright endorse creationism or ID in the classroom, 21% lend credence to creationism or ID as a valid alternative to evolution, and slightly more than that, 22.4% spend at least one hour of instruction time—unconstitutionally—on these non-scientific topics. There are about 3 million students taking high school biology in this country in any given year. So we can conclude that somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million students will be presented with a favorable view of creationism/ID this year in their high school biology classes alone.

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A NCSE representative (far right) participates in a 2009 rally to defend science education.

That is a lot of students being misled about biology’s central organizing concept. But wait, it gets worse. Unfortunately, the small minority that have been loudly proclaiming for nearly one hundred years that evolution is ungodly, have successfully sowed doubt and confusion in the general public. Numerous studies show that in every single state, a minority of citizens support teachers in doing the right thing—teaching only evolution, not evolution and ID/creationism. (See Table A3.1 in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms.) My home state of Massachusetts has the most evolution-only supporters, with 40.6% (±7) saying that they are opposed to ID/creationism being presented in the science classroom. The statistics get more depressing from there, bottoming out with just 23.3 (±5) opposing creationism’s inclusion in science curricula in Tennessee.

It’s no wonder, then, that a majority of high school biology teachers, while not outright teaching creationism/ID, tend to avoid or weaken coverage of evolution in the classroom. The 2007 survey of biology teachers found that a majority, what the survey’s authors call the “cautious 60%,” are exposing their students to another kind of science miseducation. These teachers either opt not to cover evolution at all, or send their students a mixed message. They might “present both sides,” “encourage debate,” or otherwise give the impression that creationism and evolution are equally scientifically valid. While this misrepresentation of science may not be as egregious as outright advocacy for creationism/ID, it is nevertheless highly problematic and it affects about 2 million high school biology students a year.

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The general public’s view on creationism and evolution in public schools, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center survey.

So yes, science denial is still a problem that affects, directly or indirectly, a majority of classrooms across the country.

How can we take on this massive problem? First, by admitting that it exists—not somewhere else, but here. Only then can we begin to coalesce around solutions. NCSE has over 30 years of experience putting out fires, whether by taking on legislators and administrators when they promote or even allow the teaching of creationism/ID, advocating for textbooks that present science accurately, or helping communities organize to rally against non-science or misrepresentative evolution coverage in science standards. These actions have largely been directed towards those one in eight biology teachers that are teaching non-science. But now we are increasing our emphasis on the 59% of “cautious middle” teachers.

How? By giving them the support they need. We know from our survey work that most of the teachers in the cautious middle are not necessarily there because they fundamentally disagree with evolution. A number of other factors are at play. Many are likely afraid they’ll be met with pushback from parents—and with good reason! Remember that the majority of citizens in every state think that they should be teaching ID/creationism! Some may not feel confident enough in their own content mastery to weather the questions students could raise. They may also think that presenting “both sides” is good pedagogy—that they’re helping students to think critically or engage in argumentation. However, these practices, while certainly core to the scientific endeavor, must be framed appropriately. To have students debate whether evolution is true is not an appropriate exercise, whereas an exercise in evidence-based debate about the relative importance of punctuated equilibrium and gradualism would certainly be welcome.

But knowing the difference between a good and a not-so-good lesson is not always easy and requires a commitment and investment in professional development—but that can be hard to come by. Teachers are on the frontline of science education but they get little thanks for it. When science grades are low, we blame science teachers—even as administrators and local governments steadily reduce resources while increasing demands. When learning standards are confusing, contradictory, or sub-par, it’s teachers who have to deal with the fallout. When polls suggest that the public has a poor grasp of scientific issues, whose fault is it? Those darn science teachers.

That’s not fair, and we want it to stop.

To that end, NCSE is building a new, national network of teachers—NCSEteach—that will bring science teachers together, allow educators to connect with one another (and NCSE staff), guide them to good-quality and well-vetted resources, share stories of how they have dealt with challenges to science education, and also connect them to early career scientists as partners in advancing the scientific enterprise. Our goal is to give science teachers the support and respect that they need to teach science forthrightly even when there is societal pressure not to.

Are you a teacher? You can sign up for NCSEteach, here and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Stephanie Keep

Stephanie is the director of special projects at the National Center of Science Education (NCSE) and editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education. She also works as a science education consultant for nonprofit groups such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)'s BioInteractive, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and WGBH/NOVA. At NCSE, Stephanie regularly blogs about misconceptions and other issues around science communication and education. Read her posts at the National Center for Science Education