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Shortchanging Students in Science

With so much attention focused on the need to graduate more students in STEM, it's disheartening to learn how the first "S" in the acronym is being undermined. The results of a survey of more than 900 public high school biology teachers published in the Jan. 28 issue of Science found that only 28 percent consistently follow the recommendations by the National Research Council to teach evolution. Contrary to popular belief, teachers who most enthusiastically support creationism are scattered across the country.

This data are deep cause for concern. Biology is science, not religion. Although federal courts have ruled time and again that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional, the clear verdicts continue to be ignored. As a result, students are being cheated out of a quality science education. The most recent ruling in that regard was in 2005, when a federal judge barred a Dover, Pennsylvania public school district from teaching intelligent design, holding that the concept is creationism in disguise.

I realize that science is not merely biology and that evolution is only one part of the biology curriculum. Nevertheless, evolution constitutes a cohesive theme. Moreover, biology is taken by more high school students than any other science class. For many students, it is the only science class they will take. Consequently, they will graduate without a sound understanding of science. (On the latest Program for International Student Assessment, our students moved up to average in science performance.)

The survey's findings also call into question the argument that the solution is to hire more science teachers who know their subjects thoroughly. This is a constant claim made by reformers that has great intuitive appeal. But there is no assurance that the most knowledgeable science teachers will not also include creationism.

I say this because there are about 15,000 school districts. Parents who believe in creationism can exert enormous pressure on members of local boards of education, to the point that even the most scientifically oriented biology teachers finally cave in. Who can blame them? The stress created by the controversy is simply not worth it. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, nearly 60 percent of biology teachers who accept evolution are nevertheless "wary of dealing with critics in their communities" ("Why does U.S. fail in science education?" Mar. 20).

It's interesting to note that the issue is not limited to K-12. A Texas lawmaker has introduced a bill protecting college professors and students from discrimination because they base their research on intelligent design ("Arlington lawmaker's bill would protect questioners of evolution," Star-Telegram, Mar. 17). The aim is to guarantee academic freedom.

The College Board is revising its AP science courses, beginning with biology. The change will be away from memorizing facts to understanding the scientific method through inquiry-based labs. But will local school boards stand up to parents who demand equal time for intelligent design? If they won't, what about the effect on students?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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