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Textbook Adoptions Pose Risks

As states get ready to adopt biology textbooks to prepare high school students for the Common Core standards over the next decade, the stage is set for renewed controversy. Nowhere is this issue more on display than in Texas, whose sheer size disproportionately affects school district purchases in other states ("Creationists on Texas Panel for Biology Textbooks," The New York Times, Sept. 28).

Despite the ruling by a U.S. District judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005 striking down a school board policy requiring that students be made aware of "gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design," the State Board of Education in Texas persists in defying it.  By nominating to the textbook review panel several members who believe that creationism should be taught in science classes, the board is attempting to inject its ideology. As I post this column, there is still one reviewer who is holding up the approval of a highly regarded biology textbook ("Texas Education Board Flags Biology Textbook Over Evolution Concerns," The New York Times, Nov. 22).

Whether science will ultimately prevail depends largely on what individual classroom teachers do in designing lesson plans.  Even in the seven states that have already officially adopted the science standards - California, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont - there is always the possibility that teachers will attempt to override them by their instructional strategies.

This situation cuts both ways.  A district can make its own decision to include creationism in violation of a federal court ruling, but a science teacher can refuse to do so.  Conversely, a district can prohibit including creationism, but a science teacher can decide to make it a part of instruction.  Both have happened because of the ability of special interest groups to bring pressure to bear on local school boards.

But one thing is clear: Teachers who decide to ignore their board's policy put themselves in legal jeopardy.  In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District that only school boards can determine the curriculum.  This means teachers leave themselves open to lawsuits that their union will be reluctant to defend them against in light of the unequivocal court decision.  Moreover, if teachers willfully disobey district policy, they can be subjected to punitive damages.

Closely monitoring the unfolding drama are textbook publishers. To their credit, they intend to omit references to intelligent design (i.e. creationism), according to the Texas Flexibility Community ("Texas Textbook Publishers Say No To Creationism," USA News, Oct. 18).  I hope that they will also avoid bowdlerized literature and airbrushed history. 

What's so troubling in the entire process is the hypocrisy involved.  If one of the goals of the accountability movement is to develop critical thinking skills, it's hard to understand how this objective can be achieved when students are shielded from controversial issues.  Students today are subjected to images and information that previous generations never knew existed until much later in life.  Instead of trying to protect them, schools need to recognize that students quickly lose interest if they see no connection between what takes place in class and what goes on in the world beyond.

The best teachers know how to deal with contentious issues.  It's time to give them a chance to guide their students through these perilous times. Schools are supposed to educate, not to indoctrinate. 










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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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