13% of H.S. Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class, Majority Shy From Evolution
Creationism is still around in American high schools, lurking in of all places the biology teaching profession!
The above link is to the press release that accompanied the publishing of a report in the journal Science, about the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. From the press release:
The majority of public high school biology teachers are not strong classroom advocates of evolutionary biology, despite 40 years of court cases that have ruled teaching creationism or intelligent design violates the Constitution, according to Penn State political scientists. […]
“Considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America’s classrooms,” write Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, professors of political science at Penn State, in the Jan. 28 issue of Science.
The researchers examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of 926 public high school biology instructors. They found only about 28 percent of those teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred, and craft lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology.
In contrast, Berkman and Plutzer found that about 13 percent of biology teachers “explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.” Many of these teachers typically rejected the possibility that scientific methods can shed light on the origin of the species, and considered both evolution and creationism as belief systems that cannot be fully proven or discredited.
Berkman and Plutzer dubbed the remaining teachers the “cautious 60 percent,” who are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives. “Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy,” they said.
The researchers found these teachers [the “cautious 60 percent”] commonly use one or more of three strategies to avoid controversy.
Some teach evolutionary biology as if it applies only to molecular biology, ignoring an opportunity to impart a rich understanding of the diversity of species and evidence that one species gives rise to others.
Using a second strategy, some teachers rationalize the teaching of evolution by referring to high-stakes examinations. These teachers “tell students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, so long as they know it for the test,” Berkman and Plutzer said.
Finally, many teachers expose their students to all positions, scientific and otherwise, and let them make up their own minds. This is unfortunate, the researchers said, because “this approach tells students that well established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”
Berkman and Plutzer conclude that “the cautious 60 percent fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments.” As a result, “they may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”
The researchers note that more high school students take biology than any other science course, and for as many as 25 percent of high school students it is the only science course they will ever take, […]
Berkman and Plutzer say the nation must have better-trained biology teachers who can confidently advocate for high standards of science education in their local communities. Colleges and universities should mandate a dedicated undergraduate course in evolution for all prospective biology teachers, for example, and follow up with outreach refresher courses, so that more biology teachers embrace evolutionary biology.
“Combined with continued successes in courtrooms and the halls of state government, this approach offers our best chance of increasing the scientific literacy of future generations,” they conclude.
Berkman and Plutzer based their article on their larger work, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, recently published by Cambridge University Press [and available in paperback at Amazon.] In the book, they use the data from the high school biology teacher survey and other sources to analyze a range of factors that influence the teaching of evolution and creationism in the nation’s public schools.
The actual Science paper is here, but unfortunately it is behind the pay wall. The abstract:
Just over 5 years ago, the scientific community turned its attention to a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Eleven parents sued their Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to overturn a policy explicitly legitimizing intelligent design creationism. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, followed a familiar script: Local citizens wanted their religious values validated by the science curriculum; prominent academics testified to the scientific consensus on evolution; and creationists lost decisively. Intelligent design was not science, held the court, but rather an effort to advance a religious view via public schools, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause Many scientists cheered the decision, agreeing with the court that the school board displayed “breathtaking inanity”. We suggest that the cheering was premature and the victory incomplete.
A detailed story at the LiveScience website adds a bit more to the story:
“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves,” Michael Berkman, co-author of the study with Penn State University colleague Eric Plutzer, told Livescience. “Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.”
Based on respondents’ write-in answers, the researchers surmised that many of [the “cautious 60 percent”] toed the line, weakly teaching evolution without explicitly endorsing or denying creationism in order to avoid controversy and questions from both students and parents.
Often, a letter in support of evolution from the principal or the school board is enough to instill confidence in the teachers, Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. “It would be beneficial for there to be more support from the administration, so [teachers] don’t feel out there all alone,” he said.
Nature magazine has an article on the Science paper, and notes:
“The official state content standards actually have very little impact on the way teachers teach in the classroom,” says Eric Plutzer, a political scientist from Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who co-authored the paper, which appears 27 January in Science. The major factors affecting what teachers taught were their own personal values and beliefs as well as the values and culture of their community, he adds.
In the most conservative school districts, nearly 40% of teachers do not personally accept human evolution (compared to 11% in the least conservative districts).
Since evolution is the fundamental concept unifying biology, it is surprising how many high school biology teachers are unaccepting or uneasy with it, says William Wallace, the Washington D.C. representative of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “It’s like a math teacher not believing in algebra,” he says. […]
As the abstract noted the “cheering was premature” when the Dover ruling came down, and with that I must at least partially agree, especially when seeing that the GOP apparatus is making creationism a test filter for their Presidential 2012 candidate, as I outlined in a couple of regular LGF comments (here and here.)
Over time perhaps this great cultural rift in America - between the modernists who accept science and the atavists who reject it - will close. For now, though, the culture wars are full speed ahead.