Deep in the heart of Texas …

JISHOU, HUNAN — Texas is a big state, with about 6 million schoolchildren. When the Texas State Board of Education speaks, textbook publishers listen. After all, if the publishers can sell their texts to Texas, it’s a big deal. It means money.

So, when the Texas BOE met in March to discuss controversial changes to the state’s proposed science standards, science educators all over the USA were worried. Would the BOE, chaired by an unapologetic creationist, introduce language into the standards to allow the teaching of creationism and and its clone, Intelligent Design, in the Texas schools?

To do so would be seriously damage science education in the Texas public schools. It would also likely influence textbook publishers’ treatment of evolution in biology texts, thereby affecting schools all over the USA.

The Texas BOE is nearly evenly composed of creationists and more sensible members, so the results were by no means predictable. In the end, the original changes, as proposed by the openly anti-evolution chairman and board members, were rejected. Instead, the BOE passed more coyly worded standards that still could be used to introduce pseudo-science and religion into Texas classrooms, but did not exactly trample science teaching.

Whether the new standards will induce textbook publishers to edit their books to make them more palatable to Texas remains to be seen.

A lot of bloggers have capably covered the Texas fracas already, so I will not go into the details here. Rather, I’d rather provide some background as an interested observer.

Textbooks
Right off, I want to reveal some personal bias. I hate most school textbooks. Invariably, they are written by committees of authors, who have to write to specific age-appropriate reading levels, include spiffy graphics and photos, chop the material into tiny, easily digestible chunks, and satisfy the requirements of 50 different state boards or departments of education. The result is a sometimes confusing, often dull piece of work that sucks the life out of any subject. For that reason, I avoided using high school physics texts as a teacher, sticking to college texts. As a one-man department at an independent school, I could manage that. Results may vary elsewhere.

Textbook publishing for the public schools is a major industry, now dominated by only a handful of large publishers. They tend to swing in the direction of the most populous states, Texas, California and New York, since those states will buy the most textbooks in any given replacement cycle. If Texas, for example, wants students to study the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory, as was originally proposed, then publishers will try to add such material to their texts in an effort to close a deal with Texas. All other states will see identically worded texts. [It’s inefficient and costly to publish 50 different versions of the same text, after all.]

The next textbook buying cycle in Texas is 2012, by the way. Real soon.

Science courses in US public schools are typically survey courses, by subject. At the high school level, that means a biology text one year, a chemistry text another year, etc. Middle school texts might be life science, earth science, environmental science and physical science.

Given the nature of the beast, and the typical school term of 180 days, any particular topic in a given field of study gets only cursory examination in most school texts.

Under these circumstances, treating a complex subject like the theory of evolution is a tough job. While I personally don’t like most school texts, I appreciate the hard work by their authors to serve their profession and subjects well. Most textbook writers and contributors are teachers themselves, or university professors, well versed in their subjects and in proper teaching methods. Their publishers’ bottom lines dictate the final products, not the authors’ own abilities.

So, take a complex subject like evolution, add a dash of “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory (whatever that means), mince it to fit within the parameters of the public school textbook, and the result would likely be a confusing exposition to a reader who might be at once an unmotivated learner and a disinterested student. Only a skillful teacher can pull his or her students out of that mire.

“Strengths and weaknesses”

The creationist/ID camp of the Texas BOE, lead by chairman Don McLeroy, proposed this amendment to the proposed standards: (A) analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. The board rejected the amendment, 8-7.

At face value, the wording seems pretty harmless, but it was a ploy by creationists and Intelligent Designists to suggest that the theory of evolution has fatal flaws (no God pulling any strings, for example). McLeroy is an unabashed Young Earth Creationist (you know, God created everything in 6 days in 4004 BC), and the wording draws from the pro-ID Discovery Institute’s “wedge document” — a strategic plan to insert creationism/ID “science” into public instruction.

McLeroy and his cohorts also wanted similar treatments of other scientific theories, like the Big Bang and abiogenesis, and global warming. Evolution was just the poster child.

Since the First Amendment prohibits the state (public schools) from teaching religion (Genesis) to students, creationism and ID proponents have had to couch their “theories” carefully as “scientific” alternatives to the theories of evolution, abiogenesis and the Big Bang.

First, they have popularized the meme that evolution is a “theory in crisis.” [It isn’t.] Then, they insist that scientists are trying to cover up their imperiled evolutionary theory’s weaknesses. [They aren’t, since none exist.] The same scientists want to keep “alternative theories” out of the schools, since wider understanding of creationist and ID principles would further weaken “belief” in evolution. [Wrong again: the alternatives are not science.] Science should entertain all explanations for observed phenomena. [Sure, if they are scientific explanations.] Therefore, schools should “teach the controversy” to give students a more complete science education.

That ploy failed in 2005, when a federal judge (appointed by a Republican president and assumed to be “soft” on ID) categorically outed “teach the controversy” and ID as religious beliefs, not scientific explanations.

Now the creationist/ID camps have fallen back on a secondary ploy, to suggest that students should “critically analyze” the “weaknesses” in their rogue’s gallery of scientific theories. That was the eventual outcome of the Texas BOE’s deliberations.

The final wording of the major amendment was: In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of the scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student. Approved 13-2

Notice the magic words “critique” and “critical thinking” there, implying students can analyze evolution in the same way they can an American novel, or a political movement.

Two specific amendments to the biology standards also passed: Analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil record. Approved 13-2 Anti-evolution types insist there are gaps in the fossil record — no intermediate forms — indicating a weakness in evolutionary theory and evidence for Creation. And, analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell. Approved 13-2 ID proponents harp on the so-called “irreducible complexity” of living organisms as evidence for an intelligent designer.

Under earth sciences, the board also specifically struck an instructional goal that students should learn the universe is 14 billion years old, replacing the wording with current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe. Approved 11-3 Anti-evolutionists usually deny the universe is as old as most scientific estimates hold, though not all them accept a 6,000-year-old age either.

Outcomes
At this point, it’s hard to predict how the new standards will affect instruction in Texas. Asuming the Texas legislature doesn’t get involved somehow, some teachers might use the cleverly worded standards to teach creationism or ID in their classes (which is not to suggest some haven’t already been doing it). Egregious examples will likely end up in court, since it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that creationism and ID are religious ideas and cannot constitutionally be taught in public schools.

The ID camp, of course, is pleased as punch at the final results, since they did not lose categorically. Chairman McLeroy, however, is whining that the new standards are scientifically unsound and ultimately are a disservice to Texas students.

In that, he is ironically correct.

Links:
Minutes of the BOE meeting: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/summary/2009/March09Summary.pdf

Short article in the Baptist Standard: http://www.baptiststandard.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=9355&Itemid=53

From the Skeptic Blog: http://skepticblog.org/2009/04/01/texas-science-standards-wrapup-yup-doomed/

Dallas Morning News report: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-evolution_28tex.ART.State.Edition1.4a87415.html

Salon.com coverage: http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2009/03/28/texas_evolution_case/

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