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A Closer Look — Evolution Advocates Spin Texas Science Standards

Sarah Chaffee

Texas

As we noted already (here and here), the Texas Board of Education voted last week to preserve requirements to exercise critical thinking on key evolution-related topics: the origin of DNA, cellular complexity, the fossil record, natural selection, and more.

Yet media sources and groups that advocate teaching evolution dogmatically are spinning this as a victory. Maybe that’s predictable.

The Texas Freedom Network, for one, tweeted: “SBOE votes & for the 1st time in 30 years, standards are free of junk science designed to cast doubt on evolution….” By this they seem to mean that the standards only require Texas students to learn about the scientific evidence in favor of evolution. But that’s flatly false.

The Houston Chronicle offered the headline, “SBOE gives final OK to curb creationism language in science standards.” “Creationism”? That makes little sense. Even Ron Wetherington, speaking for those biology committee members who pushed for one-sided evolution standards, was clear that he didn’t think creationism was in the standards. As the Texas Tribune noted: “[Wetherington] does not consider creationism a relevant concern since schools are ‘forbidden by law from even talking about it in the classroom.’”

What, in fact, do these standards accomplish? Don McLeroy, former chairman of the SBOE, commented on the streamlined evolution language:

Hardline evolutionists attempted to hijack the Texas science standards, but their efforts crashed and burned as the Texas State Board of Education not only kept all of the previous evolution-challenging standards of 2009, but made them clearer and stronger.

The new standards have the students “compare and contrast prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, including their complexity, and compare and contrast scientific explanations for cellular complexity,” “examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA,” and “examine scientific explanations of abrupt appearance and stasis in the fossil record.”

As a reminder, Science reported back in April 2009, “New science standards for Texas school strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution…” These 2017 standards strike an even bigger blow!

And let’s not forget Standard 3A, a process standard for biology instruction that asks students to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.” This is alongside Standards 7A, 7C, 7D, 7E which ask students to analyze and evaluate aspects of biodiversity, including natural selection.

In the end, despite hearing widely differing viewpoints, the Board and committee achieved unanimous agreement on these standards. The final outcome is in line with our own Science Education Policy:

Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.

As Donna Bahorich, chair of the Board of Education, said in a Texas Education Agency press release regarding Standards 4A and 6A:

It was clear from testifiers that many who had varied concerns found the compromise language chosen by the board to be acceptable, addressing both the need to streamline content while still encouraging critical thinking by students.

Kenneth Bishop, a retired 35-year veteran teacher in Texas, must be pleased. In a letter to the editor in last Wednesday’s Dallas Morning News, he supported the language encouraging critical evaluation of evolution. Mr. Bishop noted:

It was in those classes where my students asked questions, weighed evidence and analyzed competing ideas that they learned and were engaged most fully. Without evaluating an explanation’s strengths and weaknesses, students won’t get experience practicing the real methods of science. They may also be misled into thinking that all scientists agree on the origins of biological complexity and DNA, when they don’t.

Under these streamlined standards, Texas teachers and students are encouraged to do what Bishop advocates: engage in critical thinking, learn more about evolution and biology — not less! — and think like scientists by practicing scientific inquiry. That’s a victory for students, and for high quality education, in the Lone Star State.

Image: © science photo — stock.adobe.com.