Don’t Mess With Textbooks

Essay / by Josh Rosenau /

Science education faced setbacks at the Texas Board of Education hearings in March. An inside look at the politicians, teachers, and textbook publishers who are fighting back.

The National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, CA, where I work, has tracked hundreds of attacks on evolution education in 48 states in the last five years. In the last two years alone, 18 bills in 10 states have targeted the teaching of evolution. These bills, like the flawed science standards approved by the Texas Board of Education in March, don’t ban evolution outright. But they do authorize teachers to omit evolution or include creationism at their whim. “These bills give cover to school boards and teachers who want to teach creationism,” says Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who studies the history of creationism. “It’s as simple as that.”

Image courtesy Steve Newton

Evolution is still the most common target in science education standards: Kansas nearly scrubbed it in 2005 and Florida only made it a requirement to teach the “e-word” last year. But conservatives, out of power in Washington, seem to be shifting their attention to the states, where anti-evolution bills are increasingly being broadened to attack conservative bogeymen like global warming and human cloning, reflecting what Forrest calls “the Religious Right’s anti-science stance.” The education standards just passed in Texas cast doubt on human contributions to climate change, a reflection of this new, more disturbing trend. The state’s School Board Chairman Don McLeroy explained to an Austin newspaper the board’s position on global warming by saying, “Conservatives like me think the evidence is a bunch of hooey.”

By expanding the attacks beyond evolution to include scientific expertise itself, these conservatives weaken understanding both of the scientific process and how the scientific community evaluates ideas. And because of the state’s enormous purchasing power for textbooks, Texas’s standards will ultimately affect textbooks nationwide. The board spent more than $200 million on K-12 textbooks last year—buying more high school science books than any other state. “Publishers typically write their textbooks to Texas standards and then sell those books to smaller states,” explains Kathy Miller of the civil liberties watchdog Texas Freedom Network. If the board rejects a textbook, it can destroy a publisher.

Given these stakes, my colleagues and I worked hard to influence the Texas School Board over the months of hearings, providing them with a statement signed by 54 scientific and educational societies opposing “any effort to undermine the teaching of biological evolution and related topics.” We worked with local activists to organize constituents and political honchos who educated board members about the importance of evolution to science education. 

But the other side knew the board’s seven creationists needed to pick up only one vote to gain a majority. The Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based intelligent design think tank, and the Greater Houston Creation Association worked on creationist amendments and lobbied for the decisive eighth vote. They were aided by testimony from Ray Bohlin, a molecular biologist who left science to start a fundamentalist ministry, and Don Patton, who parades a doctorate from what appears to be an Australian diploma mill and gained notoriety claiming fossil evidence that dinosaurs and humans walked side-by-side.

Despite our efforts, after a total of 24 hours of testimony in three separate hearings, pro-evolution moderates brokered a compromise with the board’s seven creationists. Heeding McLeroy’s cry that “someone’s got to stand up to experts!,” the board approved standards that promote creationism’s mantra of “sudden appearance” of new species, echo creationist beliefs that the complexity of the cell cannot be scientifically explained, and mandate that students study “different views on the existence of global warming.”

Textbook publishers are already preparing for hearings in 2011, which will judge whether rewritten textbooks fit the new standards. Textbook author and biologist Ken Miller and publisher Rene LeBel both say they’ll abide by the letter, but not the spirit, of the standards; for instance, by fulfilling the requirement to cover “all sides of scientific evidence” without including creationist pseudoscience. Miller, a vocal defender of evolution education, insists that “biology textbook authors will all stand together on evolution,” refusing to include creationist attacks or to drop good science.

But resisting the board can result in being banned from the nation’s largest high school textbook market. For this reason, LeBel notes that publishers often placate the board with small changes, such as switching from clear statements to “open-ended questions that leave it up to students to decide.” Watchdogs worry that some publishers may satisfy the board by outright larding books with creationism.

But all is not lost. Professors in Texas and elsewhere are privately planning to boycott college textbooks from any publishers who let the board taint high school textbooks. And just as fights over science standards in Kansas and Ohio were resolved at the ballot box, board elections in 2010 may usher in more defenders of science before the final purchasing decisions are made for textbooks. Bolstered by complaints from angry voters, there are some Texas lawmakers publicly chastising the new science standards. The State Legislature is considering a slew of bills that would strip the board’s power over textbooks, and McLeroy’s re-nomination as board chairman has stalled in a State Senate committee. In a recent hearing, State Senator Eliot Shapleigh told McLeroy, “You’ve created a hornet’s nest like I’ve never seen before.”

Concerned citizens are also abuzz, with parents, teachers, and even religious leaders across the country showing policymakers that there is a constituency for honest science education. Pro-evolution clergy are being organized through the Clergy Letter Project to dispel religious doubts about evolution. And a group of Texas entrepreneurs organized to tell the board that they believe tomorrow’s innovators need to know evolution. The NCSE recently worked with a family and local professors to give a student in Washington the courage to denounce his teacher’s creationist lectures. He won not only the school’s support but also a college scholarship from the ACLU. It doesn’t take an expert to stand up for science. Whether the battle is large or small, success depends on these types of broad coalitions.

Originally published May 20, 2009

Tags decision making education politics religion

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