The Texas State Board of Education found common ground Tuesday between key players on both sides of a contentious debate about what language to include in high school biology standards.
Currently, the curriculum requires students to “evaluate” scientific explanations for the origins of DNA and the complexity of certain cells, which some say could open the door to teaching creationism.
A 10-member committee of teachers and scientists, appointed by the board in July to offer suggestions to narrow the biology curriculum standards, wants to replace this language so it no longer requires students to challenge evolutionary science.
At a February meeting, board members took a preliminary vote to modify curriculum standards and kept in language that would require students to challenge evolutionary science. Another preliminary vote will take place Wednesday, and a final vote on the issue will occur Friday.
In a recent letter, the committee signaled its desire to remove the word “evaluate” from two teaching requirements in a letter, arguing that it would save valuable instruction time without creating significant instructional problems.
The committee proposed replacing the word “evaluate” with language that didn’t challenge scientific theories. In the standard governing how to teach high school students about DNA, it recommended changing the phrase from “evaluating scientific explanations for the origin of DNA” to “identifying scientific explanations for the origin of DNA.”
At Tuesday's meeting, several key board members as well as activists and experts on either side of the issue expressed a willingness to compromise and use the word “examine” — instead of “identify” or “evaluate.”
Those on board included conservative organizations — The Discovery Institute and Texas Values — which strongly objected to stripping the word “evaluate,” and Republican board member Barbara Cargill, who championed the effort to keep the controversial language in the curriculum.
Cargill said people who testified on both sides of the issue seemed OK with the word “examine.”
"I prefer 'evaluate,' but in trying to be thoughtful about the fact that this is streamlining and after talking to teachers, I think 'examine' is something that I could be OK with, too,” she said.
The search for a consensus began after Republican board member Keven Ellis asked Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University professor who was one of 10 committee members who wrote the letter, if there was a “middle term” that didn’t stray too far from the word “evaluate.”
Wetherington, who testified in favor of narrower language, floated the words “examine,” “explore” and “investigate,” which he said were stronger than “identify” but still “not unreasonable.”
Several teachers were also present to testify about how they thought any changes could affect their classrooms.
Sherry Joslin, a middle school math and science teacher, mother of two Houston public high school students and a former NASA engineer, said students need to be able to evaluate different scientific viewpoints, including those on evolution, to learn critical thinking.
“When people ask me why I quit my job at NASA, I tell them that children are more complicated systems than space shuttles,” Joslin said. “Avoiding the evaluation of ideas hinders progress.”
But for some teachers, the question isn’t about the benefits of evaluating ideas; it's about the practical constraints of doing so.
Scott Lane, a semi-retired educator with 33 years of experience as a public school math and science teacher, said evaluating scientific concepts is not beyond a student's abilities, but he also highlighted that public educators have six months to cover a year’s worth of curricula.
“This language must be translated as it is into the performance indicators for [the state's standardized test system], or the material will never be taught in the way the language intends,” Lane said.
Board members drew criticism from Kathy Miller, president of the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network. She said they have too often ignored recommendations about curriculum standards and textbooks that they've requested teachers and scholars to make.
Miller said the proposed changes would not silence students or take away their ability to ask a question, and they would still allow teachers to go beyond the curriculum.
Although Republican board member Marty Rowley has said suggestions that the standards would open the door to creationism are unfounded, a few who testified Tuesday raised concerns about the belief creeping into science class.
Aron Ra, author of a book called “Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism,” said that "high school students have no proficiency to 'critique' scientific evidence and neither do most of their teachers.”
Raymond Bohlin, president of Plano-based Probe Ministries, which advocates for integrating faith and learning, indicated that creationism may have a seat in the classroom.
Bohlin said instruction in evolution needs to consistently avoid a commitment to materialism and that using the word "identify" would reveal a religious bias towards materialism.
Read related Tribune coverage:
- Some school board members expressed their concerns about removing language that would allow students to evaluate certain biological processes. A streamlining committee, appointed by the board, wrote a letter arguing it would be important to change the curriculum.
- A day after hearing from scientists begging them to remove controversial language from science standards that some say opens the door to creationism, State Board of Education members took a preliminary vote February to do the opposite.
- State Board of Education members heard public testimony in late January on science curriculum standards that teach students to discredit evolution.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.