Evolution in U.S. schools: Student shortchanged, misinformed or completely ignorant

This well-done piece gives you an idea of the state of science education in the U.S. Even in Pennsylvania, the site of the landmark ruling Kitzmiller v. Dover, which smacked down Intelligent Design instruction in science class, there is still a HUGE problem with proper teaching of evolution as the unifying idea of biology. Kids are entering college completely unprepared and, worse, misinformed.

Is evolution missing link in some Pennsylvania high schools? – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

During an Advanced Placement biology course in Easton Area High School, Jennifer Estevez’s teacher sped through the large chapter on evolution, focusing on one formula for the AP exam and the basics: survival of the fittest and natural selection.

In those high school years in Northampton County, she also would attend a Baptist leadership retreat where a speaker denounced evolution as false, unproven science.

Her experience represents the ill-kept secret about public school biology classrooms nationwide — that evolution often isn’t taught robustly, if at all. Faith-based belief in creationism and intelligent design continues to be discussed and even openly taught in public school classrooms, despite state curriculum standards.

This is bad but it gets worse. A significant percentage of SCIENCE TEACHERS fail in understanding science. This part makes me particularly angry.

“Sometimes students honestly look me in the eye and ask what do I think? I tell them that I personally hold the Bible as the source of truth,” said Joe Sohmer, who teaches chemistry at the Altoona Area High School. The topic arises, he said, when he teaches radiocarbon dating, with that method often concluding archeological finds to be older than 10,000 years, which he says is the Bible-based age of Earth. “I tell them that I don’t think [radiocarbon dating] is as valid as the textbook says it is, noting other scientific problems with the dating method.

Teachers and schools either downplay evolution in science class or defy the law by teaching creationism (or Intelligent Design). From my own experience taking Advanced Placement biology in High School, evolution was the LAST unit. The. Last. Unit. It should be the first. So, I asked my own child, now a high school freshman in biology how evolution is taught. She tells me again, it is left until the end of the year (now). Most kids associate evolution with Darwin and controversy. While so far there is no mention of an alternative to evolution in class (“God” help the teacher and the school board if there is), it is still clear that evolution as a critical concept in science is NOT given the weight it deserves. One professor notes that a third of the college freshman know nothing of evolution when they reach his class and another third are inadequately prepared.

Much of this piece is specific to PA but I would have no trouble extrapolating this to the rest of the country. In fact, I’m certain it’s much worse in the southern U.S. and even in rural parts of PA, including Dover, where things have not improved much after one million dollars in litigation fees. There are “academic freedom” bills still active which serve as back-door ways to introduce a religious alternative to evolution even though that is CLEARLY unconstitutional.

Religious parents still initiate a backlash for teachers in schools who either wish to minimize trouble in class or would like to talk about their own faith-based views like the chemistry teacher above. Education should be about what we know. We know evolution is the way life on earth just is. Science class should not be a platform for teachers to spout their personal beliefs about the origin of life.

Here is a piece I wrote about two women involved in the Dover case.

Now, go and become a member of the NCSE.

  5 comments for “Evolution in U.S. schools: Student shortchanged, misinformed or completely ignorant

  1. spookyparadigm
    April 30, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    Reminds me of a piece I saw years ago, on how evolution-related movies are difficult to screen in IMAX theaters in science museums, as they are “controversial.” But then, I just deleted an fb post excoriating my peers for being surprised at the new GOP-sponsored antiscience bill. Anyone who claims to be smart enough to get an advanced degree should have recognized a long time ago how much the American right hates them and their science.

  2. One Eyed Jack
    April 30, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    Some of you may recognize the name Michael P. Kube-McDowell. Prior to his writing career, he was a science teacher at the middle school I attended. I don’t recall learning about evolution in my middle school and I later learned why. It was intentionally left out of the curriculum to avoid controversy. Rather than teach something that our deeply religious community might object to, we were simply left ignorant. Mr. Kube-McDowell was on the side of evolution in that struggle and later wrote about it.

    Ultimately, he lost that battle, but published a study entitled “The Scientific Creationist Challenge to the Treatment of Evolution in the Public School Curriculum”. I can’t locate the full study online, but the synopsis is here:

    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED202786&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED202786

    “The purpose of the study was to identify and analyze the scientific elements of the creationist position, and to provide information and recommendations to educators facing the question of adding creationism to the science curriculum…”

    Here you can find the author’s notes on the study which briefly relates his struggle with faculty and administration over teaching evolution:

    http://www.alternities.com/html/creation.htm

    I knew all the players in this story. One was my Sunday school teacher in addition to being one of our science teachers. They’re good people, but when push came to shove, some placed their religious beliefs ahead of their duty as educators. In retrospect, I feel betrayed by people I trusted.

    I am grateful for the fight put forth by Mr. Kube-McDowell. Without people like him, science dies… not in a court room, but quietly, behind closed doors.

  3. Chris Howard
    April 30, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    So what happens when these kids become doctors, and such?

    “Well Mr. Howard it seems that your stomach gnome is in conflict with your gall goblin. These things happen when you eat too many earth spirit foods, and not enough sea spirit foods. Luckily God created you with the ability to self-regulate your vapors via a series of strict patent medicine, which lucky for you I manufacture and sell, here in my office. We’ll start the prayer group, and the blood lettings on Sunday. The moon should be in Gods favorite house, thereby amplifying the prayer signal on the quantum level, and increasing the odds that He will hear our plea. Any questions?”

  4. Huh?
    April 30, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    As a Biology/Earth Science teacher it never ceases to amaze me how many of my own colleagues are unwilling to really dig in and try to teach evolution (Natural Selection in particular) as the central unifying idea that it is. Most students only get one year of Biology in High School, that’s it! So we have this one chance to expose students to the most important idea in all of life science. And yet most students are only exposed to the concepts underlying evolution for maybe a week or two at best. Why this is, I’m not sure. I could speculate that it has to do with a fear of push back from the evangelicals in the community, or simply because we have so much to cover in so little time. I don’t claim to be the ultimate conveyor of evolutionary Biology, but at least I try. From day one in my classroom even when we are not explicitly discussing evolution I try to weave an evolutionary perspective into every single aspect of the class. For a California town the town I teach in is heavily populated by folks of a very religious nature, and yet in my eleven years of teaching I have encountered very little resistance when teaching evolution, lots of ignorance, but little resistance from either parents or students. So come on science teachers of America be bold and properly teach evolution as the overwhelmingly evidence supported idea that it is.

  5. May 1, 2013 at 1:00 AM

    Before you argue evolution with these sorts of fundamentalists, you first have to establish a common language. The term ‘evidence’ and ‘scientific’ means something completely different in their tongue. To have any chance, you’d probably need to start at a really basic level (basic rules of logic, the scientific method, and so on). And even then I’d have my doubts.

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