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.