Federal courts have ruled that it is a violation of the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause to teach creationism—including its modern-day derivative, intelligent design—in public schools. Nevertheless, a recent national survey has confirmed that the practice is widespread in our country.
The researchers found that only 28% of respondents consistently adhered to the recommendations of the National Research Council in presenting scientific evidence for evolution and explaining that the concept is a fundamental, unifying theme of biology. An appalling 13% of respondents taught and solely advocated for creationism. These teachers were spread throughout the country; they were not particularly more likely to be found in the South or West, as many people believe.
The remaining group, referred to by the scientists as “the cautious 60%,” ducked the controversy by failing to endorse evolution or its non-science-based alternatives. Some in this group explained they taught evolution primarily because the subject matter appeared on state exams. They told students it wasn’t necessary to “believe” it. Others taught the concept as it applied to molecular biology and genetics, but not specifically to the evolution and differentiation of species.
More public school students take biology than any other science course, according to the authors. For nearly 25% of them, biology is the only science course they take in high school.
“Students are being cheated out of a rich science education,” Plutzer said in an interview. “We think the ‘cautious 60%’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”
Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, was less optimistic. “These courses aren’t reaching the creationists,” he said. “They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them. This is the biggest failure in science education,” he added. There’s no other field where teachers reject the foundations of their science like they do in biology.”
The survey appeared in the January 28 issue of Science.
NOTES: The National Research Council is part of the National Academy of Sciences. In conjunction with the Institute of Medicine, the NAS published a book, Science, Evolution and Creationism, which gives a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of our current understanding of evolution and its importance in the science classroom.
In 2005, a federal judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, concluded that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional because it is based on religious conviction, not science (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District). The NAS and IOM maintain that only scientifically based explanations and evidence for the diversity of life should be included in public school science courses. “Teaching creationist ideas in science class confuses students about what constitutes science and what does not,” the book’s authors said.