Evolution may be winning in the courtroom but losing in the classroom, warns a new nationwide study about teaching of evolution and creationism in high schools.
Penn State researchers say about one sixth of biology teachers in the United States believe human beings were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years. While that is far fewer than the 48 percent of the general public that embraces a young-earth creationism, it affects the amount of time they devote to teaching evolution in the classroom. Teachers who espouse a young-earth view on average devoted 35 percent fewer class hours to evolution than other teachers.
On top of personal beliefs, other forces, like pressures from parents and the community, further inhibit the teaching of evolution, the study says. That is complicated by many teachers lacking a full understanding or knowledge of the subject. That lack of confidence may lead those teachers to avoid confrontation over evolution and instead downplay it by only talking about it in one or two classes.
The researchers said while legal victories like a 2004 court case in Pennsylvania ruling that mandated teaching of Intelligent Design is unconstitutional are important, they are not enough to ensure that evolution is included in high school courses. Neither are successes in getting states to adopt stronger standards for science. Their study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology “would have a substantial impact” on the centrality of evolution in high school classrooms.
While opposition to Intelligent Design is uncontroversial for most scientists, the same cannot be said for politics. Even President Bush has expressed support for teaching “both sides” of the evolution controversy.
That pressure can be even greater at the local level, the study says, through the election of “stealth” school-board members who oppose evolution or organized opposition and questioning of science curriculum by religiously motivated members of the community.
“Evolution–more precisely opposition to it–is profoundly important to fundamentalist Christianity, where it has played a critical role in its early formation as doctrine and as a social movement,” the study says.
Community pressures “place significant stress on teachers as they try to teach evolution, stresses that can lead them to de-emphasize, downplay, or ignore the topic,” the study suggests. “This is particularly true of the many teachers who lack a full understanding of evolution, or at least confidence in their knowledge of it.”
“Such a lack of confidence can lead teachers to avoid confrontations with students, parents and the wider community,” the authors say. “They may, for example, not treat evolution as the class’s organizing principle, or may avoid effective hands-on activity to teach it, or not ask students to apply natural selection to real life situations.”
“There are many reasons to believe that scientists are winning in the courts, but losing in the classroom,” the authors lament. “This is partially due to the occasional explicit teaching of creationism and ID, but most especially because of inconsistent emphasis and minimal rigor in the teaching of evolution.”
According to the survey, 28 percent of high school biology teachers believe humans developed over millions of years and that God had no part in the process. A higher percentage, 47 percent, believe that humans evolved over millions of years but that God had a hand in the process. Another 16 percent say God created human beings “pretty much in their present form” within about the last 10,000 years, while 9 percent offered no answer or no opinion.
Teachers who view evolution as a unifying theme for the content of their courses spend the most time talking about it. A majority of teachers say they devote between one and five hours of class time on human evolution, while 17 percent did not talk about it at all.
One fourth of teachers said they devote one or two hours to discussion of creationism or Intelligent Design, but that includes those who cover it to criticize it or answer students’ questions. Of those 25 percent who talk about ID, nearly half (48 percent) present it as “a valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.” A similar number (49 percent) deal with the controversy by emphasizing that many reputable scientists view ID as a valid alternative to Darwinian theory.
“Legal rulings and legislative victories are clearly necessary for evolution to maintain its proper place in the biology curriculum, but they are not sufficient,” the study says. Notwithstanding the bravery of teachers like those in Dover, Pa., who opposed the teaching of Intelligent Design, the study says, “the status of evolution in the biology and life sciences curriculum remains highly problematic and threatened.”
A 2006 pastoral letter by the Baptist Center for Ethics supporting public education called on Baptists to “keep public schools free from coercive pressure to promote sectarian faith, such as state-written school prayers and the teaching of neo-creationism (intelligent design).”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.