Report: Biology Teachers Aren't Teaching Evolution--What Should We Do?

A new survey notes that many high school teachers are tip-toeing around teaching evolution in the classroom

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High school teachers appear to be a little averse to teaching evolutionary theory in their classrooms. A representative research survey conducted by Penn State professors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer recently found that only 28 percent of teachers "craft lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology." What serves as a substitute for evolution? It could be creationism, intelligent design, "teach the controversy" or no theme at all. This is a particularly worrisome development for the researchers, who noted that there's a "cautious 60 percent" of teachers who "are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives" and just want to avoid controversy. (13 percent of teachers "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.")

Berkman and Plutzer, authors of the book the Battle to Control America's Classrooms, prescribe more rigorous training for prospective biology teachers so they will be better able to impart the nuances of evolutionary theory to students. At LiveScience, Jennifer Welsh explains their suggestion: "States should require all education majors to take a stand-alone evolution course at the university level before they can become science teachers, while school systems should offer follow-up refresher courses for those already teaching."

Here's how the survey's results have reverberated throughout the web:

  • With No Proper Evolution Instruction, Students Lose a 'Foundation' in most biological sciences, writes Christopher Dawson at ZDNET Education, whose "jaw hit the floor" when he saw the results of the survey. While Dawson is careful to explain that he's not "here to argue fundamentalist doctrines versus science," he nevertheless asserts that "one of the first things we teach our students (in science and elsewhere) is the difference between fact and opinion, belief and theory, rigorous research and pseudoscience." Dawson concludes:
The teaching of evolution infringes on nobody’s rights. We have overwhelming scientific evidence in its favor. Parents and religious leaders can find their own ways to reconcile or refute the evidence based on their beliefs. However, teaching Creationism in our public schools not only violates the US Constitution, but infringes on a student’s right to learn objective, research-based, state-of-the-art science from state-of-the-art teachers in state-of-the-art schools.
  • Focusing on Teacher Training  Again, Wired's Lisa Grossman highlights the proposed "solution" to having teachers better communicate the nuances of evolution to students: "Teachers who have had a course in evolution are statistically far more likely to advocate for evolution in their classrooms. Making such a course mandatory for all incoming teachers could make those teachers more likely to accept and teach evolution. An evolution requirement could have the spinoff benefit of driving out the avowed creationists, the researchers write."
  • The Survey's 'Crucial Insight'  Parsing the study at Scientific American, John Rennie boils the study down to this takeaway: "how teachers taught depended far more on than their personal beliefs than on the community curriculum standards that have been the focus of battleground court cases, such as Kitzmiller v. Dover from five years ago." And on the recommendation requiring teachers to take a prep course in evolution? "A little extra homework might help timid teachers feel more confident about an idea that's been a cornerstone of science for more than 150 years," Rennie writes.
  • More Evolution Training Isn't the Answer  In a LiveScience article reporting on the study, Jennifer Welsh quotes science education specialists who don't necessarily agree that more coursework for potential biology teachers will result in more teachers imparting evolutionary theory to their students. "If someone wants to learn about evolution, it's not hard to. It's hardly a science education problem," Randy Moore, a science and evolution education specialist in the biology department at the University of Minnesota told LiveScience. "Scientists think if teachers just take a class they will accept it, but many simply reject it." Welsh notes: "A strict evolution class may not be possible at many educational institutions, and wouldn't necessarily enforce the importance of teaching science as an evidence-based subject."
  • In Related News, Students Aren't Doing Well in Math or Science, notes The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss about the coincidental timing of the "creationism" study and the release of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress that tracked student's proficiency in math and science. Here are the disappointing results of that assessment: "34 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were deemed proficient or better in science."
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