The creationists are back in Texas attacking high quality science education. Well, to be honest, they were never gone, but they've opened a new front designed to ensure that the next generation of Texas students are saddled with the same political baggage as the last. Their goal, as has long been the case, is to ensure that politics trumps science, that students are forced to endure polemics rather than receive an education that embraces the best modern science has to offer.
The current situation is as simple as it is frustrating. In response to concerns raised by teachers, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) created a panel to review the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science. The TEKS are defined by the Texas Education Agency as "the state standards for what students should know and be able to do."
Educators were concerned that the science standards had become so complex that they were actually impeding learning and were all but impossible to achieve. The panel the SBOE created was given the charge to streamline the high school biology standards. So far, so good.
The current controversy isn't over the streamlining of most of the standards. Rather it's centered on four that were added in 2009 by the SBOE over the objections of the scientific experts who, at that time, were charged with defining the standards. The additions were either proposed or supported by Don McLeroy, then chair of the SBOE. McLeroy, a young Earth creationist, is best known for his assertion that "Somebody's got to stand up to experts!" when it was pointed out that his positions were at odds with the expertise of professional biologists.
Although the streamlining committee hasn't finished its work, the eight members did vote 6-2 to remove the four standards that were added at the last minute in 2009. The two negative votes came from two creationists that the SBOE added to the committee.
As extreme as the four disputed standards are from a scientific perspective, the political motivation behind their original addition is even more striking. TEKS standard (7)(B) deals with the "sudden appearance" of life on Earth, an event that neither biologists nor geologists consider particularly sudden. Here's what McLeroy had to say when he proposed that it be imposed on Texas students: the purpose of this standard is to argue against "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
McLeroy's argument in favor of TEKS standard (7)(G) about the "complexity of the cell" is virtually identical. This standard, he argued, "questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes." In fact, (7)(G) is all about promoting the scientifically bankrupt concepts of intelligent design and irreducible complexity constantly pushed by creationists.
Similarly, standard (3)(A) embraces the creationist position that students should be exposed to all sides of evolution even though this standard has been used to bring creationism into public school science classrooms and laboratories. Standard (9)(D) promotes the creationist position that an intelligent designer must be responsible for encoding information in complex molecules such as DNA.
As I said above, although the streamlining committee hasn't yet finished its work, they're not due to present their recommendations to the SBOE until November, one of the two creationist committee members, without the approval or knowledge of the majority of the committee, attacked the preliminary recommendations at an SBOE meeting. Ray Bohlin, vice president of vision outreach for Probe Ministries, implied that there was a "quick and concerted effort" by his fellow committee members to remove the four standards. Without anyone else from the committee present to defend their work, a one-sided perspective on the four anti-science, politically driven standards was presented.
As Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network noted in a letter to the SBOE, it was incredibly disconcerting that "a number of state board members seemed willing to call into question [the committee's] objectivity and professionalism based on hearsay from one individual....Some board members even suggested that the panelists somehow want to prevent students from asking questions."
So the battle lines dealing with public high school biology education in Texas have been formed. On one side, we have Probe Ministries with a very clear but narrowly crafted religious mission statement: "Probe's mission is to present the Gospel to communities, nationally and internationally, by providing life-long opportunities to integrate faith and learning through balanced, biblically based scholarship, training people to love God by renewing their minds and equipping the Church to engage the world for Christ."
On the other side, we have the Texas Freedom Network with a far broader, more welcoming mission statement: "the Texas Freedom Network is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of more than 131,000 religious and community leaders who support religious freedom, individual liberties and public education."
I know where I stand. And with me are the more than 14,000 clergy members of The Clergy Letter Project who want students to experience the best science has to offer rather than the perspective of one specific religious group. How about you?