Teaching of evolution to go under microscope

Teaching of evolution to go under microscope
Director's departure opens door for changes in Texas' curriculum
By KAREN AYRES SMITH / The Dallas Morning News - 12/13/2007 - original
LEANDER, Texas Science instruction is about to be dissected in Texas.

At stake is the way teachers present evolution, the biological theory that humans and other species evolved from lower forms of life.

Former science director Chris Comer says she resigned from the Texas Education Agency to avoid being fired after officials told her she had improperly endorsed evolution. She had forwarded an e-mail announcing a speech by a prominent scholar on evolution, which the state requires schools to teach.

"For all the years I was there, I would always say the teaching of evolution is part of our science curriculum. It's not just a good idea; it's the law," Ms. Comer said last week during an interview in her Leander home. "We have teachers afraid to teach it, parents who don't want it taught and parents who do want it taught. It comes from all different angles."

TEA officials say Ms. Comer, 57, also made unauthorized remarks not tied to evolution. But in disciplinary paperwork they stressed that she needed to remain neutral in what was becoming a tense period leading up to the first review of the science curriculum in a decade.

Many conservatives, including the chairman of the State Board of Education, have long wanted biology teachers in Texas to address issues that some national groups and scientists say expose weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

They stress that they aren't pushing for schools to teach creationism or intelligent design, a theory that says certain features of the universe are so complex that they are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

But their opponents argue that there is no debate: Research consistently supports evolution. They argue that attempts to discredit Charles Darwin's theory of evolution amount to sneaking God into the classroom under the guise of intelligent design.

The board must vote on any changes to the curriculum. Most board members, including the chairman, have said publicly they don't want to introduce intelligent design into the curriculum, and many of them also have said they want to keep the current language on evolution.

To some, this exercise could turn into a pivotal opportunity for change. Even small changes in the language could mean big changes in textbooks later on.

The curriculum standards will be used to develop content for textbooks in Texas and across the nation.

"Emphatically, we are not trying to 'take evolution out of the schools,' " said Mark Ramsey of Texans for Better Science Education, which wants schools to teach about weaknesses in evolution. "All good educators know that when students are taught both sides of an issue such as biologic evolution, they understand each side better. What are the Darwinists afraid of?"

The state adopted the current science curriculum in 1998, the same year Ms. Comer started at the TEA.

The requirements dictate that students understand the theory of biological evolution, including elements of natural selection that determine how organisms adapt to their environments. Years before, state board members had approved requirements in another section of the biology curriculum that require students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any theories.

With 27 years of teaching behind her, Ms. Comer knew she was entering a polarizing debate. But she said she was inspired to take on the job. Children are natural-born scientists, she says.

She received questions about evolution from the beginning. Many parents wanted creationism or intelligent design taught. Others said they believed weaknesses in the evolution theory were ignored. Some teachers opted not to teach evolution for fear of retaliation from opposing parents.

Ms. Comer, who describes herself as a Christian, said she responded with the same polite but firm message every time: Evolution is mandatory.

"Any science teacher worth their salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy," said Ms. Comer, a mother of two grown children. "It is time for America to grow up."

In 2003, the tension escalated when the state board started reviewing biology textbooks.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that supports intelligent design, and the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution group, both descended on Texas. As one of the largest textbook purchasers, the state could dictate content across the nation.

John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said his group didn't want to insert intelligent design into the curriculum, but rather to correct errors and address weaknesses his group sees in the theory of evolution in textbooks. The institute maintains that evolution doesn't appear capable of building complex cells and questions whether the fossil record's overall pattern can be explained by evolution.

"It seems to me that one of the problems is that Darwin is taught as dogma," Dr. West said. "Students don't get an idea of the underlying evidence and underlying debate about some of the things."

But their opponents said suggesting that there are weaknesses amounts to teaching that God is responsible for human life.

"It all boils down to the idea that to counter evolution you teach students that evolution is crummy science in the hopes that students will reject it," said Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. "It's a way of getting creationism in without the 'C' word."

The board approved the books by an 11-4 vote.

Don McLeroy, a conservative board member on the losing side of the vote and a Sunday school teacher, later told a church group that he believed he could have persuaded more members to reject the books if he had challenged the assumption that nature is all there is.

"How can the materialistic philosophic naturalistic base dependency of Darwinism be brought into the discussion and used for our benefit?" Dr. McLeroy asked, according to a recording of the speech. "We didn't use it. All we did was stay with evidence, and we got run over."

Dr. McLeroy is now chairman of the board. Gov. Rick Perry appointed the Bryan dentist to the post in July.

The e-mail

On Oct. 26, Ms. Comer received an e-mail from the National Center for Science Education announcing a speech in Austin by Barbara Forrest, an author and scholar who has criticized the intelligent design movement for undermining science education.

Dr. Forrest also testified in a prominent federal district court case in Pennsylvania in 2005 that resulted in a ruling that struck down the Dover school district's policy of introducing intelligent design in the classroom as unconstitutional.

Ms. Comer forwarded the message to some science teachers and professors with a short message: "FYI."

An hour later, Ms. Comer says, a TEA official came to her office and showed her an e-mail from Lizzette Reynolds, another official in the agency, who said the FYI e-mail was worthy of termination or reassignment because it implied that TEA supported the speaker. Ms. Reynolds came to the TEA to run the agency's educational initiatives after working with the Bush administration.

Ms. Comer said she doesn't know who forwarded the e-mail to Ms. Reynolds.

Ms. Comer said she quickly sent out another e-mail stressing that her original message didn't express the views of the TEA.

After spending the next week out of the office, Ms. Comer said, she returned to hear that she had one day to resign or she would be fired.

TEA officials presented her with a three-page memo criticizing her for speaking at a conference without permission and for questioning the leadership at the agency when Robert Scott was serving as acting commissioner. Mr. Scott had since been named commissioner.

The memo also stated that Ms. Comer's e-mail about Dr. Forrest's speech had compromised the agency's neutrality in the curriculum revision process.

"I left there in shock," Ms. Comer said. "I was so embarrassed. I've never been fired in my life."

She resigned the next day.

"Obviously this is a personnel issue I can't comment on," Mr. Scott said. "Suffice to say there are other issues as well."

The TEA posted the science director's position a few days ago. Debbie Ratcliffe, an agency spokeswoman, said Ms. Comer's replacement will probably be chosen by a panel of agency employees.

The agency hopes to fill the position in January, the same time review groups are set to begin meeting and examining each aspect of the science curriculum.

On the horizon

Since Ms. Comer's departure, professors and teachers across the country have lined up to support her, as well as scientifically sound lessons on evolution. She now plans to retire. She is talking to a lawyer, but she said she hasn't yet decided whether to sue the agency. She said she is not optimistic about what the final standards will say about evolution.

"The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance," she said.

Ten Republicans and five Democrats sit on the state board. Dr. McLeroy is part of a bloc of seven social conservatives who often vote together.

Mavis Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, said she supports evolution from a scientific standpoint.

"I think intelligent design is a sophisticated slick way of easing in biblical perspective, and that is not what science is about," she said.

The Science Teachers Association of Texas has issued suggested curriculum standards that keep evolution but eliminate the specific requirement to teach the strengths and weaknesses of theories.

Dr. McLeroy said he wouldn't vote to approve the change. He said he supports the current wording and also could support an addition that requires teaching the strengths and weaknesses specific to evolution.

"I'm a Christian, and I think about how this impacts everything," Dr. McLeroy said. "Religion is not just something you put on the side. It's everything. I see us all created in the image of God. I don't believe nature is all there is."

REQUIRED LEARNING

The Texas biology curriculum requires that a student do the following to demonstrate an understanding of scientific processes and concepts:

Scientific processes

The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to: analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

Scientific concepts

The student knows the theory of biological evolution. The student is expected to:

(A) identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities and embryology; and

(B) illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior and extinction.
THEORIES OF LIFE

What is evolution?

Biological evolution refers to the cumulative changes that occur in a population over time. These changes are produced at the genetic level as organisms' genes mutate and/or recombine in different ways during reproduction and are passed on to future generations. What is intelligent design?

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.