Workers reined in before state science review?

Workers reined in before state science review?
By Laura Heinauer - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - Thursday, July 03, 2008 - original
This story was originally published on December 6, 2007 in Austin American-Statesman.

It started with restrictions on travel and extended in recent months to warnings about what certain Texas Education Agency employees could say and include in presentations about an upcoming science curriculum review, a former official said.

The chill that has descended on the state's curriculum department started about a year ago and intensified in the past few months, said Chris Comer, the agency's head of science curriculum for the past nine years.

Comer said she was forced to resign shortly after forwarding an e-mail message that her superiors felt was biased against the idea that life is a result of intelligent design.

"We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it," Comer said, maintaining that her ouster was political and that she felt persecuted for having supported the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms.

Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said that reminders to be unbiased are not unusual before curriculum reviews and that staffers' computer slide presentations have been looked at in advance since this summer to ensure that they were consistent.

She said charges of misconduct against Comer were prompted by a lack of professionalism and not by politics associated with the hiring of a former Bush administration employee as Comer's boss or the appointment of a self-avowed creationist to chair the State Board of Education.

Ratcliffe said that although there are no written rules defining what agency employees can say regarding evolution, creationism or intelligent design, employees in the curriculum department were verbally warned recently to be careful when dealing with issues that might come up as part of the state's upcoming curriculum adoption process.

"An employee shouldn't say something that's contrary to the curriculum, and they shouldn't look like they are siding with one camp over another," Ratcliffe said. "It's no secret that there are political differences on the State Board of Education. " And employees have to be able to work with all the members in a fair way without the perception that they are siding with one group or another. That's why it's important for us to be neutral on issues and just to say what the policy is and not to create it ourselves."

After typing the abbreviation "FYI" in the body, Comer forwarded an e-mail from a pro-evolution group announcing a speech by Barbara Forrest, a key witness in a court case in Pennsylvania that ruled against teaching intelligent design in schools. It was sent to several individuals and two e-mail discussion groups used by science educators.

"Obviously, there was a concern about the forwarding of that e-mail " that she was supporting that particular speaker and (how) that could be construed " as taking a position that could be misinterpreted by some people," Ratcliffe said.

Comer said curriculum employees at the agency have been scrutinized increasingly for the past year. It started with restrictions on travel to conferences; then, two months ago, came a verbal requirement that all slide shows had to be submitted for approval by the governor's office.

"We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't speak," she said. "They just started wanting everything to be channeled."

Ratcliffe said, "In general, when someone has performance issues, their work product is more likely to be reviewed than others."

In the case of Comer's e-mail controversy, it was Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs and a former U.S. Education Department employee, who appeared to have raised the first alarm.

Reynolds came to the agency in January and was put in charge of the curriculum division in September. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

About an hour and a half after Comer's e-mail was sent, Reynolds, who was also an adviser to George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas, forwarded it to her superiors, calling it "an offense that calls for termination."

Ratcliffe said Comer's position has not been filled or even posted.

In an early November memorandum, the forwarded e-mail was one of several reasons for which agency officials said Comer should be terminated.

Comer was also cited for comments she was said to have made in October about a lack of leadership at the agency.

She was further cited for not obtaining approval to attend an October meeting in Austin on a new online training program for teachers and for not getting approval to make a presentation to the Texas Science Educational Leadership Association in August that included information about the upcoming education board review of science curriculum standards.

Board Chairman Don McLeroy said that he does expect evolution to be a hot topic during the upcoming review and that neither he nor anyone else on the board had anything to do with Comer's resignation.

"As far as I'm concerned, (agency employees) can say what they want," McLeroy said. "They've got freedom of speech."

Currently, evolution is spelled out as a concept that should be taught in Texas science class; creationism and intelligent design are not.

Proponents of intelligent design say that evolution is an incomplete and unverified theory and that good science mandates students study its scientific criticisms and disputes.

Most scientists, however, say that the theory of evolution has been thoroughly tested and modified when necessary using sound scientific principals and that intelligent design is nothing more than a repackaged form of creationism that cannot be tested scientifically.

The American Psychological Association, among many science groups across the country, has refuted the claim that intelligent design is science at all.

In its 2007 Resolution on the Teaching of Intelligent Design, the group said, "Proponents of intelligent design present ID theory as a viable alternative scientific explanation for the origins and diversity of life. However, ID has not withstood the scrutiny of scientific peer review of its empirical, conceptual, or epistemological bases and thus is not properly regarded as a scientific theory."

In its deliberations on what Texas students should be taught about science, the education board will hear public testimony and receive recommendations from educators before voting on curriculum standards for all public schools in the state.

McLeroy said that although he is a creationist, he doesn't necessarily think creationism should be taught in schools. He said he supports current curriculum standards that say students should "analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses."

McLeroy said he would support changes that further spell out what evolution's strengths and weaknesses are.

Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science , said he plans to fight to get the "strengths and weaknesses" language removed from the state's curriculum standards.