Committee recommends removal of "strengths and weaknesses" from science curriculum

Committee recommends removal of "strengths and weaknesses" from science curriculum
The State Board of Education is expected to make a final decision on changes in March.
By Laura Heinauer - Austin American-Statesman - 9/24/2009 - original
The Texas Education Agency on Tuesday released to the public an early recommendation for the state's new science curriculum that would excise ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature" from what Texas students are taught in biology classes.

The recommendation, which covers many courses, also removes language in the current curriculum requiring that students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. Several State Board of Education members have said they support that language. Critics of the teaching of intelligent design and creationism — ideas that hold that the universe was created by a higher power — say such language has been used to undermine the theory of evolution.

"I'd argue it doesn't make sense scientifically to take it out," Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, the state board chairman, said of removing the "strengths and weaknesses" language. "Evolution shouldn't have anything to worry about — if there's no weaknesses, there's no weaknesses. But if there's scientifically testable explanations out there to refute it, shouldn't those be included too?"

Board members are scheduled to begin this fall discussing the proposed standards, which will outline what will be taught about science to every public school student in the state. The board has tentatively set a deadline of March for final adoption. Publishers use the state's curriculum standards to create science textbooks. The state could adopt new science textbooks in 2010 or 2011, and the new books are scheduled to go in to schools in fall 2012.

McLeroy said he prefers the "strengths and weaknesses" language because it allows the board to reject a textbook that doesn't cover the weaknesses of evolution.

The Texas Freedom Network —an education advocacy group that says it monitors the "religious right" and has challenged the state on such issues as its Bible curriculum — said the proposal adds language from the National Academy of Sciences that makes clear that supernatural explanations for natural processes "are not based on science and do not belong in classrooms."

Kevin Fisher, a science coordinator from the Lewisville school district, is on a six-member committee of teachers, college professors and curriculum experts nominated by the state board that has worked since January to draft the biology curriculum recommendation. Fisher said the writers wanted to ensure that evolution was presented in a "21st century," "unadulterated fashion" and to clarify that a scientific theory is more than just an educated guess.

Though the "strengths and weaknesses" verbiage has been in the Texas curriculum standards for nearly 20 years, the board has not had the votes to require that any specific challenges to evolutionary theory be taught. That could change with the current curriculum revision, a process that only takes place every 10 years. In previous public discussions, seven of 15 board members appeared to support, on some level, the teaching of the weaknesses of evolution in science classrooms.

Six have been opposed, and two — Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio — are considered swing votes.

"I haven't had a chance to really review it," Agosto said. "But I would definitely take a look at what some of my Democratic counterparts say."

Miller could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

McLeroy said that in addition to leaving the "strengths and weaknesses" language, he would like to include the National Academy of Sciences' definition of science and their discussion of its limitations.

"Even they admit science doesn't have all the answers," he said.

Fisher said, "We actually have more evidence for evolution occurring than we do for the law of gravity. ... Something doesn't become a theory if it's got weaknesses. There may be some questions that may yet to be answered, but nothing that's to the level of a weakness."

Fisher said the proposed curriculum will be subject to public comment and more expert opinion before being revised and handed over to the board for final revisions and a vote, probably in January.

"Our students can't succeed with a 19th-century science education in their 21st-century classrooms," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. "We applaud the science work groups for recognizing that fact."; 445-3694

High school biology curriculum proposal

One current requirement: '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.'

Proposal: 'The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.'

Introduction proposals

Panel's, from the National Academy of Sciences: 'Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. ... "

From Don McLeroy, State Board of Education chairman: Science is defined as 'the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.' Also, 'science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations.