It's time for education to evolve
It's time for education to evolveCOMMENTARY - By LISA FALKENBERG - Houston Chronicle - 11/24/2008 - originalIn Pennsylvania last week, it was reported that a scientist had decoded the DNA of a woolly mammoth using a hairball found in the Siberian permafrost. Not surprisingly, the sequence was 99.4 percent equivalent to an elephant's.
Meanwhile, in Austin, the so-called State Board of Education was still debating the merits of evolution.
Forget Kansas. If we're not careful on this issue, people across the nation could soon be asking, "What's the matter with Texas?"— if they're not already.
Unlike many questions in science, the answer would be simple: the politicization of education. In January, the board is expected to take a preliminary vote on new science curriculum standards for the next decade that will shape the writing of textbooks for the state's 4.5 million students.
Some conservatives on the State Board of Education are struggling to keep science teaching standards that mention "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, a theory as basic to the teaching of science as the U.S. Constitution is to the teaching of American government.
"Strengths and weaknesses" is a new buzz phrase that's replaced "creation science" and "intelligent design," and other science curriculum labels that incorporate teachings of faith, which courts have consistently struck down.
Some evolution opponents reject the connection, saying teaching evolution's "weaknesses" or "limitations," as one current proposal suggests, is simply about fairness, exposure to opposing views and academic freedom.
"I'm a big fan of academic freedom," board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, was quoted saying recently in the Houston Chronicle.
Well, who isn't? But members like Mercer seem to suggest that, unless they can inject unfounded doubts about Darwin into the state curriculum, students will spontaneously lose their ability to ask questions and exercise their critical thinking skills.
Students have questions
Robert Dennison, Houston ISD's AP science lead teacher based at Robert E. Lee High School, said nothing can stop his students from questioning him on evolution, especially when it comes to relationships among human ancestors.
"They're full of questions," says Dennison. "They want to know how life works."
Anti-evolution members also claim their "weaknesses" campaign has nothing to do with faith: "We're not putting religion in books," Mercer has said.
No, just falsehoods. As scientists testified at the state board hearing last week, evolution is a scientific theory, not a hypothesis. And scientific theories don't have weaknesses. If they did, the board would be justified in raising challenges to everything from gravity to relativity to the germ theory of disease.
The so-called weaknesses usually spewed by evolution opponents are the same, tired arguments that have been adequately refuted by scientists for decades.
One of their favorites involves gaps in the fossil record.
"We're somehow put in the position, almost literally, of having to provide a minute-by-minute description of the morphology of creatures that haven't existed on the earth for hundreds of millions of years," says Andrew Ellington, a biochemistry professor at the University of Texas. "Is it a surprise that we don't have every fossil in the record, but that every one we do have fits perfectly with what you might expect for an evolutionary progression of creatures?"
No, we don't have every bone. Evolution hasn't answered every question. And among those scientists who have tried, many have made mistakes. But, as Ellington says, "weakness of fact" does not equal "a weakness of theory."
Ellington, Dennison and others worry that the "weaknesses" mention in the curriculum standards has had a chilling effect on science teachers, some of whom aren't all that comfortable teaching the complex subject of evolution to begin with.
Dennison said some have been effectively intimidated into skimming the surface of the topic, or just avoiding it altogether by pushing the unit to the end of the year, hoping the class never gets to it.
And this, Ellington says, means that many Texas students aren't coming to college with a strong foundation in science, which can affect everything from the prestige of universities to the state's economic future.
Ellington says he located both his biotechnology companies in other states, in part because venture capitalists perceived the Lone Star State as having a "lax or backward educational climate."
Texas may not yet be Kansas, which drew nationwide ridicule when it adopted science standards that challenged evolution.
But if the "weakness" language stays, there's a strong possibility that the board's conservative members on the partisan, elected board will try in a couple of years to insert it into textbooks. And, this time, they might have the votes to win.
True scientific debate is healthy. So are questions. But injecting doubt in curriculum for the sake of ideological agenda will harm our students and our state.