State Board of Ed split as science vote nears

State Board of Ed split as science vote nears
Local board members unsure what outcome will be in evolution teaching debate.
By Molly Bloom - Austin American-Statesman 1/22/2009 - original
As the State Board of Education heads toward a decision on how Texas schools will teach theories about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, the board appears split between those pushing to continue teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories including evolution and those who favor removing the phrase.

Some who support removing the phrase which has been part of the state science curriculum since 1988 argue that the phrase can promote the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. Board member Terri Leo , who represents part of Harris County, said at a Wednesday board meeting attended by more than 150 people that she was unaware of any board member who supported teaching creationism in public schools.

"To my knowledge there is no one" pushing for that, she said.

The board plans to hold an initial vote on adopting the new science standards today , a second vote on Friday and a final vote at its March meeting.

Proposed new standards written by a committee of educators and revised several times over the past year would remove the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase and instead require students to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations."

University of Texas cellular biology professor Arturo De Lozanne told the board that the revised language is a more "accurate and descriptive" way of explaining how science should be taught.

Texas science standards play a major role in determining the material covered in textbooks, discussed in classrooms and covered on standardized tests.

Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist who is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a California-based nonprofit group that advocates teaching evolution in public school science education, told the board that the debate over the new science standards is "about textbooks."

"This is about, two years from now, what will textbook publishers put in textbooks in order to sell them in Texas?" she said.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, who represents Travis, Williamson and other counties, said she didn't see any disadvantages to leaving in the "strengths and weaknesses" language. Although some people who addressed the board said that the language could lead to the teaching of incorrect information about evolution, Dunbar said she was not concerned about that.

"Our students are smart enough that they can see through that," she said. "Taking (the phrase) out would further limit any active discourse in the classroom."

Board member Ken Mercer, who represents Travis, Hays and other counties, said that he's leaning toward keeping the language in place, but he pointed out that the proposed new standards are significantly different than the current ones in many ways.

"There are hundreds of revisions in there," he said. The strengths and weaknesses phrase "is just one part."

Although at least half a dozen vocal conservative board members have indicated that they support retaining the phrase, Mercer said he didn't have a clear sense of what the board would do when it voted.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said.

Board member Rick Agosto , who represents a South Texas district , said that he expected today's vote on the science standards to be close. Agosto said he was "still listening to what both sides have to offer" but would probably vote in favor of the revised standards.

"I hope to see the expertise of our teachers and (curriculum writing) experts respected," he said.