TFN President Calls Out Education Board Members for Pressuring Science Curriculum Writers

by Dan Quinn

Today’s Texas Freedom Network press release about a new attack by creationists on the State Board of Education on the teaching of evolution:

Already bogged down in controversies over the proposed adoption of an offensive and error-riddled Mexican-American studies textbook and a revision of the state’s language arts curriculum standards, State Board of Education members this week launched a fresh assault on the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools, Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller warned today.

“Some of these board members seem addicted to controversy,” Miller said. “Now they are criticizing the work of educators and scholars they asked to fix a problem the board itself created. And they’re doing so because of their obsession with undermining the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools.”

Miller is releasing a letter delivered to the state board today (see below), calling out board members for undermining the work of a panel of educators and scholars appointed to “streamline” the state’s curriculum standards for science. Teachers have expressed frustration with the standards the board adopted in 2009, characterizing them as too long, unwieldy and time-consuming for the school year.

During the board meeting on Wednesday evening this week, an evolution opponent – Ray Bohlin of Probe Ministries in Plano, Texas – complained that one panel had voted this summer to streamline the high school biology standards in part by removing items designed to challenge the science of evolution. Bohlin serves on the same panel.

State board members had added those anti-evolution items when they approved new science curriculum standards in 2009, ignoring strong objections from scientists and educators at the time.

Several state board members on Wednesday joined in criticizing the biology panel for removing the anti-evolution language from the standards. They also bizarrely complained that the panel’s changes would somehow limit the ability of students to ask questions in science classrooms.

One panelist, Prof. Ron Wetherington of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, responded to the criticism in his own letter to the state board on Thursday. Wetherington expressed frustration that board members were interfering with the panel’s work. He insisted that the panel be able to work free from political pressure. (See his letter below as well.)

The streamlining teams are set to return to Austin September 26 to finish their work. The board will take up the science standards at its November meeting, with a final vote set for January.

Meanwhile, the board is embroiled in two other controversies: whether to adopt a Mexican-American studies textbook that scholars say is riddled with errors and promotes offensive racial stereotypes; and how to revise the state’s language arts standards, a process that has dragged on past the original scheduled adoption.

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The Texas Freedom Network is a nonpartisan, religious liberties and public education watchdog based in Austin.

LETTER FROM KATHY MILLER TO STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION MEMBERS

September 16, 2016

To Members of the State Board of Education of Texas:

I would like to address and clarify a few issues raised earlier this week in a misleading discussion by this board about the process of streamlining the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for science.

First, it was deeply disturbing Wednesday evening to see an effort to disparage and undermine the work of educators and scholars appointed to streamline the TEKS for biology. That panel hasn’t even finished its report. Yet one of its members decided to criticize – openly and unfairly – the work of the panelists, and a number of state board members seemed willing to call into question their objectivity and professionalism based on hearsay from one individual.

What you heard from Ray Bohlin on Wednesday evening was a one-sided perspective. This associate of two prominent anti-evolution organizations, the Discovery Institute and Probe Ministries, claimed that there was a “quick and concerted effort” by the majority of his fellow panelists to remove any standards that question evolution. Some board members even suggested that the panelists somehow want to prevent students from asking questions. Such claims are simply outrageous.

The board’s Wednesday agenda didn’t identify that this was a public hearing or note that the board would entertain testimony on the subject. The agenda described the routine item as it always does – an opportunity for TEA staff to update the board about the TEKS review. As a result, no other panelists were present to offer their views. So they weren’t able to defend themselves against the suggestion that they had somehow engaged in a nefarious plot to defend the teaching of evolution in the second decade of the 21st century.

But the Texas Freedom Network did have a staff member present to observe the meeting of the biology panel this summer. So I can fill in some information that was missing from Bohlin’s account.

Most troubling was our discovery that Charles Garner, a chemistry professor and (like Bohlin) a noted evolution denier, had been added at the last minute to the biology panel. Through a Texas Public Information Request, we have since obtained emails showing that an SBOE board member, Barbara Cargill, pressured TEA staff to add Garner to the panel after the public deadline. Ms. Cargill succeeded even though a member of the TEA professional staff respectfully pointed out that Garner lacked the necessary experience in biology and that other applicants were far more qualified. Unilaterally adding members to the panel outside the normal, public process is a major issue that this board might want to consider addressing moving forward.

Second, we observed that the majority of the eight-member panel was composed of well-qualified, experienced educators, as well as an evolutionary anthropologist. Their discussions of the TEKS and efforts to streamline them were informed, respectful and professional. Bohlin and Garner were given ample opportunity to explain their opposition to the removal of several of the standards regarding challenges to evolution. But they lost each of those debates, with the panel voting 6-2 to remove each one.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the majority removed those standards. The SBOE tasked the panel with streamlining the standards, and panelists did so in part by removing problematic standards that scientists have repeatedly said are unnecessary, misleading and based on junk science.

For those of you who were not on the board in 2008-09 – the last revision to Texas’ science TEKS – we have seen this exact debate before. The science TEKS writing teams in 2009 did not include these problematic standards. But members of the state board, determined to undermine the teaching of evolution, actually cobbled these standards together at the final hearing. No scientists or educators had an opportunity to review or comment on them. In other words, these standards were originally written by politicians – not scientists. Now it appears history might be repeating itself, as board members once again try to force their ideology into the state’s science standards.

This new effort to blindside and impugn the professionalism of individuals who volunteered their time to serve on the biology curriculum panel is appalling. In fact, it threatens to undermine the public trust in the board’s entire effort to streamline the curriculum standards.

The state board should respect the process it has established and refrain from any further efforts to pressure curriculum panelists and undermine their work. The state’s curriculum standards should be based on facts, sound scholarship and the recommendations of respected and well-qualified educators and scientists, not the personal beliefs of anti-science ideologues and politicians. Texas has been embarrassed enough already, and our kids deserve far better.

Sincerely,

Kathy Miller
President, Texas Freedom Network

LETTER FROM SMU PROFESSOR RON WETHERINGTON TO THE STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION

15 September 2016

To Members of the Texas State Board of Education:

Greetings:

I am a member of the TEKS Streamlining Committee for High School Biology.  This morning I viewed the video testimony yesterday of fellow committee member Ray Bohlin. While I like Ray, and have worked with him on past committees, I was frankly disturbed that he would make comments on his minority objections to our preliminary recommendations while we are still working.

This was not only premature (the report is clearly watermarked “Working Document”), I believe it was ill-advised and counter-productive. The ensuing discussion could easily have an intimidating effect on committee members, encouraging them to change their vote in anticipation of the November meeting of the Board. The committee deserves to conduct its work free of political pressure, and the Board itself should reasonably be expected not to weigh in on tentative committee actions prior to its final report.

The agenda item yesterday was specifically an update by TEA Staff, to let SBOE know where the process is. If the Board wishes to draw conclusions in mid-process, why appoint a Streamlining Committee in the first place? This shows little confidence in our hard work.

There are eight committee members, and on all recommended TEKS deletions Bohlin’s was a minority objection on four, with a 6-2 vote. There are valid reasons for the very strong majority support by veteran high school biology teachers, which the Board will hear formally in November. That is the time for debate, not now. I urge you to withhold judgment until the final report has been prepared.

Cordially,

Ronald K. Wetherington, Professor

Tx Freedom Network

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