Last week’s State Board of Education (SBOE) vote to adopt new science textbooks for Texas public schools represented an important victory for science education. But what you have been reading in the news media doesn’t tell the whole story about what was happening behind the scenes in this battle — including the effort to derail the adoption of one of the leading high school biology textbooks in the country. Following is the story of how science education came under attack in Texas and how it won in the end.
The Creationist Strategy
Four years ago creationists on the SBOE, including then-chairman Don McLeroy, succeeded in passing new curriculum standards they thought would force publishers to water down instruction on evolution and climate change when they wrote new science textbooks for Texas schools. To help ensure that publishers did so, they then tried to stack the official textbook review teams with anti-evolution activists. In fact, after she was defeated for re-election in 2012 — but before she left the board at the end of the year — Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, nominated nearly a third of the reviewers appointed to examine the new science textbooks this year. Nearly all of her nominees were anti-evolution activists. Other SBOE creationists also nominated anti-evolution reviewers.
Among the activists nominated by Lowe were prominent creationists like Raymond Bohlin of Probe Ministries, retired Baylor University engineering professor Walter Bradley, and finance consultant and former Dallas Baptist University business school dean Ide Trotter. Bradley, who helped launch the “intelligent design”/creationism movement in the 1980s, and Bohlin are fellows for the anti-evolution Discovery Institute in Seattle. Trotter has served as a spokesperson for a Texas creationist group, and his review would play a key role in the late attack on publisher Pearson Education’s high school biology textbook.
TFN wasn’t idle. We had publicized and mobilized opposition to creationist efforts to corrupt the science standards in 2009. Voters responded in 2010 and 2012 by throwing out some of the most prominent board creationists, including McLeroy and Lowe. Then, working with our coalition partners at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Texas Citizens for Science (TCS), we put in place a strategy to monitor the science textbook adoption this year and counter efforts by anti-evolution activists to hijack it.
A TFN Education Fund review of the proposed textbooks by science scholars at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University in Dallas showed that publishers had refused to distort the science on evolution and climate change. We also exposed the effort to pack the review teams with creationists. And we helped mobilize thousands of science advocates across Texas to show their support for the publishers and call on SBOE members to adopt the new textbooks.
Behind the Scenes
TFN and NCSE were the first to report that creationists on the review teams were pressuring publishers to revise their textbooks by adding “creation science based on biblical principles” or other discredited anti-evolution arguments. We also discovered that SBOE Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, was trying to influence the review process, even assuring reviewers she mistakenly thought were creationists that “I’m one of you.”
We also heard that Cargill was privately pressuring publishers to water down instruction on evolution in their textbooks. Then late last week we found out that a veteran of the textbook wars in Texas, Neal Frey of Education Research Analysts (founded by the late Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview), was threatening to call on the SBOE to reject publishers’ textbooks if they didn’t weaken sections dealing with evolution. One of his objections, apparently, dealt with what the textbooks said about the similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA. Publishers refused his demands as well others made by Cargill and creationist review team members.
That set the stage for the final two days of the adoption debate last week. Having failed to force publishers to undermine instruction on evolution and climate change, Cargill and her allies targeted just two textbooks: Pearson’s high school biology textbook and the high school environmental science textbook from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).
The Attack on HMH’s Environmental Science Textbook
At the very end of the last public hearing on the textbooks Wednesday night (Nov. 20), a Republican running for the Texas Railroad Commission — an agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas — told SBOE members that the HMH textbook was filled with factual errors on issues such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and climate change (BergerClaims_HMH_EnvSci_11.21.13). Her testimony capped a last-minute campaign by right-wing activists claiming that the HMH and other proposed science textbooks were attacking the oil and gas industry in Texas.
TFN, NCSE and TCS swung into action, analyzing the allegations and pulling together science experts to lay out the facts for SBOE members and reporters. Steven Schafersman from TCS debunked the alleged errors in a piece he posted online. Meanwhile, HMH prepared a response (HMH_EvnSci_Responses_11.21.13) to the unsubstantiated claims made against its textbook.
These efforts were successful. The board ultimately voted to adopt the textbook after HMH agreed to make some minor technical corrections and updates that did not undermine the thrust of the science discussions. Those revisions are noted in the HMH “Responses” document linked above. The publisher also agreed to update information based on comments from a state geologist consulted by one SBOE board member. (We are seeking a copy of that document.)
The Attack on Pearson’s Biology Textbook
Even more serious, however, was the attack on Pearson’s biology textbook. Late Thursday night (Nov. 21), Texas Education Agency staff informed board members that the state-appointed “reviewers” had alleged about 20 factual errors in the Pearson textbook. In fact, we knew that the claimed “errors” were the work of Ide Trotter, who had served on the Pearson review panel.The Dallas Morning News had essentially confirmed that in a Nov. 20 story.
To its credit, Pearson refused to budge and compromise the science in its textbook. But the SBOE’s creationist faction smelled blood, and its supporters increased pressure on other board members to reject the text. Board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, rightly called the attacks an attempt to “hijack” the process and hold the Pearson textbook hostage.
TFN and our coalition partners again swung into action. Scientists and other scholars explained to SBOE members why the alleged errors were bogus — in fact, that many of those “errors” were the same discredited arguments creationists had been using to attack evolution for decades. After hours of discussion late Thursday night and Friday, the board ultimately voted to adopt all of the textbooks, including the Pearson text. The Pearson adoption is provisional, however. The board agreed to appoint a three-person panel of science experts to examine Trotter’s alleged “errors.” The panel — which hasn’t been appointed yet — must finish its work in the next four weeks. The panel could dismiss Trotter’s demands or insist that Pearson bow to them. Importantly, however, Pearson still has the right to withdraw its textbook from the adoption rather than make any changes that compromise the text’s scientific integrity.
Why This Victory Is Important
It’s important to understand how important this victory is for science education and Texas public school students. The creationist strategy to pass flawed science curriculum standards and pressure publishers into watering down instruction on evolution and climate change in their textbooks was a complete failure. Considering the importance of the Texas textbook market to publishers, it’s hard to imagine how such a strategy would succeed anywhere else now. Moreover, this victory means that more than 5 million Texas schoolchildren won’t be saddled with textbooks that teach junk science.
But this victory wouldn’t have been possible if hundreds of thousands of science advocates hadn’t taken action by signing petitions, personally contacting SBOE members, and speaking out at public hearings in support of science education. For that and so much more, the Texas Freedom Network gives thanks this week. We won this by working together for a better future for Texas.