More Good News on Texas Science Textbooks, But Politics Still an Obstacle

by Dan Quinn

Despite complaints from anti-evolution activists, state-appointed citizen reviewers are now giving a top rating to most of the high school biology textbooks proposed for adoption in Texas this year — but the adoption of those textbooks still faces a big political obstacle at the State Board of Education.

State reviewers in August gave a top rating to just four of 14 proposed high school biology textbooks. Publishers want that top rating because it makes it easier to sell their textbooks to the state’s public schools.

Many of the reviewers’ objections focused on textbook coverage related to evolution. For example, one reviewer criticized a textbook for not including the inaccurate claims that “no transitional fossils have been discovered” and that the fossil record doesn’t necessarily support evolution. Another reviewer insisted that all of the textbooks include information on “creation science based on Biblical principles.”

But our examination of proposed editorial changes to those textbooks earlier this month found that publishers have resisted pressure to add those junk science arguments. We then sent the Texas Education Agency (TEA) a public information request for documents showing how reviewers have reacted to the refusal by publishers to weaken instruction on evolution.

We received those new documents on Friday. They show that reviewers have largely reversed course and are now giving 11 of the 14 textbooks a top rating. That number could change as the official review process moves to conclusion in the coming weeks. But it’s clear that after publishers resisted pressure from anti-evolution activists to dumb down their textbooks, reviewers raised their ratings of the textbooks anyway. That’s very good news because it shows that other reviewers on those teams — reviewers who aren’t anti-evolution activists — appear to be gaining the upper hand in internal debates over the textbooks.

The updated review for the Pearson textbook — a market leader — might best illustrate this change. In August state reviewers noted numerous objections to the Pearson textbook’s coverage of evolution. Pearson’s authors and editors refused to water down their evolution sections, but the reviewers now give the textbook a top rating anyway.

Even so, at least one reviewer — likely Ide Trotter, a longtime standard bearer for the creationist movement in Texas — complains bitterly about the Pearson textbook in the updated official review document we got from TEA. For example, the reviewer claims that the textbook’s “STATEMENT THAT ‘Every scientific test has supported Darwin’s basic idea.’ IS ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE.” [Capitalization in the original.] The complaints include other arguments often promoted by anti-evolution activists, including the pseudo-distinction between “microevolution” and “macroevolution” and the claim that “natural selection only purifies but something else is required to create significant variants to be selected.” (An “intelligent designer,” perhaps? Need you ask?)

While it’s encouraging that most of the official reviewers are now rewarding publishers for standing up for science in their textbooks, this battle is far from over. Next month the State Board of Education will vote on which textbooks to place on the official adoption list for public schools. State board politicians in past adoptions have refused to approve textbooks that include content they don’t like — regardless of what scholars and teachers say. In 2007, for example, state board members rejected a proposed third-grade mathematics textbook because (they later said) they objected to how it taught multiplication. In 2003 the board’s anti-evolution members tried (but failed) to block the adoption of new high school biology textbooks that didn’t include information about phony “weaknesses” of evolution.

So stay tuned. We still have a lot of work to do over the next four weeks. And if you haven’t already done so, add your name to the thousands of others on our Stand Up for Science petition calling for the State Board of Education to adopt textbooks based on established, mainstream science.

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