Primer: Texas Science Instructional Materials

by TFN

The science debate is about to heat up again in Texas, as evolution deniers on the State Board of Education attempt to deliver one of the creationist movement’s longstanding goals: getting information questioning the validity of evolution into Texas science classrooms. To get you back up to speed on what to expect in the coming months — and what is at stake in this debate — the Texas Freedom Network asked scientists from two of our state’s world-class universities to prepare a short primer on the topic. Over the course of this week, TFN Insider will publish their analysis of the four most problematic changes the state board made to Texas biology standards in 2009. (See Parts I, II, III and IV here.)

But first, let’s check a short review of where we are and how we got here.

On Friday, March 11, the public will get its first look at brand new instructional materials publishers and other vendors have submitted for approval by the State Board of Education (SBOE) for use in Texas science classrooms. The release of these materials for public review is the first step in a process that will culminate in July with a vote of the full board to accept or reject these instructional materials.

These new instructional materials must comply with the science curriculum standards revised by the SBOE in 2009.  The approval of those science standards — or TEKS, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills — was mired in controversy, as a bloc of  anti-science board members attempted to undermine, cast doubt upon or outright censor the treatment of evolution in the standards. While those board members did not wholly succeed in their anti-evolution crusade, they were able to insert scientifically problematic language into several places in the new standards. These compromised standards now include concepts and buzzwords that originate in the intelligent design/creationism community, creating the possibility that scientifically inaccurate and possibly unconstitutional content could find its way into Texas science materials.

Further evidence of board members’ intentions to bully publishers into compromising the integrity of science instructional materials has emerged in recent weeks. We have seen, for example, attempts to pack board-appointed review panels with creationist members, the governor’s unqualified endorsement of teaching intelligent design in Texas classrooms and open hostility to mainstream science voiced by some of the new SBOE members (and here).

Since the review and adoption of these materials will involve a number of complicated legal and scientific issues, the Texas Freedom Network asked Dr. Ben  Pierce, Professor of Biology and holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair at Southwestern University in Georgetown, and Dr. John Wise, Research Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to analyze the following four controversial changes to the biology standards:

TEKS (3)(A) — requirement that students analyze “all sides of scientific evidence”
TEKS (7)(B) — requirement that students evaluate “sudden appearance, stasis…” in the fossil record
TEKS (7)(G) — requirement that students evaluate the “complexity of the cell”
TEKS (9)(D) — requirement that students evaluate the “DNA molecule for self-replicating life”

Each of the posts on these standards will consist of several parts: (1) a review of the background and board debate that led to the adoption of the standard; (2) an examination of the scientific and pedagogical problems with the standard (especially connections to the intelligent design/creationism community); and (3) suggestions for how publishers might address these problematic standards and include scientifically rigorous information in their materials.

For everyone  who believes our children deserve a 21st century science education based on sound, peer-reviewed scholarship — not the personal and religious ideology of state board members — it’s time to go to school. Pull up a chair and make some time to read these short primers this week to get you ready for the coming debate.