Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
Arkansas isn’t the only state with science teachers who fail to teach evolution, or who “balance” lessons on Darwin with non-scientific explanations of how life develops.
But informal surveys conducted by both the Arkansas Science Teachers Association and the National Center for Science Education show that the problem is definitely worse here.
Tillman Kennon, a professor of science education at Arkansas State University and the 2005 president of the ASTA, said his organization has asked teachers at workshops over the years whether they include evolution in their classes.
“The best I can come up with is probably about 50 percent indicate they do teach evolution,” said Kennon, who taught science in the Cross County School District before moving to ASU.
In the national survey, conducted via email in March 2005 by the NCSE, an organization that advocates the teaching of evolution, 30 percent of teachers said they felt pressure — primarily from students and parents — to de-emphasize or omit evolution or evolution-related topics. And 31 percent said they felt pressured to include non-scientific alternatives, such as creationism and intelligent design, when they taught evolution. Unlike some Arkansas educators who were interviewed as part of Jason R. Wiles’ cover story in the March 23 Arkansas Times — and others who’ve emailed the Times in response to it — few respondents to the NSCE survey said they felt pressure from administrators or principals.
One person who contacted the Times was Tom Maringer, the geology instructor identified as “Bob” in Wiles’ article. Maringer voluntarily identified himself because, he said, he no longer works at the Ozark Natural Science Center, the private, non-profit institution outside Huntsville that he was trying to protect by remaining anonymous. He said he left because the institution’s directors were unwilling to change their policy against using the word “evolution” or discussing the true age of the Earth.
Maringer said he found a “massive amount of complacency” on the part of science teachers who brought their students to the center. Some said they taught evolution in spite of pressure not to, he said, but some said they didn’t have time to teach everything, so they left evolution out, or said they didn’t teach it because they didn’t know enough about it. One, he said, told him, “Our administrator told us it would be good for our careers if we just don’t talk about that.”
Kennon said the most common explanation he’s heard from teachers who don’t teach evolution is that they don’t believe they know enough about the topic to teach it.
“They just feel like they aren’t adequately trained,” he said. “They understand the difference between evolution and creation, but they don’t feel confident to teach it.”
Someone with a bachelor’s degree in science education probably took one evolution class, Kennon said, but not one that was geared toward teaching the subject.
“Some of our people that are teaching don’t have that biology degree,” he said. “It scares people. It’s one of those things — some people are just scared to tackle it.”
A teacher’s preparation can be a problem, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the NSCE.
“Often teachers won’t be prepared for what it’s really like in the classroom,” he said. “Often they don’t learn much about evolution if they were education majors.”
Maringer said he sees a more deliberate effort to stifle the teaching of evolution.
“The radical Christian right has basically been spurned at the court level time and time again,” he said. “They’ve recruited church members to act one-on-one at the principal and individual teacher level. If they can’t get creation in, then they want evolution out.
“I personally find that chilling at a core level, the suppression of information.”
In many cases, Branch said, teachers just passively decide not to bother with evolution.
“A lot of times it’s quiet self-censorship,” he said. “The teacher realizes it will be uncomfortable for them if they teach evolution, so it slips quietly out of the curriculum.”
Arkansas’s official state science standards, revised earlier this year, do require that students learn about evolution, primarily in 8th grade science class and in high school biology. Neither of those classes has a state standardized test, however, and the state Department of Education doesn’t monitor whether the standards — called “frameworks” — actually get taught. And end-of-course exam for high school biology is supposed to be field-tested next year, but a recent vote by the state Board of Education to rework Arkansas’s testing regimen may change that.
Kennon said he tells teachers they should feel confident teaching evolution because it’s in the state standards.
”As long as you’re teaching those frameworks, you’re OK,” he said. “They are protected if they’re teaching those frameworks.”
And legally, teachers are protected from being fired for teaching evolution, or for refusing to teach non-scientific alternatives, Branch said. One of the primary cases, dating back almost 40 years, came out of Little Rock’s Central High: Epperson v. Arkansas.
But court cases don’t necessary provide much comfort to teachers living in small towns, where it can be harder to deal with the fallout of making a stand in favor of teaching evolution, Branch said.
Science v. religion
The website of the Arkansas Science Teachers Association includes a position statement, dated this year, on teaching evolution:
“Arkansas Science Teachers Association members hold various personal views concerning the origin of the universe and of life. As a professional organization, ASTA is opposed to any religious view, such, as creationism or intelligent design, being taught in the public schools as science.
“ASTA finds science and religion to be complementary rather than contradictory. Science strives to explain the nature of the cosmos while religion seeks to give the cosmos and the life within it a purpose. Human existence is enriched by a knowledge and understanding of both science and religion.
“Religious explanations of the origin of the universe and of life are based on faith. Because these explanations vary among different religions, the views are best taught in the home or within the context of religious institutions.
“Scientific explanations regarding the origin of the universe and of life are based on experimentation and may change, as new evidence is uncovered. The goal of science is to discover and investigate universally accepted natural explanations. This process of discovery and description of natural phenomena should be taught in public schools. Therefore, both curriculum and selection of instructional materials for public schools must reflect established scientific evidence.”