The missing link 

Scientist discovers that evolution is missing from Arkansas classrooms.

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In the fall of 2004, I received an e-mail from an old friend back in Arkansas, where I was raised. She was concerned about a problem her father was having at work. “Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts. My friend did not know the details of Bob’s problem, only that it had to do with geology education. This was enough to arouse my interest, so I invited Bob to tell me about what was going on.

He responded with an e-mail. Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.” Bob feared that not being able to use evolutionary terms and ideas to answer his students’ questions would lead to reinforcement of their misconceptions.

But Bob’s personal issue was more specific, and the prohibition more insidious. In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

As a person with a geology background, Bob found this restriction hard to justify, especially since the new Arkansas educational benchmarks for 5th grade include introduction of the concept of the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth. Bob’s facility is supposed to be meeting or exceeding those benchmarks.

The explanation that had been given to Bob by his supervisors was that their science facility is in a delicate position and must avoid irritating some religious fundamentalists who may have their fingers on the purse strings of various school districts. Apparently his supervisors feared that teachers or parents might be offended if Bob taught their children about the age of rocks and that it would result in another school district pulling out of their program. He closed his explanatory message with these lines:

“So my situation here is tenuous. I am under censure for mentioning numbers. … I find that my ‘fire’ for this place is fading if we’re going to dissemble about such a basic factor of modern science. I mean ... the Scopes trial was how long ago now??? I thought we had fought this battle ... and still it goes on.”

I immediately referred Bob to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They responded with excellent advice. Bob was able to use their suggestions along with some of the position statements of numerous scientific societies and science teacher organizations listed by the NCSE’s Voices for Evolution Project in defense of his continued push to teach the science he felt obligated to present to his students. Nevertheless, his supervisors remained firm in their policy of steering clear of specifically mentioning evolution or “deep time” chronology.

I was going to be in Arkansas in that December anyway, so I decided to investigate Bob’s issue in person. He was happy for the support, but even more excited to show me around the facility. Bob is infectiously enthusiastic about nature and science education. He is just the kind of person we want to see working with students. He had arranged for me to meet with the directors of the facility, but he wanted to give me a guided tour of the place first.

Self-censorship in defense of science?

I would like to describe the grounds of the facility in more detail, but I must honor the request of all parties involved to not be identified. It was, however, a beautiful place, and the students, fifth-graders that day, seemed more engaged in their learning than most I had ever seen. To be sure, the facility does a fantastic job of teaching science, but I was there to find out about what it was not teaching. Bob and I toured the grounds for quite some time, including a hike to a cave he had recently discovered nearby, and when we returned I was shown to my interview with the program director and executive director.

Both of the directors welcomed me warmly and were very forthcoming in their answers to my questions. They were, however, quite firm in their insistence that they and their facility be kept strictly anonymous if I was to write a story about Bob’s issue. We talked for over an hour about the site’s mission, their classes, and Bob’s situation specifically. Both directors agreed that “in a perfect world” they could, and would, teach evolution and deep time. However, back in the real world, they defended their stance on the prohibition of the “e-word,” reasoning that it would take too long to teach the concept of evolution effectively (especially if they had to defuse any objections) and expressing concern for the well-being of their facility. Their program depends upon public support and continued patronage of the region’s school districts, which they felt could be threatened by any political blowback from an unwanted evolution controversy.

With regard to Bob’s geologic time scale issue, the program director likened it to a game of Russian roulette. He admitted that probably very few students would have a real problem with a discussion about time on the order of millions of years, but that it might only take one child’s parents to cause major problems. He spun a scenario of a student’s returning home with stories beginning with “Millions of years ago …” that could set a fundamentalist parent on a veritable witch hunt, first gathering support of like-minded parents and then showing up at school board meetings until the district pulled out of the science program to avoid conflict. He added that this might cause a ripple effect, other districts following suit, leading to the demise of the program.

Essentially, they are not allowing Bob to teach a certain set of scientific data in order to protect their ability to provide students the good science curriculum they do teach. The directors are not alone in their opinion that discussions of deep time and the “e-word” could be detrimental to the program’s existence. They have polled teachers in the districts they serve and have heard from them more than enough times that teaching evolution would be “political suicide.”

Bob’s last communication indicated that he had signed up with NCSE and was leaning towards the “grin and bear it” approach, which, given his position and the position of the institution, may be the best option. I was a bit disheartened, but still impressed with all the good that is going on at Bob’s facility. I was also curious about other educational institutions, so I decided to ask some questions where I could.

The first place I happened to find, purely by accident, was a privately run science museum for kids. As with Bob’s facility, the museum requested not to be referred to by name. I was only there for a short time, but I’m not quite sure what to make of what happened there. I looked around the museum and found a few biological exhibits, but nothing dealing with evolution. I introduced myself to one of the museum’s employees as a science educator (I am indeed a science educator) and asked her if they had any exhibits on evolution. She said that they used to, but several parents — some of whom home-schooled their children, some of whom are associated with Christian schools — had been offended by the exhibit and complained. They had said either that they would not be back until it was removed or that they would not be using that part of the museum if they returned. “It was right over there,” she said, pointing to an area that was being used at that time for a kind of holiday display.

Later that evening, I had a visit with the coordinator of gifted and talented education at one of Arkansas’s larger public school districts. As before, she has requested that she and her school system be kept anonymous, so I will call her “Susan.” Susan told me she had overheard a teacher explaining the “balanced treatment” given to creationism in her classroom. This was not just any classroom, but an Advanced Placement biology classroom. This was important to Susan, not only because of the subject and level of the class, but also because it fell under her supervision. Was she obliged to do something about this? She knew quite well that the “balanced treatment” being taught had been found by a federal court to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause — perhaps there is no greater irony than that two of the most significant cases decided by federal courts against teaching creationism were Epperson v. Arkansas and McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.

Susan sincerely wanted to do something about it, but she decided to let it go. Her reasoning was that this particular teacher is probably in her final year of service. To Susan, making an issue out of this just was not worth the strife it would have caused in the school and in the community.

As the discussion progressed that evening, I learned that omission was the method of dealing with evolution in another of Arkansas’s largest, most quickly growing, and wealthiest school districts — an omission that was apparently strongly suggested by the administration. I tried to check on this, but made little progress, receiving the cold shoulder from the administration and the science department at that school. However, I spoke with a person who works for a private science education facility that does contract work for this district: “Helen” — she, like the other people I had visited, requested that she and her employers not be identified. I asked Helen about her experiences with the district’s teachers. Her story was that in preparation for teaching the students from that district, she had asked some of the teachers how they approached the state benchmarks for those items dealing with evolution. She said, “Oh, I later got in trouble for even asking,” but went on to describe their answers. Most teachers said that they did not know enough about evolution to teach it themselves, but one of them, after looking around to make sure they were safely out of anyone’s earshot, explained that the teachers are told by school administrators that it would be “good for their careers” not to mention such topics in their classes.

Inadequate science education

How often does this kind of thing happen? How many teachers are deleting the most fundamental principle of the biological sciences from their classes due to school and community pressure or due to lack of knowledge? How many are disregarding Supreme Court decisions and state curriculum guidelines? These are good questions, and I have been given relevant data from a person currently working in Arkansas. We will call this science teacher Randy. I was introduced to him through the NCSE. He made it clear that his identity must be protected.

Randy runs professional development science education workshops for public school teachers. He’s been doing it for a while now, and he has been taking information on the teachers in his workshops via a survey. He shared some data with me.

According to his survey, about 20 percent are trying to teach evolution and think they are doing a good job; 10 percent are teaching creationism, even though during the workshop he discusses the legally shaky ground on which they stand. Another 20 percent attempt to teach something but feel they just do not understand evolution. The remaining 50 percent avoid it because of community pressure. On an e-mail to members of a list he keeps of people interested in evolution, Randy reported that the latter 50 percent do not cover evolution because they felt intimidated, saw no need to teach it, or might lose their jobs.

By their own description of their classroom practices, 80 percent of the teachers surveyed are not adequately teaching evolutionary science. Remember that these are just the teachers who are in a professional development workshop in science education! What is more disturbing is what Randy went on to say about the aftermath of these workshops. “After one of my workshops at a [state] education cooperative, it was asked that I not come back because I spent too much time on evolution. One of the teachers sent a letter to the governor stating that I was mandating that teachers had to teach evolution, and that I have to be an atheist, and would he do something.”

Of course it’s false to suggest “you’re either an anti-evolutionist or you’re an atheist.” Many scientists who understand and accept evolution are also quite religious, and many people of faith also understand and accept evolution. But here was a public school teacher appealing to the governor to “do something” about this guy teaching teachers to teach evolution. Given that evolutionary science is prescribed in the state curriculum guidelines, and given that two of the most important legal cases regarding evolution education originated in Arkansas, how exactly would we expect the governor to respond? I am not sure whether Gov. Mike Huckabee responded to this letter, but I have seen him address the subject on “Arkansans Ask,” his regular show on the Arkansas Educational Television Network. I’ve seen two episodes on which students expressed their frustration about the lack of evolution education in their public schools. Both times, Huckabee advocated the teaching of creationism in public schools. Here is an excerpt from one of these broadcasts, from July 2004:

Student: Many schools in Arkansas are failing to teach students about evolution according to the educational standards of our state. Since it is against these standards to teach creationism, how would you go about helping our state educate students more sufficiently for this?

Huckabee: Are you saying some students are not getting exposure to the various theories of creation?

Student (stunned): No, of evol … well, of evolution specifically. It’s a biological study that should be educated [taught], but is generally not.

Moderator: Schools are dodging Darwinism? Is that what you …?

Student: Yes.

Huckabee: I’m not familiar that they’re dodging it. Maybe they are. But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I’d be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that’s held by people. But it’s not the only view that’s held. And any time you teach one thing as that it’s the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.

Huckabee’s answer was laced with important misconceptions about science. Perhaps the most insidious problem with his response is that it plays on our sense of democracy and free expression. But several court decisions have concluded that fairness and free expression are not violated when public school teachers are required to teach the approved curriculum. These decisions recognized that teaching creationism is little more than thinly veiled religious advocacy.

Furthermore, Huckabee claimed not to be aware of the omission of evolution from Arkansas classrooms. From my limited visit, it is clear that this omission is widespread. But it’s certain Huckabee had heard about the omission before. This is from the July 2003 broadcast of “Arkansans Ask”:

Student: Goal 2.04 of the Biology Benchmark Goals published by the Arkansas Department of Education in May of 2002 indicates that students should examine the development of the theory of biological evolution. Yet many students in Arkansas that I have met … have not been exposed to this idea. What do you believe is the appropriate role of the state in mandating the curriculum of a given course?

Huckabee: I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism …

The governor goes on for a bit and finishes his sentiment, but the moderator keeps the conversation going:

Moderator (to student): You’ve encountered a number of students who have not received evolutionary biology?

Student: Yes, I’ve found that quite a few people’s high schools simply prefer to ignore the topic. I think that they’re a bit afraid of the controversy.

Huckabee: I think it’s something kids ought to be exposed to. I do not necessarily buy into the traditional Darwinian theory, personally. But that does not mean that I’m afraid that somebody might find out what it is…

Sisyphean Challenges

How are teachers like “Bob,” administrators like “Susan,” and teacher trainers like “Randy” supposed to ensure proper science education if politicians like the governor consistently advocate the teaching of non-science?

It is telling that none of the people I spoke with were willing to be identified or to allow me to reveal their respective institutions. In the case of “Bob” and his facility’s directors, they were concerned about criticism from both sides. They did not want to lose students by offending fundamentalists or lose credibility in the eyes of the scientific community for omitting evolution.

The shortcomings of evolution instruction in Arkansas don’t end at the state’s borders. But we seldom realize the wider influence our local politicians might have. For instance, the Educational Commission of the States is an important and powerful organization that shapes educational policy in all 50 states. Forty state governors have served as the chair of the ECS, and Governor Huckabee currently holds this position.

Because anti-evolutionists have been quite successful in placing members of their ranks and sympathizers in local legislatures and school boards, it is imperative that we point out the danger that these people pose to adequate science education. The science literacy of our future leaders may depend on it. Although each school, each museum, or each science center may seem to be an isolated case, answering to — and, perhaps trying to keep peace with — its local constituency, the examples suggest that evolution is being squeezed out of education systematically and broadly. Anti-evolutionists have been successful by keeping the struggle focused on the local level. The fallout is widespread ignorance of the tools and methods of science for generations to come.

The author, Jason R. Wiles, is co-manager of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal. The center’s mission is to advance the teaching and learning of evolution through research. Wiles, an Arkansas native, has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Harding University (with a minor in Bible) and a master’s degree from Portland State University. He’s currently a Ph.D. candidate in science education at McGill.

A slightly different version of the article was originally published in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, a peer-reviewed journal.


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