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Education Reporter

Teachers Don't Push Evolution
Recent Gallup opinion polls found that eight out of ten Americans — a figure that has changed little over the past 30 years — believe God created humans in their present form, or that he guided the process of human evolution.

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Apparently some of those 80% are public high school biology teachers, because creationism is still flourishing in classrooms despite federal court rulings that intelligent design cannot be taught as an accepted scientific theory. (Intelligent design is the idea that life is so complex it must have been created by a designer.)

A recent survey of 926 public high school biology teachers revealed that:

  1. Only 28% consistently follow National Research Council recommendations to teach evolution as the unifying theme of biology.
  2. 13% explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design.
  3. Most teachers, called "the cautious 60%," said they are "neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives."
The survey, published in the January 28 issue of Science, found that some teachers tell students frankly that they must teach evolution because state examinations test it, but that students need not "believe" it. Others teach about adaptations within a species (microevolution), but not that one species can give rise to other species (macroevolution). A large number of teachers consider both evolution and creationism to be belief systems that cannot be fully proven or discredited, and assure students that they are free to choose based on their own beliefs.

Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, wasn't surprised by the survey findings. "These kinds of data have been reported regionally, and in some cases nationally, for decades. Creationists are in the classroom, and it's not just the South," he said. "At least 25% of high school teachers in Minnesota explicitly teach creationism."

Study authors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer wrote, somewhat dramatically, that "Considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America's classrooms." It is notable that both men are professors of political science at Penn State, not biologists or chemists or physicists. In other words they are social scientists. They do not dispassionately employ the scientific method in their own work; rather they interpret data based upon their own worldview, much like the teachers they criticize.

Plutzer said he thinks that the "cautious 60%" represents a group of teachers who, if they were better trained in science and evolution, would gain the confidence to teach evolution to students and defend it to parents and school board members.

But Moore doesn't believe more education would change things much. "These courses aren't reaching the creationists," he said. "They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them."

Frustrated by this failure of teachers to toe the atheistic line, some scientists and educators are pressing to make evolution the lynchpin of biology lesson plans from kindergarten through high school. The official rationale is that starting early will build a foundation for more difficult concepts in later grades. Presumably at least one unspoken motivation is the assumption that promoting evolution to children early and often makes it less likely that they will reject it later in favor of creationism. (New York Times, 2-7-11; HechingerReport.org, 2-7-11; ScienceDaily.com, 1-28-11)

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