Teaching Evolution: Legal victories aren't enough

University Park, Pa. --- In recent years, U.S. courts have consistently ruled that teaching explicitly religious alternatives to evolution in public schools is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. But Penn State political scientists show that despite these many legal victories, a surprising number of public high school biology teachers still include creationism or intelligent design in their curriculum. However, the disparity in teaching evolution is not linked to differences in state regulations, but can more likely be attributed to differences of personal beliefs about human origins and scientific training among teachers, according to the study.

In the first nationally representative survey of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution, the researchers show that one in eight high school biology teachers present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to Darwinian evolution. While this number does not reflect public demand—38 percent of Americans would prefer that creationism to be taught instead of evolution—it does represent a disconnect between legal rulings, scientific consensus and classroom education.

Michael Berkman, professor of political science, Julianna Pacheco, graduate student, and Eric Plutzer, professor of political science and academic director of the Penn State Survey Research Center, published their findings (May 20) in the online journal PLoS Biology.

The majority of biology teachers spend between 3 and 15 hours on evolution. This is a wide range for a topic considered by the National Academy of Sciences to be “the central concept of biology.” The amount of time spent teaching human evolution is even less: the majority of teachers spend no more than five hours on the subject.

“This is the hottest of the hot buttons” says Berkman, suggesting that pressure from the community might play a role in how teachers structure their classes. Even the strongest legal ruling “still gives boards of education, school districts, and especially teachers considerable leeway” he says.Teachers are still in charge of implementing state standards, adhering to court decisions, and integrating textbooks into their classrooms. “And about this,” the authors write, “we are less sanguine.”

Less than one-third of high school biology teachers believe that God had no part in evolution, nearly one-half believe God had a hand in evolution, and almost one in six believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. The teachers who date the origins of human beings to the last ten thousand years, spent substantially less time teaching evolution than their Darwinist counterparts. Likewise, teachers with a stronger background in evolution spent 60 percent more time teaching it than those who had the least education in the subject.

There are no federal standards for class curriculums, and the state regulations are often inconsistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. Rather than adjusting government regulations, the Penn State researchers said, raising the certification standards for teachers could have a significant impact on the amount of time they spend on evolution. The authors propose requiring extra courses in evolutionary biology for science teachers.

“The extra background could make a large difference” says Berkman. ”The legal ruling and legislative victories are clearly necessary for evolution to maintain a central place in the biology curriculum,” the authors conclude, “but they are not sufficient.”

Courtesy of PLoS Biology, the journal article is at: http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124

Citation:Berkman MB, Pacheco JS, Plutzer E (2008) Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: A national portrait. PLoS Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124
 

Last Updated April 05, 2010