Majority of U.S. Biology Teachers Don’t Teach Evolution Adequately
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 7, 2011
Sometimes science supporters lament some very stubborn statistics, specifically those regarding the public acceptance of evolutionary science in the United States. Rather consistently, for many decades, the number of people in the U.S. who are outright ignorant or mistrustful of evolutionary science hovers at around the 40-45% mark, with most of those identifying as Young-Earth creationists (i.e. those who believe the Earth is ~10,000 years old as espoused by certain Biblical interpretations). Fortunately, recent research has shown this number slowly declining, but it is a really slow decline.
And many times, those of us in the pro-science crowd have wondered why it is that, despite amazing advances in evolutionary science and defeat after defeat for creationism in the federal courts, this blatant ignorance of (or outright animosity towards) evolution still exists to such a large degree? Well, some recent survey research may provide some clue as to an answer, and it – sadly – involves the nation’s teachers…
The majority of high-school biology teachers don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students, mostly to avoid conflicts, and fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance on the topic, a new study finds. Also, 13 percent of these teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms.
“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves,” Michael Berkman, co-author of the study with Penn State University colleague Eric Plutzer, told Livescience. “Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” …
So it seems that part of the problem is that many biology teachers themselves are not adequately prepared to teach about evolution. However, this is a problem which can (and should) be corrected by making adjustments to the university curriculum & training for prospective biology teachers, giving them (well, the 87% who are NOT creationist) the appropriate skills & training in the subject matter. Unfortunately, there seems to be a deeper problem: that of intimidation, either explicit or implicit, of biology teachers who actually want to teach evolution…
… About 60 percent of the teachers polled didn’t take a direct stance on the subject, dubbed by the authors as the “cautious 60 percent.”
Based on respondents’ write-in answers, the researchers surmised that many of these cautious teachers toed the line, weakly teaching evolution without explicitly endorsing or denying creationism in order to avoid controversy and questions from both students and parents.
Often, a letter in support of evolution from the principal or the school board is enough to instill confidence in the teachers, Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. “It would be beneficial for there to be more support from the administration, so [teachers] don’t feel out there all alone,” he said.
Typically, the study found, teachers used three tactics to avoid conflict:
- Instead of using evolution to explain relationships and development of species, some teachers explained it only in a molecular and genetic sense;
- Others taught the curriculum so students knew it for the state-wide tests, but didn’t try to convince the kids that evolution was valid;
- And some offered up both evolution and creationism, without pushing for either, letting the students come to their own conclusions.
These data might go a long way towards explaining the stubborn adherence by so many to creationism over the well-established science of evolution. I think one of the best ways to deal with the second, and more difficult, problem has to come in the way of community support for teachers who stand up for good science education within their institutions. If pro-science parents stand up and are vocal about these issues, it will make things that much harder for creationists when they try to intimidate local teachers into either watering down or completely skipping evolution in the classroom.
So, in the spirit of lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness, I have some advice for you:
1) If you are a teacher, discuss this issue with your colleagues and attempt to present a united front on the question to your community. Also, seek out local allies in both the administration & wider community to help you resist attempts to dumb down evolutionary lessons.
2) If you are a parent, engage with the teachers, administration, and board of your school to be sure that they are putting forth a good, solid scientific program which does not flinch from teaching evolutionary science. In other words, support your local science teacher!
3) Pay attention to your letters-to-the-editor in the local newspapers. These can be a good guide to assessing the feel of your community regarding evolutionary science & education, and they are among the most often-read portions of the paper and thus serve as a rough gauge of public opinion. If you see creationists printing letters in your local paper, take heed & write a letter in response (here are 10 tips on how to write a letter to your local paper on this issue). If creationists feel as if they can make their arguments unchallenged, then they will also feel emboldened to give the science teachers in your community a hard time. But if you (and others) stand up and fight back, then your teachers will know that you support them and they’ll in turn feel more confident about teaching evolutionary science properly.
4) Get connected with the National Center for Science Education – they are the premier nationwide organization for dealing with the evolution/creationism issue, and they have a wealth of experience in dealing with these problems. The sooner that you get in touch with the good folks at the NCSE, the better.
5) Recruit others to the cause. Talk to neighbors, friends, family, and your religious community (if you have one) about the importance of not dumbing down science education. The more people that you can bring to understand the importance of this issue, the easier it will be for you & the teachers.
So, with that last bit of advice… pass this along!