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Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait

Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait

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Published by A Roy
In 2004, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, voted to require its 9th grade science teachers to read a statement questioning the validity of evolutionary theory. “Because Darwin's Theory is a theory,” teachers were instructed to say, “it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.” Students in Dover High School were also encouraged to explore the concept of intelligent design (ID), described in the statement as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view.” Multiple copies of the ID text Of Pandas and People were made available, and the school board stated that “Students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families”[1].

By promoting ID and questioning evolution, Dover's elected school board aligned itself with national public opinion, which consistently shows a majority favors teaching Biblical creationism in addition to evolution [2]. Moreover, a 2005 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 38% of Americans would prefer that creationism was taught instead of evolution [3]. But the Dover public school teachers, citing ethical obligations, were unmoved by public pressure and refused to comply with their board's directive. The high school's science teachers issued a statement arguing:

“…if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to ‘Of Pandas and People’ as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory” [1].

To scientists, the teachers' position is noncontroversial. Alternative approaches to evolution like ID are a “hoax” at best and “faith” at worst [4,5]; in neither case do they have any place in a science curriculum. The National Academy of Sciences calls evolution “the central concept of biology” [6], and three respected national organizations have provided model high school curriculum guidelines with evolution as a unifying theme [7–9].
In 2004, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, voted to require its 9th grade science teachers to read a statement questioning the validity of evolutionary theory. “Because Darwin's Theory is a theory,” teachers were instructed to say, “it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.” Students in Dover High School were also encouraged to explore the concept of intelligent design (ID), described in the statement as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view.” Multiple copies of the ID text Of Pandas and People were made available, and the school board stated that “Students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families”[1].

By promoting ID and questioning evolution, Dover's elected school board aligned itself with national public opinion, which consistently shows a majority favors teaching Biblical creationism in addition to evolution [2]. Moreover, a 2005 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 38% of Americans would prefer that creationism was taught instead of evolution [3]. But the Dover public school teachers, citing ethical obligations, were unmoved by public pressure and refused to comply with their board's directive. The high school's science teachers issued a statement arguing:

“…if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to ‘Of Pandas and People’ as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory” [1].

To scientists, the teachers' position is noncontroversial. Alternative approaches to evolution like ID are a “hoax” at best and “faith” at worst [4,5]; in neither case do they have any place in a science curriculum. The National Academy of Sciences calls evolution “the central concept of biology” [6], and three respected national organizations have provided model high school curriculum guidelines with evolution as a unifying theme [7–9].

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PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org000May 2008 | Volume 6 | Issue 5 | e24
Essay
I
n 2004, the school board in Dover,Pennsylvania, voted to requireits 9th grade science teachersto read a statement questioningthe validity o evolutionary theory.“Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory,”teachers were instructed to say, “it continues to be tested as new evidenceis discovered. The Theory is not aact. Gaps in the Theory exist or which there is no evidence.” Studentsin Dover High School were alsoencouraged to explore the concept o intelligent design (ID), describedin the statement as “an explanationo the origin o lie that diers romDarwin’s view.” Multiple copies o the ID text 
O Pandas and People 
weremade available, and the school boardstated that “Students are encouragedto keep an open mind. The schoolleaves the discussion o the Origins o Lie to individual students and theiramilies”[1].By promoting ID and questioningevolution, Dover’s elected schoolboard aligned itsel with nationalpublic opinion, which consistently shows a majority avors teachingBiblical creationism in addition toevolution [2]. Moreover, a 2005poll conducted by the Pew Forumon Religion and Public Lie reportsthat 38% o Americans would preerthat creationism was taught insteado evolution [3]. But the Doverpublic school teachers, citing ethicalobligations, were unmoved by publicpressure and reused to comply withtheir board’s directive. The highschool’s science teachers issued astatement arguing:
“…i I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientifc theory, perhaps on  par with the theory o evolution. That is not true. To reer the students to ‘O Pandas and People’ as i it is a scientifc resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientifc knowledge that is supported by recognized scientifc proo or theory” 
[1]
.
To scientists, the teachers’ positionis noncontroversial. Alternativeapproaches to evolution like ID area “hoax” at best and “aith” at worst [4,5]; in neither case do they haveany place in a science curriculum.The National Academy o Sciencescalls evolution “the central concept o biology” [6], and three respectednational organizations have providedmodel high school curriculumguidelines with evolution as a uniyingtheme [7–9].
Teaching Evolution: Law, Policy,and Practice
Unlike John Scopes (see Figure 1), theTennessee biology teacher convictedo teaching evolution (a convictionupheld in the 1925 case o 
Tennessee v. John Scopes 
), the plaintis and teachersin Dover prevailed in the courts whenthe Dover classroom disclaimer wasdeclared unconstitutional. Consistent  with earlier cases in other states,the court in
Kitzmiller v. Dover 
oundthat ID—like other more explicitly religious alternatives to evolution—must be excluded rom public schoolclassrooms as a violation o theConstitution’s Establishment Clause[10,11]. Judge John E. Jones III’sruling could not have been stronger:the Dover school board’s actions wereo “breath-taking inanity” and an“utter waste o monetary and personalresources [1].” Victories in cases like
Kitzmiller 
areimportant to the scientic community, which devotes time and resources toexclude the teaching o nonscienticalternatives to evolutionary theory.These victories have paid dividendsin policies at the state and local level. Although the United States has nonational curriculum guidelines or
Evolution and Creationism in America’sClassrooms: A National Portrait
Michael B. Berkman
*
, Julianna Sandell Pacheco, Eric Plutzer
Citation:
Berkman MB, Pacheco JS, Plutzer E
 
(2008)Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms:A national portrait. PLoS Biol 6(5): e24. doi:0.37/ journal.pbio.006024
Copyright:
© 2008 Berkman et al. This is anopen-access article distributed under the termso the Creative Commons Attribution License,which permits unrestricted use, distribution, andreproduction in any medium, provided the originalauthor and source are credited.
Abbreviations:
ID, intelligent design; NSES, NationalScience Education StandardsMichael B. Berkman is Proessor o Political Science,Julianna Sandell Pacheco is a Ph.D. candidate inPolitical Science, and Eric Plutzer is Proessor o Political Science and Academic Director o the PennState Survey Research Center in the Department o Political Science, The Pennsylvania State University,University Park, Pennsylvania, United States o America.* To whom correspondence should be addressed.E-mail: mbb@psu.eduEssays articulate a specifc perspective on a topic o broad interest to scientists.doi:0.37/journal.pbio.006024.g00
Figure 1.
John Scopes
On May 7, 925, John T. Scopes was arrestedor teaching evolution at Rhea County HighSchool in Dayton, Tennessee. When theamous “monkey trial” ended, Scopes wasconvicted o violating a Tennessee law thatmade it a crime to “teach any theory thatdenies the story o the Divine Creation o manas taught in the Bible, and to teach insteadthat man is descended rom a lower ordero animals.” Since that time, teachers havebeen on the ront lines o the battles betweenevolutionary biology and alternatives such asintelligent design and creationism.
 
PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org0002May 2008 | Volume 6 | Issue 5 | e24
requirements in any area o science,state governments do. These standardsprovide local school boards withineach state with a common guide toclassroom instruction in science andother subjects. While these standards vary widely in quality and detail romstate to state, all recognize, at least to some degree, the importance o evolutionary theory. At this time,not a single state uses its content standards to explicitly promote ID orcreationism [12–14]. School boards aremonitored by organizations like theNational Center or Science Education,by state academies o science, andby local scientic and proessionalorganizations. As a result, ew stateschool boards can ormally considermeasures like the one adopted inDover without scrutiny and challengerom organizations representing thescientic proession.These legal rulings and legislative victories are clearly necessary orevolution to maintain its proper placein the biology curriculum, but they are not sucient. Implementation o state standards, adherence to court decisions, and the ull integrationo textbook material rests in thehands o the thousands o classroomteachers throughout the country. And about this, we are less sanguine.Notwithstanding the proessionalismand bravery o the teachers in Dover,the status o evolution in the biology and lie sciences curriculum remainshighly problematic and threatened.Evolution—more precisely oppositionto it—is prooundly important toundamentalist Christianity, where it has played a critical role in its early ormation as doctrine and as a socialmovement [15,16]. Within Americanpolitics generally, religious-basedconfict is increasingly salient [17];even President Bush has expressedsupport or teaching “both sides” o theevolution controversy. But oppositionto evolution can be especially intenseat the local level, where teachers liveand work. This may occur throughthe election o “stealth” school boardcandidates [18], or when teachers aceorganized and unorganized oppositionand questioning o their curriculumrom religiously motivated members o the community [19,20].Community pressures placesignicant stress on teachers as they try to teach evolution, stresses that can lead them to de-emphasize,downplay, or ignore the topic [20].This is particularly true o the many teachers who lack a ull understandingo evolution, or at least condence intheir knowledge o it. Such a lack o condence can lead teachers to avoidconrontations with students, parents,and the wider community. They may,or example, not treat evolution as theclass’s organizing principle, or may avoid eective hands-on activity toteach it, or not ask students to apply natural selection to real lie situations[19]. There are many reasons to believethat scientists are winning in the courts,but losing in the classroom. This ispartially due to the occasional explicit teaching o creationism and ID, but most especially because o inconsistent emphasis and minimal rigor in theteaching o evolution.Studies o science teachers seemto conrm these ears by suggesting“that instruction in evolutionary biology at the high school level hasbeen absent, cursory or raught withmisinormation” [21]. But we are wary o this conclusion. Most o theprevious studies are now dated; therecent ones each examine a singlestate, and many states (most notably Caliornia, New York, and all o NewEngland) have never been studied(see [19,21,22] or comprehensivereviews o these single-state studies).Collectively, the studies employ incomparable measures, and some o them sacriced scientic sample survey methods in avor o higher cooperationrates (such as surveys o teachersattending conventions and proessionalmeetings [23]). As a result, we lack asystematic and coherent account o how instruction varies rom teacher toteacher across the nation as a whole.To remedy this, we provide a statisticalportrait o evolution and creationismin America’s classrooms, rom which we draw conclusions about theunevenness o how evolutionary biology is taught and some o the causes o that  variation.
The National Survey o HighSchool Biology Teachers
 We advance this long tradition o surveying teachers with reports romthe rst nationally representativesurvey o teachers concerning theteaching o evolution. The survey permits a statistically valid and current portrait o US science teachers that complements US and internationalsurveys o the general public onevolution and scientic literacy [2,24]and on evolution in the classroom[3,25]. Between March 5 and May 1,2007, 939 teachers participated in thestudy, either by mail or by completingan identical questionnaire online. Ouroverall response rate o 48% yielded asample that may be generalized to thepopulation o all public school teachers who taught a high school–level biology course in the 2006–2007 academic year, with all percentage estimates reportedin this essay’s tables and gures havinga margin o error o no more than3.2% at the 95% condence level.Detailed discussion o the methodso the survey and assessments o non-response can be ound in Text S1.Our results conrm wide variance inclassroom instruction and indicate aclear need to ocus not only on stateand ederal policy decisions, but onthe everyday instruction in Americanclassrooms.
 Evolution in the classroom 
:
 
How muchtime should be spent on evolutionin the typical high school biology class? There is no clear answer to thisquestion. Neither the strongest northe weakest state standards speciy aprecise amount o time that should bespent on any particular topic. As wenoted above, there are three widely circulated documents that serve asguidelines at the national level [6–8],but these, too, rerain rom oeringdirections on the amount o time that should be spent on evolution relative toother topics. In general, these nationalreports and state standards oer ideasor the content o high school science,biology, and lie science classes, but not the curriculum; in other words,
Evolution—moreprecisely oppositionto it—is prooundlyimportant toundamentalistChristianity, where ithas played a critical rolein its early ormation asdoctrine and as a socialmovement.
 
PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org0003May 2008 | Volume 6 | Issue 5 | e24
they enumerate and elaborate onoutcomes—what students shouldlearn—but not on any particularordering or allocation o time or eachsubject.It is clear, however, that all three o these reports expect and recommend asubstantial investment in evolutionary biology and evolution-related topics. All expect science teachers to “provideevidence that evolution has attained itsstatus as a uniying theme in science”[12]. The National Research Council’s1996
National Science Education Standards 
(NSES), oten used as a benchmark toevaluate the content o state sciencestandards and textbooks, identiesevolution as one o the ve “uniyingconcepts and processes” that providethe “big picture o scientic ideas.” TheNSES urther identies 11 benchmarks(or example, natural selection,biological adaptation) or states andtextbook editors to use in determiningthe content or high school biology materials. We ollowed most previous studiesin asking teachers to think about howthey allocate time over the course o the school year. We went a step urtherin also asking whether evolution servesas a uniying theme or the content o the course. Over the entire year o highschool biology we ound substantial variation among America’s high schoolteachers (see Table 1). Not surprisingly, we ound that those who take most seriously the advice o NSES to makeevolution a uniying theme spent the most time on evolution. Overall,teachers devoted an average o 13.7hours to general evolutionary processes(including human evolution), with59% allocating between three and 15hours o class time (see Table S1). Only 2% excluded evolution entirely. But signicantly ewer teachers coveredhuman evolution, which is not includedas an NSES benchmark. O teacherssurveyed, 17% did not cover humanevolution at all in their biology class, while a majority o teachers (60%)spent between one and ve hours o class time on it.Those teachers who stressedevolution by making it the uniyingtheme o their course spent more timeon it. Overall, only 23% strongly agreedthat evolution served as the uniyingtheme or their biology or lie sciencescourses (Table S2); these teachersdevoted 18.5 hours to evolution, 50%more class time than other teachers. When we asked whether an excellent biology course could exist without mentioning Darwin or evolutionary theory at all, 13% o teachers agreedor strongly agreed that such a coursecould exist.
Creationism in the classroom 
: We alsoasked teachers whether they spent classroom time on creationism orintelligent design. We ound that 25%o teachers indicated that they devotedat least one or two classroom hours tocreationism or intelligent design (seeTable 1). However, these numberscan be misleading because while someteachers may cover creationism toexpose students to an alternative toevolutionary theory, others may bringup creationism in order to criticize it or in response to student inquiries.Questions that simply ask about timedevoted to creationism, thereore, willoverstate support or creationism orintelligent design by counting boththose who teach creationism as aserious subject and those holding it up or criticism or ridicule. We askeda series o supplemental questionsthat provided some additional insight into the character o creationism inthe classroom. O the 25% o teachers who devoted time to creationism orintelligent design, nearly hal agreedor strongly agreed that they teachcreationism as a “valid scienticalternative to Darwinian explanationsor the origin o species.” Nearly thesame number agreed or strongly agreedthat when they teach creationism orintelligent design they emphasize that “many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian Theory”(see Table S3).On the other hand, many teachersdevoted time to creationism either toemphasize that religious theories haveno place in the science classroom orto challenge the legitimacy o thesealternatives. O those who spent time on the subject, 32% agreedor strongly agreed that when they teach creationism they emphasizethat almost all scientists reject it as a valid account o the origin o species,and 40% agreed or strongly agreedthat when they teach creationismthey acknowledge it as a validreligious perspective, but one that isinappropriate or a science class.
 Explaining dierences in teachers’ emphasis 
:
 
 Why do some teachers spendso much more time on evolution thanothers? Our data weigh heavily against one possible explanation: dierencesin state standards. We nd that nearly 90% o cross-teacher variation is withinstates (Eta-square rom a one-way analysis o variance by state is 0.11) asopposed to between states. As an upperlimit, then, state standards cannot account or more than 11% o the variance [21].However, our data lend support totwo potential explanations: teachers’personal belies about evolution andthe number o college-level scienceclasses.Our teachers were each asked aquestion about their own personalbelies about human origins. Thisquestion is identical to a question that 
Community pressuresplace signifcant stresson teachers as they try toteach evolution, stressesthat can lead them tode-emphasize, downplay,or ignore the topic.
Table 1.
Hours Devoted to Human Evolution, General Evolution, and Creationism orIntelligent Design in High School Biology Classes, 2007 (
n
= 939)
HoursHuman EvolutionGeneral EvolutionaryProcessesCreationism orIntelligent Design
Not covered7%2%75%2 hours35%9%8%35 hours25%25%5%60 hours2%26%%5 hours5%8%%620 hours3%%%20 hours or more2%9%0% Total00%00%00%
doi:0.37/journal.pbio.006024.t00

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