US Teachers Don’t Teach Evolution

Darwin's finches. Credit: John Gould

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From tomorrow’s issue of Science, a new paper describing the great divide between creationism’s court losses (every major US federal court case in the past 40 years) and a paradoxical decline in classroom teaching of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself.

Based on data from the National Survey of High School Biology teachers, the authors estimate that only 28% of all biology teachers consistently teach evolutionary biology, while 13% explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design. The remaining teachers they deem the cautious 60%:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

The authors note that more high school students take general biology than any other science course, and that biology will be the only high school science class for up to a quarter of all US graduates. Yet 72% will get no schooling in evolutionary biology or a wobbly version of it: “absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation.”

The authors suggest that scientists and scientific organizations address the problem:

  • By continuing participation in federal law suits, since federal courts effectively limit the ability of state and local governments to endorse nonscientific alternatives to evolution
  • By requiring evolution courses be taught to teachers in training, since those who teach evolutionary biology are more likely to have completed a course in evolution (and feel more confident teaching it) than those who don’t teach it at all, or who teach it ambivalently:

They add:

More effectively integrating evolution into the education of preservice biology teachers may also have the indirect effect of encouraging students who cannot accept evolution as a matter of faith to pursue other careers.

The paper:

  • Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer. Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. 2011. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1198902

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