Professor Kristi Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Law with an interest in how much influence the law has over the lives of US citizens. She wanted to find out more about the impact of national and state legislation on the teaching of evolution in high school science lessons. She noted that "researchers rarely focus on students' perceptions of the evolution, creationism, and intelligent design instruction in their high-school biology classes. This study builds on the work of Moore et al. (2006), who surveyed students in two high schools and one university, and begins to fill the existing knowledge gap by surveying students across the country." She asked: "What's really going on in science classrooms?" An overview of her findings has just appeared.
The teaching of evolution is a cover-story issue
The survey involved 8 states and three major variables: political climate (red or bue), regional location (NE, S, MW, W) and state standards (referred to as strong or weak). Some state standards require a rigorous teaching of evolution, and these were designated "strong standards" states. Other states say little or nothing about evolution, and these were given the name "weak standards" states. 972 completed questionnaires were obtained, and various sub-sets of these data were used for data analysis. The core sample was of 573 students who attended all 4 years of public high school in one of the designated states and graduated from high school in 2004-05.
Only headline findings are noted here. 92% said that they were taught evolution, but only 26% were taught "in depth". 30% said they were taught creationism, but 24% said that it was only mentioned briefly. 19% said that Intelligent Design was taught, but 12% said it was only mentioned briefly. Very few students described their experience of being taught creationism or Intelligent Design as "in depth". Another question explored whether these various options were presented as a "credible scientific theory", and the "yes" figures were 72% for evolution, 18% for creationism and 34% for Intelligent Design.
There were small differences noted across political boundaries. Surprisingly, state standards have very little effect on the statistics. This conflicts with the widespread assumption that standards have a strong influence on what goes on in the classroom. The most significant variable was geography:
"The law regarding evolution and creationism instruction is clear. State standards govern evolution instruction, but these data suggest that, regardless of what those standards say, evolution instruction varies least when disaggregated by the strength of the state standards, slightly more when measured against the red state-blue state division, and most when considering geographic location. In short, social factors appear to be more strongly correlated with disparities in the frequency and manner of evolution instruction than the sole legal factor."
Here are a few observations to think about:
1. This survey raises questions about the significance of the legal battles that have raged within the US over the teaching of origins. Whatever these battles are achieving, they are having very little impact on the ground.
2. There is no evidence that Creationism or Intelligent Design are being taught in any systematic way in US high schools. They get a mention - but this is only to be expected as textbooks also give them a mention, as did Darwin himself. These figures will not satisfy those who think that the high acceptance figures for Creationism and Intelligent Design are evidence for these topics being taught secretly.
3. Evolution teaching is certainly dominant, with 91% saying it is taught. But only 70% recall it being taught as a credible scientific theory and only 26% say it was taught in depth. These figures will not satisfy those who say that evolution is a cornerstone of biology.
4. The methodology of surveying students does not guarantee value-free data. There are a whole host of filters which need to be considered in the analysis. Teachers who take the time to look at what their students write down will sometimes come away thinking: 'Were we really in the same room?!' Those assessing their own courses also have justifiable reasons for questioning the validity of responses gained from students regarding their educational experiences. These analytical issues are not addressed by Bowman in this paper.
The author's concluding remarks are worth repeating:
"[T]he law is not clear regarding intelligent design because the ruling of the one court to consider intelligent design is not binding nationwide. [. . .] Especially as the intelligent-design movement gains momentum, it is important that we continue to assess students' perspectives on the frequency and manner of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design instruction in public high-school science classes."
What is important here is the educational experience of students, not just their recollections about what has been taught. And all the evidence that I am aware of shows that students who are 'taught the controversy' regarding origins issues find the experience more stimulating and perform better in examinations than those who are not.
The evolution battles in high-school science classes: who is teaching what?
Kristi L Bowman
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2008, 6(2), 69-74 | doi:10.1890/070013
Abstract: How frequently and in what manner are evolution, creationism, and intelligent design taught in public high schools? Here, I analyze the answer to this question, as given by nearly 600 students from major public universities nationwide in a survey conducted during the spring of 2006. Although almost all recent public highschool graduate respondents reported receiving evolution instruction, only about three-quarters perceived that evolution was taught as a "credible scientific theory". Creationism and intelligent design were reportedly presented almost one-third and one-fifth of the time, respectively, though respondents recalled that both concepts were presented as lacking scientific credibility much more often than not. The survey results are presented in composite form and also disaggregated with respect to the strength of evolution-related state standards, red state-blue state divisions, and the regional location of states within the country.
Beyond the Frontier: Evolving Curricula in US High Schools? (Podcast) February 22nd, 2008
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