Gov. Rick Perry’s claim to a child in New Hampshire Thursday that Texas public schools teach both Creationism and evolution would come as a surprise to educators and students across the country. The Supreme Court had the last word on this in the 1980s when seven justices ruled that teaching Creationism as fact violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But Perry’s precise words — “in Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools” — weren’t exactly spoken in error. Texas biology teachers must teach evolution, can’t teach Creationism, and can’t teach Intelligent Design or any other forms of crypto-Creationism. But the state’s curriculum does require schools to teach students to analyze and critique all scientific theories. And that means conservatives like Perry can pretend a loophole exists.
Asked for clarification, Perry’s spokesman Mark Miner emails, “It is required that students evaluate and analyze the theory of evolution, and creationism very likely comes up and is discussed in that process. Teachers are also permitted to discuss it with students in that context.”
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency issued TPM a similar statement “Our science standards require students to analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations, so it is likely that other theories, such as creationism, would be discussed in class,” she said. “Our schools can also offer an elective course on Biblical history and it is likely that creationism is discussed as part of that class too.”
That’s a far cry from the image Perry conveyed Thursday of science teachers offering “on the one hand” versions of the origin of species.
So did Perry accidentally reveal a secret hidden in plain sight, or was it a misleading dog whistle aimed at the religious conservatives who have tremendous influence over the Republican primary?
Experts and educators suggest the latter.
“The idea that the standards require or even permit the teaching of creationism is wrong, and if the board is saying that — the board answers to the governor so I can understand why they might say it, but it’s not true,” says Josh Rosenau, policy director for the National Center for Science Education. “Under almost almost any plausible interpretation of what he said it’s either not true or he’s advocating something that’s unconstitutional.”
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) — the state’s official K-12 curriculum — notes that students are expected to “in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”
But as Ross Ann Hill, president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas pointed out to me, evolution is part of the curriculum and creationism is not. Students are expected to know that “evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life.”
“Does it come up? I mean does the topic of Mars come up? Anything can come up in a classroom, but it’s not what we are required to teach,” Hill said. “It is tricky when a student brings up something like that. By law I cannot deny viewpoints to the kids no matter what side of the issue I’m on [but] I cannot teach creationism.”
This illustrates the distinction between what Perry claimed yesterday, and what his staff and the Ed Board say in clarification.
In their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, Penn State professors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer report survey findings that about one in eight biology teachers nationwide advocate Creationism or Intelligent Design as a regular part of their annual syllabi. Another one in twenty advocate it in passing when responding to their students’ questions.
“I would bet money that those numbers are higher in Texas but i don’t really have anything to go on,” Rosenau noted. The state’s standards, he acknowledges, “could open the door” for a teacher who wanted to teach Creationism, but such a teacher would be running afoul of “good pedagogy [and] Constitutional law.”
Kevin Fisher, a former STAT president and current president of the Texas Science Education Leadership Association says the controversy sometimes has a chilling effect. He estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of teachers “are scared to even bring it up in class” for fear of inciting a controversy with local parents. That would leave those kids unprepared for the state assessment test and college biology courses, but they would fortunately be the minority.
“Usually if creationism is brought up, teachers would discuss the nature of what is science and not science…and help the students understand the difference between science and religion.” Fisher told me. What Perry said, “is not an accurate statement about what occurs in Texas science classrooms.”
Hill — a 7th and 8th grade teacher — basically agrees with that analysis, and particularly questions Creationism teachers who treats the the state’s standards as incompatible with their beliefs.
“I wonder too if a teacher is teaching creationism or evolution as opposing one another, I would have to wonder if that teacher really understood the facts on both sides,” she said.
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Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.