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Texas Science Standards: Game On!

This post was updated at 11:15 hours EST on March 18 to add the information about registering to testify in front of the Texas Board of Education at the final TEKS hearing.

I’m starting to see a little light at the end of the dark, abysmal tunnel of extra work that was recently forced on me at my day job , and I hope to be back to Skepchicking full-time very soon. In the meantime, I wanted to be sure to remind you all of the culmination of an important item we’ve been following here for some time now.

The Texas State Board of Education (TSBE) will meet March 26-27, 2009, to hear public testimony and to take a final vote on science education standards.

The relevant back story and a boat load of other pertinent details are included after the fold.

In a series of preliminary hearings starting in 2008 and stretching into 2009, the TSBE began reviewing the curriculum standards that dictate what must be taught in all Texas public schools. These standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guidelines, include all subjects, but of particular note in this review cycle is the language that describes the science curriculum.

For the better part of the last decade, the TEKS science guidelines have included sub-standard definitions of science, and language (the infamous “strengths and weaknesses” language) that undermines the mission for sound science education. This material was voted on and passed by a set of ultra-conservative Christian state board members, all of whom are still on the board.

Fortunately, teachers were under no obligation to implement any classroom activities that reflected the sketchy language, because quality science textbooks were already in circulation.

However, with this review cycle, not only is the language of the TEKS guidelines under review, but new textbooks will be selected based on the standards derived from the process.

As you may know, because of publishing costs, the standards adopted by big states like Texas and California have a major impact on the textbooks used by students in other states in the U.S. Publishers tend to print as few versions of textbooks as possible, so if Texas adopts poor science standards, there’s a good chance textbooks circulating throughout the country could reflect those poor standards. Not only will Texas school children be cheated, but school children in other states could be hurt as well.

And when you consider that the seven creationist-leaning Texas State Board members, including the chairman, Don McLeroy, not only continue to push for the sub-standard definitions of science and the scientific method in the TEKS guidelines, but went further and recruited two men associated with the Discovery Institute to be part of the review committee that is usually made up of science teachers and education professionals from Texas, it seems clear that the TSBE is positioning itself to open the door for religious myths to be taught in science classrooms.

Now, at the preliminary review hearings, good science teachers, concerned parents, and rational citizens rallied in overwhelming support of sound science. They showed up en mass in Austin to be heard, and each subsequent draft of the TEKS guidelines for science was more and more solid. Unfortunately, supporters of sound science are not yet fully in the clear.

For example, during the January 2009 meeting, the board voted to adopt the TEKS guidelines developed by their science review panel and writing teams, and in a 7-7 vote, rejected attempts to reinsert the earlier standard that included the “strengths and weaknesses” language. This is the language that had been used by creationists board members to require textbook publishers to insert creationist language into the textbooks. So removing it seemed a victory. However, the board also voted to include a number of problematic amendments to the TEKS guidelines that would compromise the teaching of evolution.

Now, the amendments are not automatically adopted. They must survive the final vote, but it is still important to be vigilant in this matter, because the board is under no obligation to vote in accord with the sound edits already made to the guidelines either. And the standards adopted on March 26-27 will set the course for Texas science education for the next ten years.

It is critical that the TEKS guidelines reflect the best science available.

What You Can Do

All of you Texas readers of Skepchick — if you are unable to attend the final hearing next week in Austin — can help by writing, telephoning, or emailing your school board member. If your representative voted for the TEKS and against these amendments in January, then thank your representative and encourage him or her to continue to support science at the final hearing. If he or she supported the anti-evolution changes in January, encourage him or her to promote the best science education for Texas school children by voting to remove these unfortunate amendments and support the TEKS guidelines as drafted by the review panel and writing committees. In either case, let your school board member know that the proposed amendments should not become part of the new TEKS. (Information on the specifics of the amendments can be found below.)

And those of you outside of Texas, if you are concerned, contact your local media, blog about this issue, or contact the TSBE directly. Let’s make sure there are critical eyes from all over the country on the Texas State Board.

Your voice counts in this process. During the January meeting, several board members cited the public response they had received as justification for their votes. Almost all the votes were decided by a one-vote margin. Write, phone, or email today, and ask your friends and neighbors to write as well. Numbers count, and every email, call, or letter makes a difference.

The additional information below is provided by the supremely awesome friends of Skepchick, Eugenie Scott, Steven Newton, and everyone at the National Center for Science Edcation:

Board Members who voted for pro-science TEKS:
Agosto, Allen, Berlanga, Craig, Hardy, Knight, Miller

Board Members who voted against pro-science TEKS:
Bradley, Cargill, Dunbar, Leo, Lowe, McLeroy, Mercer

How to Find Your School Board Member:
1. Go to http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/
2. On the line “District Type” select “State Board of Education”
3. Type in your address and this will identify which board member
represents you.

Contacting Your School Board Member:
1. All board members use the same email ([email protected]),
so make sure to put in the subject line which member you are trying to contact.
2. Locate your board district on the map at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/districts.html or search by address at http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/
3. Postal addresses and numbers for phone and fax are listed at
http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/members.html

A description and analysis of the Proposed Amendments can be found here:
http://ncseweb.org/creationism/analysis/analysis-proposed-texas-educational-knowledge-skills-teks-am, and also appended at the bottom of this email. Your communication will have greatest impact if you phrase it in your words; emails containing cut-and-pasted language may be viewed as a “form letter” by the board members.

When you email your school board member, please blind-copy (BCC) NCSE so we have an indication of the pro-science support. Send your BCC to [email protected].

We encourage you to forward this information to your friends, neighbors, and associates who might be willing to stand up for evolution education in Texas.

———————————————

Analysis of Proposed Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) Amendments for Texas Members

A number of amendments to the science TEKS were passed at the January meeting. Here is a brief analysis of these amendments, and why they are problematic for science education in Texas. In general, the amendments single out topics touching on evolution (including the age and evolution of Earth and the universe as a whole) from other scientific topics included in the TEKS. They uniformly weaken the presentation of these subjects, incorrectly communicating to students that evolution and cosmology are more tentative than the scientific community considers them.

Many of the amendments would open the door to the inclusion of creationist ideas. The amendments should be rejected for reasons of scientific accuracy and pedagogical appropriateness.

MCLEROY’S AMENDMENT TO BIOLOGY SECTION 7

What the amendment does:

  • Inserts the phrase “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record” between existing standards 7A and 7B, relabeling 7B-7E to 7C-7F.

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • Contradicts 7A, which states that the fossil record provides “evidence of common ancestry,” while the new 7B states that students should “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency and insufficiency of common ancestry.” This will create confusion among teachers, students, textbook authors, and test authors.
  • The phrase “sufficiency or insufficiency” is similar to “strengths and
    weaknesses” and is objectionable for the same reasons: it provides an opening for creationist board members to pressure textbook publishers to include creationist-inspired “weaknesses” of evolution, as occurred in 2003.
  • Requires teachers to present the equivalent of a semester-long
    college course in paleontology to high school students. To teach this standard would require not only the basics of biology and basic concepts in evolutionary biology, but topics not covered until a capstone Earth and Space Sciences course. Without that background, students are likely to misinterpret discussion of “sudden appearance” as if it were a reference to special creation of living things in their current form, rather than as an evolutionary process which takes place in time-frames measured in the millions of years.
  • It is unreasonable to ask high school students just beginning to
    learn about a topic to sit in judgment as to the sufficiency or insufficiency of scientific evidence they do not yet have the mathematical and chemical background to understand in depth
  • The phrase”supporting documentation” offered by Dr. McLeroy for this amendment reveals that terms of art in evolutionary biology such as “stasis” and “sudden appearance” are interpreted as support for special creationism.

This clearly shows that the motivation behind these amendments is to promote an anti-evolution, pro-creationism view.

For more information, consult Jeremy Mohn’s web site analyzing McLeroy’s documentation: http://www.anevolvingcreation.net/collapse/index.htm

CARGILL’s EARTH SCIENCE AMENDMENTS:

(4) Earth and Space Science
What the amendment does:

  • Inserts the words “differing theories” into the sentence
    “Observations reveal differing theories about the structure, scale, composition, origin, and history of the universe.”

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • Astrophysicists do not have “differing theories” other than the Big Bang model and its extensions; there is no other major theory for the evolution of the universe.
  • The phrase “differing theories” makes the language weaker and less
    certain; changes which do not reflect the amassed evidence in favor of the Big Bang model.
  • Opens the door for the teaching of creationist “theories”.

(5) Earth and Space Science
What the amendment does:

  • Changes the sentence “The student knows that Earth’s place in the solar system is explained by the solar nebular accretionary disk model” to “The student understands that Earth’s place in the solar system is explained by the solar nebular accretionary disk model.”

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • The accretionary disk model is the appropriate explanation for a science class.
  • Opens the door to the teaching of creationist views of Earth’s
    origin, rather than restricting the discussion of the solar system to natural explanations.

(5)(B) Earth and Space Science
What the amendment does:

  • Inserts “are thought to allow” into the sentence “. . .kinetic heat of impact accretion, gravitational compression, and radioactive decay, which are thought to allow protoplanet differentiation.”

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • There is no ambiguity or scientific question about the heat sources necessary for the Earth separating into different zones (mantle, outer score, inner core) during its formation
  • The phrase “are thought to” implies incorrect and unnecessary doubt.

(6)(D) Earth and Space Science
What the amendment does:

  • Inserts “the evidence that the” into the phrase “evaluate the evidence that the Earth’s cooling led to tectonic activity.”

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • The change is unnecessary.
  • Implies a doubt about these processes that earth scientists do not
    share.

A pervasive theme in Cargill’s amendments is casting doubt upon long-settled scientific issues.

Steven Schafersman, a member of the Earth Science writing team, has prepared a detailed analysis of the Cargill amendments at http://www.texscience.org/reports/ESS-Report-Final-2009Jan29.htm

LEO’s AMENDMENTS TO BIOLOGY

Terri Leo offered several amendments to High School Biology TEKS in (7)(A), (7)(B), (7)(C), (7)(D), and (7)(E). These were proposed before McLeroy’s amendment above, and reflect earlier labeling of standards. 7B-7E here are 7C-7F in the TEKS under consideration now.

What the amendments do:

  • All of these amendments involved inserting the phrase “analyze and evaluate” in place of verbs such as “identify,” “recognize,” and “describe”.

For example:

(7) (A) identify how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, and developmental.

After the amendment, the standard would read:
(7)(A) analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, and developmental.

And

(7) (B) recognize that natural selection produces changes in populations, not individuals.

After the amendment, the standard would read:
(7)(B) analyze and evaluate how natural selection produces changes in populations, not individuals.

Why this is scientifically/pedagogically wrong:

  • Removes specificity needed by teachers, replacing the different verbs with the same phrase. Teachers, textbook authors, and standardized test authors recognize that different degrees of understanding are implied by verbs such as “identify,” “recognize,” “describe,” “analyze” and “evaluate”. These are educational terms of art used to determine how to allocate time and effort; removing that information harms Texas education.
  • The phrase “analyze and evaluate” is not the appropriate level of detail to require of high school teachers or students with respect to the TEKS’s beginning-level presentation of evolution. High school biology students must know that evolution proceeds via mechanisms other than natural selection, but it is not necessary that students understand, for instance, an ongoing dispute among biologists about the relative importance of natural selection and other mechanisms. Because that is an unresolved question, there is no scientific consensus for teachers to use in planning lessons or in grading students. Specifying “recognize” allows teachers to go into that added detail if they want, but does not require teachers to take time away from other subjects to delve into arcana better suited for a college class. Similarly, it is an empirical fact that natural selection applies to populations, not individuals. There is nothing in that statement to “analyze and evaluate”.
  • Singles out evolution for special treatment, directly contravening
    an Attorney General’s opinion that the Board of Education “not single out . . . . a single theory of one scientific field.” There is no reason to apply the high-level skills “analyze and evaluate” to every item in the section on evolution and nowhere else in the biology TEKS.

Useful Resources

______________________

Registering to Testify at the State Board of Education Meeting

If you would like to testify in front of the TSBE and can make it to Austin, you should register early on Friday, 20 March 2009, or on Monday, 23 March, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (Central Time). Speakers are selected in the order they registered, and the ~30 speaking slots are expected to fill up quickly.

You can register in one of three ways:

1. Calling 512-463-9007

2. Faxing the registration form to 512-936-4319 (http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/forms/registration_form_public_testimony (choose “Committee of the Full Board”)

3. In person at William B. Travis (WBT) State Office Building, 1701 N. Congress, Austin, Texas 78701

The TEA’s official information on testifying can be found at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3958#Public%20Testimony

At the January meeting, priority was given to speakers who had not spoken at the previous meeting in November.

WE ASK SPEAKERS TO:

1. Encourage the board to adopt the science TEKS as written by the expert writing teams.

2. Ask the board to reject the anti-evolution amendments passed during the January meeting.

3. Support only amendments reviewed and agreed to by their expert writing committees.

TIPS FOR TESTIFYING:

1. Testimony is scheduled for Wednesday 25 March, from noon to 6 pm, in the William Travis Bldg. The meeting room is on the first floor.

2. The day of the meeting there will be a printed list of the order of speakers on the table outside the meeting room.

3. Speakers should have 35 copies of their testimony to distribute to the board. This can include talking points or a written version of your testimony.

4. Speakers are given 3 minutes for testimony, and will be told to finish their current sentence when the time elapses.

5. Board members may then question the speaker.

6. Be respectful and polite-as the old saying goes, honey works better to catch flies than vinegar.

7. Three minutes goes by quicker than you think. Try to make one big point and reinforce it, rather than several smaller points. Many people will be testifying, so you don’t have to cover every topic.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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19 Comments

  1. I am an ignorant Aussie.

    You seem to willingly go along with this fucked up paradigm where one State dictates to the other 50?

    And all because of money?

    I am asking, how much money would it take to tip the balance, how long has this been going on, what does your new President think of this state of affairs?

    Can you maybe get a benevolent rationalist and science friendly sponsor or patron to publish good science textbooks across the country despite some loss of profit?

    Please forgive my arrogance but this is outrageous and you seem to be fighting on their terms.

    Smash the dominant paradigm!

  2. Sam, that’s a wonderful overview, thanks for keeping us informed.

    @Jack99: I honestly don’t even know where to begin addressing your comment. “Fighting on their terms?” We’re fighting within the bounds of what is possible. Standing around crying that Obama should step in and somehow nationalize the private industry of textbook printing will do nothing, while standing up for science and fighting for strict standards will do everything.

  3. @Jack99: And further, waiting for Bill Gates to step in and fix things would be similarly useless. Not only would it be an enormous task to convince him (or someone else?) to suddenly get into the textbook-printing game, but who is to say that we’d want to place all our trust in one person who happens to have billions of dollars? We’d still need oversight, we’d still need a review process, we’d still need to be vigilant and make sure that our schools’ standards are appropriate.

  4. @Jack99:

    Well, Rebecca has addressed your concerns as well or better than I could.

    You must understand that although the states are united in the United States, each is still sovereign to a certain extent. Where the federal government can and does pressure states to legislate in a certain way at times — and the states would lose out on a lot of federal money for programs, such as highway systems and various other subsidies, were they to dissent — the federal government leaves the states alone to legislate many areas like state income tax, legal drinking age, gay marriage, and education. Obama is not directly responsible for this.

    As to the textbook publishers: As I’m sure you know, they are not individuals with altruistic concerns. They are businesses. They are not concerned as much with the content of the books as they are with meeting the biggest demand, making the biggest profit. And as such, they are not even a player of blame here.

    The best way to be sure the right thing is done is to elect competent state officials to make these types of decisions. Barring that, we must keep an eye on incompetent state officials and guide them as best we can, which is just what we’re trying to do in this case.

  5. Very interesting read.

    I’m guessing this by what I’ve read here so please correct me:
    if the changes are just to the phrasing of the teaching guidelines, if they do pass it might not make a difference? I’m guessing people who are inclined to become biology teachers will be very pro-science so they can still teach accurate evolutionary theory regardless? Or will senior teachers be able to over-rule and force the biology teachers to teach bad science?

  6. I grew up in Texas and have been familiar with this issue. I try to help from my new home in Boston by giving to groups that seem to be fighting the ridiculousness that is being proposed. However, I’m familiar with the types of Texans that are doing this and I know this will be a close call. (I mean: I ‘recognize’ that there is a possibility that this will be a close call… I obviously cannot ignore the chance that they will all be converted to Darwinian loving atheists within the next week… it could happen!) ;)

  7. @sharon:

    Very good questions, sharon.

    There are answers for them, but this issue is way more complex than it appears on the surface. If you are not familiar, look into the history of conservative Christians attemtping to have religious myths taught in science classes alongside or in place of evolution (Creation Science, Intelligent Design, Kitzmiller v. Dover, etc.). This is a battle that has been going on for decades.

    Also, when you get a chance, Google “Wedge Strategy”. This is an initiative set forth by the Discovery Institute and others to slowly wedge creationist views into the classroom. (There are a couple of very good videos that detail the process.) These people are relentless, and work in ways both overt and covert. One could point to the Ben Stein movie, Expelled, as part of the wedge. And one can definitely point to cases like the one in Texas as part of the wedge.

    But to answer your questions directly:

    Yes, it will make a difference if the amendments are passed. Textbook selection is based on the guidelines set by the school board. If the sketchy language is allowed to stay in, the state will then be forced to adopt books authored to that language. In other words, the base teaching material will not reflect what science actually is. It will not be a valid representation of the processes at work in evolution. In short, the material will be wrong.

    And remember this textbook selection process is the same for all subjects, not just science. Would you want an English textbook that redefines grammar or spelling?

    And yes, we can certainly hope that people who are inclined to become biology teachers will be very pro-science, and that they would still teach accurate evolutionary theory regardless. But, state exams called TAKS are also based on the board’s guidelines. And students are charged with performing at a certain level on those tests in order for the state to receive federal dollars. To ensure students pass the TAKS, teachers are pressured to teach for the test, whether the materials therein are sound or silly.

    But the point to all this is, we should not have to worry about it. It should not even be a concern. Yet the board has been advised by quality science and education professionals for years now and they still want to act contrary to the advice.

    The good news is, if the amendments are defeated and the good definitions and wording proposed by the scientific review committee passed, we won’t have to worry about it again until the next review cycle in 10 years. And hopefully by then, the 7 creationist board members will have been ousted.

  8. It should not be a surprize that the seven anti-evolutionists on the SBOE are essentially immune to any pressure from “evil”utionists. What the Center For Inquiry Austin is trying to do is find people in districts that have representatives who seem to favor science, including evolution, and to have them contact these people to encourage continued support for science.

    Interestingly, the most “liberal,” pro-science city in Texas — Austin, has been split by gerrymandering so that both representatives for people in Austin are hard-core anti-evolutionists.

  9. McLeroy has endorsed an over-the-top creationist screed called Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences’ Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They’re Descended from Reptiles. The Texas Freedom Network sums it up nicely: “Scientists are ‘atheists.’ Parents who want to teach their children about evolution are ‘monsters.’ Pastors who support sound science are ‘morons.'” Can this be introduced as evidence for his cockamamie ideas?

  10. Thank you for your very interesting reply Sam. I have since looked up the Wedge Strategy and read through it. I can see where the issues are now.

    I also had a read through some of Sowing Atheism. He does make a convincing arguement if you don’t know the actual facts behind what they are saying. The main impression I get from that is that the author has delusions of grandeur. I’m pretty sure I’m not a divine creation. My spare tyre stomache certainly doesn’t look divine.

    “The evo-atheists of the NAS see nature only through their gray atheist goggles”…
    after a LOT of scientific study. And atheism is far from grey.

    This guy annoys me.

    “Creationists do not want to bring religion into the classroom. With all the different sects of Christianity, some of them very strange, and all the other Creator-acknowledging religions, that would lead to chaos. Creationists simply want the God hypothesis brought back into the science classroom, and recognized for what it is—a scientifically valid hypothesis.”

  11. Sam and Rebecca, Thank You for your answers.

    In my enthusiasm and outrage on your behalf, I shot my mouth off there and my thought processes do become convoluted at times.

    Yes, I think I understand your State vs Federal issues – it is similar here in Australia, and I live in a minority State. We currently have a BIG argument over water rights. In our case we elected an Independent Senator to go to Canberra to fight on this single issue.

    That is why I can’t understand why the Texas Textbook Price Problem has not been taken up by mainstream politicians in your Blue States. Here politicians and people would scream blue bloody murder if ever a State’s rights were infringed, no matter what side of politics they were on.

    Maybe I have got the wrong end of the stick and this is a problem that is in its early stages? Not seen before and not on the radar of your professional politicians? Because if there has been a previous example I would love to know the details of a crap textbook which took over from a good textbook and how many units of each were sold at what price.

    My thesis being that it may take a relatively small amount of money from whatever source to tip the balance and make the good textbook economical.

    Why do I care? (Other than the fact that I like you guys and want you to win)

    Because your crap has a nasty way of becoming our crap long after your crap has been discredited over there!

    But also, the scenario is uncomfortably close to the Asimov short story where a computer selected a single voter to vote for the whole country -scary stuff when it is not a benevolent and rational computer doing the picking.

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