Is evolution missing link in some Pennsylvania high schools?
Some 20 percent of science teachers in survey say they believe in creationism
April 28, 2013 4:00 AM
At Cornerstone Church, the Rev. Donn Chapman, a creationist, delivers a lecture April 10 on what he says are the "falsehoods" of evolutionary theory.
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
During an Advanced Placement biology course in Easton Area High School, Jennifer Estevez's teacher sped through the large chapter on evolution, focusing on one formula for the AP exam and the basics: survival of the fittest and natural selection.
In those high school years in Northampton County, she also would attend a Baptist leadership retreat where a speaker denounced evolution as false, unproven science.
Seemingly unimportant and even discredited, evolution fell off her radar. So the Easton student, who is a Baptist, arrived at Duquesne University last fall considering herself a creationist, a person who generally believes God created the world as described in the Bible.
But a college biology course convinced her that evolution was valid science with overwhelming evidence that all living things, including humans, evolved most likely from a common ancestor -- over a period of millions, even billions, of years longer than that described in Genesis.
Ending her freshman year, and in pursuit of a career in medicine, Ms. Estevez, 19, said she's "a bit upset" that her high school teacher played down evolution while others trashed the science that serves as the foundation of modern biology, genetics and medicine.
"In high school, a lot was not taught correctly, and it didn't prepare me for college," she said. "They should have gone into evolution in detail. The controversy should not be what is taught in school."
PG graphic: Views on evolution, creationism (Click image for larger version)
Her experience represents the ill-kept secret about public school biology classrooms nationwide -- that evolution often isn't taught robustly, if at all. Faith-based belief in creationism and intelligent design continues to be discussed and even openly taught in public school classrooms, despite state curriculum standards.
"Sometimes students honestly look me in the eye and ask what do I think? I tell them that I personally hold the Bible as the source of truth," said Joe Sohmer, who teaches chemistry at the Altoona Area High School. The topic arises, he said, when he teaches radiocarbon dating, with that method often concluding archeological finds to be older than 10,000 years, which he says is the Bible-based age of Earth. "I tell them that I don't think [radiocarbon dating] is as valid as the textbook says it is, noting other scientific problems with the dating method.
"Kids ask all kinds of personal questions and that's one I don't shy away from," he said. "It doesn't in any way disrupt the educational process. I'm entitled to my beliefs as much as the evolutionist is."
Mr. Sohmer responded to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette questionnaire distributed this spring to school teachers statewide, and he agreed to discuss his teaching philosophy. He said school officials are comfortable with his methods.
An Indiana County science teacher responded to the questionnaire more adamantly.
"Most parents and officials do not want evolution 'crammed' into their children. They have serious philosophical/religious issues with public schools dictating to their students how to interpret the origin of life," stated the teacher, who did not respond to a request for an interview. His questionnaire says he teaches creationism for the equivalent of a class period, with five classes devoted to evolution.
"I have been questioned in the past about how I teach evolution principles, and [school officials] are satisfied with my approach," he said. "My approach is to teach the textbook content of Darwinian evolution but modified to explain that data can be interpreted differently dependent upon one's world view."
Yet another teacher accused the Post-Gazette of conducting a witch hunt to identify and punish teachers who believe in creationism.
Skirting the law
The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have ruled time and again that teaching creationism in public schools violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which often is referred to as separation of church and state: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Those cases include Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in York County, which involved the district's decision to include intelligent design in the curriculum as an alternative theory to evolution. The 2005 federal court ruling said intelligent design -- the argument that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause -- and creationism were one and the same religious principle that couldn't be taught in public schools.
The school district's legal fees topped $1 million.
Regardless of the court decisions, creationism continues to find an audience in public schools, limiting students' education in one of biology's fundamental principles.
Michael Berkman, a Penn State University professor of political science and co-author of the book "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms," said science teachers' reluctance to teach evolution leaves students with a diluted understanding of "the driving theme of the biology course, beginning to end."
"It washes it out so it doesn't have the flavor and excitement of science," he said, noting it results in "dry and uninteresting" science classes. "Some teachers do unbelievable stuff in the classroom but the majority don't."
The haphazard method of teaching evolution, undercut by a teacher's skepticism, raises doubts in students' minds about the science, he said.
The Post-Gazette questionnaire this spring drew 106 responses from science teachers. It asked them to choose one or more answers to a question of what they believe in: evolution, creationism, intelligent design or not sure/other.
Ninety percent chose evolution; 19 percent said they believe in creationism, not defined in the questionnaire; 13 percent said they believe in intelligent design; and another 5 percent answered "not sure/other." Teachers were allowed to list more than one option, so the numbers don't total 100 percent. But the clear conclusion is that while most do, not all science teachers espouse evolution, with a notable minority speaking up in favor of creationism.
Many scientists and religious leaders say there's no conflict in people believing in both a scientific and religious explanation of the origins of humans and other species. Fundamentalist Christians who read Genesis as scientific fact typically reject evolutionary theory.
Science is firm on its truth. The National Academy of Sciences puts evolution in the category of such scientific facts as the Earth orbiting the sun, living things being made of cells and matter being composed of atoms.
"Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence," the academy states, noting that the science will continue to be refined.
Mr. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, a Penn State professor of political science and sociology, based their book on a national survey of more than 900 science teachers, which found 13 percent advocating that Earth was 10,000 years old or younger, as opposed to Earth's scientifically determined age of 4.54 billion years.
"How do you become a science teacher when you are a young-Earth creationist?" Mr. Berkman said.
The Penn State survey said the teachers identifying themselves as creationists spend at least an hour of classroom time on creationism in a way suggesting it to be a valid scientific alternative. "Between 17 and 21 percent [of teachers in the survey] introduce creationism into the classroom," he said. "Some are young-Earth creationist but not all of them are. Some aren't even creationists."
But Mr. Berkman said their most alarming finding was that teachers need not introduce creationism in class to undercut interest and belief in evolution.
"You just have to throw doubt and downplay evolution," he said. "The idea that teachers are doing a really weak job -- many a really weak job -- of introducing evolution, we think, is because of reactions they get and maybe because of the lack of confidence in what they are teaching. That especially is the case with evolution, where many students have been primed by parents and youth groups to raise difficult and challenging questions."
Similar debate is occurring over the Big Bang theory, climate change and other controversial ideas of science.
G. Kip Bollinger, a Carlisle resident who retired as scientific education consultant for the state Department of Education in 2004 and now serves as a science coach for the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit, said the evolution controversy affects how it is taught.
"Many school districts shy away from the controversy and many teachers don't want to be the center of the controversy," he said. "So it's not surprising that evolution is not given its due as an important theory of science. When I was science adviser I would receive letters written by congregations around the state decrying that evolution was included in the state's science education standards."
Duquesne University biology professor David Lampe, who organizes the university's Darwin Day celebration each February, asks freshman biology students to complete an informal questionnaire each year before his class on evolution begins. His results indicate that a quarter to a third of freshmen claim to have had no instruction in evolution, with another third saying that only two class days or fewer were devoted to the topic. Only a third received three days or more of instruction on the topic.
"I don't think we'll ever stop people from objecting to the teaching of evolution," Mr. Lampe said. "It is not an issue of interpreting scientific data. No one in science seriously questions whether evolution is real. It is still a theological problem for people."
Getting busy, not mad
An impassioned speaker, with a knack for blending humor with fire and brimstone, the Rev. Donn S. Chapman held six classes in his "Origins Series" at Cornerstone Ministries in Murrysville on what he says is the truth of creationism and why evolution is suspect science. He said 890 signed up for the class, which was proven when many hundreds filled the church auditorium for the classes, which ended April 10. Featured speakers included intelligent-design scientists who cast doubt in the audience on key principles of evolution.
At series' end, Rev. Chapman encouraged the audience to reclaim American culture based on Christian values.
"We totally lost our influence in the public schools, which have lost the calling," he said. "I want to take our schools back and build a base of knowledge, because we have a battle ahead. We are not going to get mad. We are going to get busy."
The first step, he announced, was passage of an academic freedom bill similar to what Tennessee passed last year and Louisiana passed in 2009. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that advocates for intelligent design, is circulating a model bill nationwide with similar bills having been introduced in Arizona, Montana, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Colorado. Those bills remain on hold or have died in committee.
While the bills forbid the teaching of religious beliefs, they would allow teachers to teach alternative theories of evolution and climate change and other controversial topics, without facing sanctions.
Opponents say academic freedom bills represent a back-door effort to insert religion into the classroom. Introducing intelligent-design science as an alternative theory not only would hinder the acceptance of evolution, but clear the way for teachers to discuss creationism in the classroom more openly.
State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, attended the final Origins class to announce his support for such a bill. Afterward, he said legislators are being recruited to sponsor the bill.
"All the evidence doesn't get into the textbooks. This is for people to present evidence from all sides of the argument, not just what's limited to one side."
Faith and freedom
The evolution debate in the United States pits two key adversaries, the Discovery Institute and the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that advocates the teaching of evolution and purging public-school classrooms of religion.
Josh Rosenau, NCSE programs and policy director, said the battle has been waged for more than 80 years with no sign of it slackening. Academic freedom bills, he said, will encourage teachers to present evidence against evolution, even if they don't view the evidence as arguments for creationism.
"Evidence against one is evidence for the other," he said.
"Conceivably it could be more of a permission slip for teachers already teaching creationism to say that they are just encouraging critical thinking. It's an argument they have tried to use in the past."
Mr. Lampe also objects to the bill.
"Academic freedom? I'll tell you what it's not. It's not freedom to say anything you want in the classroom. In the classroom, you are obligated to teach scientific facts and methods. It's not a forum for teachers to go off and talk about whatever they want to.
"Those who want to teach creationism or can't teach evolution shouldn't be there. If they want to teach creationism or intelligent design, it's a nice Sunday school topic. There's a forum for that. People who don't believe in evolution should opt out of modern science and resort to rattling chicken bones."
At the end of the Origins class, a teacher in the audience submitted a written question asking the Rev. Chapman's panel to comment about how a teacher can introduce creationism into the classroom without facing sanctions.
"There is a lot that a teacher can get away with in the classroom if you do it wisely and gently," said Randall L. Wenger, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which is spearheading the campaign for a Pennsylvania academic freedom bill. "If you do it professionally, they would be hard pressed to take action against you."
Polls and standard bearers
The state Department of Education sets educational standards requiring evolutionary science to be taught, save for how humans got here.
Carolyn Dumaresq, department deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said new state law requires students, beginning with the current eighth-grade class, to pass tests in algebra 1, literature and biology before they can graduate. That should help mandate the teaching of evolutionary science in classrooms statewide, she said.
School districts are responsible to establish the curriculum and teaching methods to meet the educational standards. Pennsylvania also has an opt-out provision in the law allowing parents to remove their children from any classes in which topics are taught that violate their religious beliefs. One teacher commented in the Post-Gazette survey that a student was sent to the library whenever evolution was taught.
"Here's the goal, but how you get there is a local decision," Ms. Dumaresq said. "Hopefully our schools are teaching evolution to the standards and honoring the court decisions including the Dover case."
Changing public opinion on this topic isn't easy,
In June, Gallup found that 46 percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and that view "is essentially unchanged from 30 years ago when Gallup first asked the questions."
About a third of Americans believe that humans evolved, but with God's guidance, while only 15 percent say humans evolved and God had no part in the process, the poll found.
"I understand why people are uncomfortable with evolution," Mr. Lampe said. "With evolution, uncomfortable things happen. Evolution slowly picks away at ancient certainties and people wonder where it will stop. But in the end, it requires a great deal of intellectual laziness and religious angst to reject it. I understand the discomfort but I wouldn't want to found a research program on creationism."
The continued debate against long-proven scientific principles is a shame, he said, which can do damage to children and their educational prowess.
"Everyone is capable of understanding evolution. There is no reason to dilute or confuse it. Evolution is the greatest thing in science."