Long-running Texas evolution debate has big classroom impact

AP News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2017 5:31 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Board of Education on Wednesday voted preliminarily to ease — but not completely eliminate — state high school science curriculum requirements that experts argue cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

How evolution is taught in America's second-largest state has been a point of contention for years, and the issue isn't yet settled. The board will vote again Friday before a final decision in April and could further tweak curriculums either time. Here are answers to key questions on Texas's science curriculum:

Q: What are the current standards?

A: Primarily at issue are four parts of Texas' science curriculum. The most disputed asks biology teachers to have students scrutinize "all sides of scientific evidence" on evolution "so as to encourage critical thinking." Two others mandate lessons exploring the complexity of human cells and the origins of life. The fourth examines gaps in the fossil record that appear to indicate sudden bursts in the development of life, rather than the normally slow evolutionary process — something religious conservatives say shows God could have had a hand in creating life.

The standards were approved in 2009 as an alternative to decades-old curriculums requiring Texas science students to weigh the "strengths and weakness" of scientific theory. They were a compromise between the old standards, which were backed by religious conservatives, and academics who said Texas' curriculum was trying to water down lessons on evolution.

Q: Why are the standards being criticized?

A: Critics say they were adopted for ideological reasons rather than scientific ones, with the intent to cast enough doubt on the theory of evolution that some students will believe in creationism, or that God created life. In November, a 10-member panel of science teachers and academics recommended removing all four requirements, saying they were confusing and time-consuming for students and had little scientific value.

Defenders of the standards say much about the origin and evolution of life remains a mystery and that young Texans should learn critical thinking that challenges even accepted science.

Q: What is Texas doing to resolve this?

A: The Board of Education's 10 Republicans and five Democrats voted Wednesday to remove the "all sides" standard but keep curriculums on cell complexity and the origin of life. It also modified lessons on the fossil record, but kept language that highlights gaps. Academics argue that still leaves room for questioning evolution since discussion of those gaps — and some study of cell makeup and life origins — is built on creationist theories.

Q: Does this impact schools outside Texas?

A: Yes, though perhaps not as much as in the past. Texas, with its 5.3 million-plus public school students, is one of the country's largest purchasers of textbooks — meaning what's taught in the state can influence materials marketed elsewhere. However, school districts across Texas are no longer required to use board-approved books, and some have begun opting not to. Also, technological advances have made editing books easier and given states — and even individual school districts — more electronic choices to suit their individual curriculum needs.

Q: When will this be resolved?

A: On Friday, the board can vote to affirm the changes it approved in the preliminary vote, or to do something else entirely. A final vote will then be necessary during its next meeting in April before any changes take effect.

Q: Hasn't the Texas Board of Education had ideological fights before?

Yes. Academics raised questions about classroom materials exaggerating Christianity's influence on America's Founding Fathers and negatively portraying Muslims when the board last approved history textbooks in 2014. The previous year, board debate over science textbooks sparked controversy on how to teach climate change. In 2010, some Republican members crafted Texas history curriculum standards that emphasized conservative concepts, saying they countered inherent liberal biases in traditional classroom lessons.