Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Evolution in American High Schools

The new issue of PLOS Biology is online. For those of you not familiar with the PLOS journals, the Public Library of Science is a collection of peer-reviewed scientific journals that are freely available online. You can browse the list here.

In the new June 2008 issue is an article describing the current state of teaching high school biology in the U.S. As many of you are already aware, American high-school biology classes, are the crucible in which the current conflict between science and religion is most importantly being waged. While it is illegal to teach creationism or it's renamed twin, intelligent design, in public schools, this has actually not stopped the practice. The article in PLOS Biology provides some interesting data as to why:

About 1 in 6 High-school Biology teachers are young-Earth creationists. The article also shows in other data that some teachers feel community pressure to either gloss over or skip the concept of evolution entirely. 25% of teachers surveyed included creationism or intelligent design in their course curriculum and "nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that they teach creationism as a “valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.”

Regardless of the outcome of high profile cases, such as the Kitzmiller decision, the message is not getting to teachers, or they are just ignoring it, "These findings strongly suggest that victory in the courts is not enough for the scientific community to ensure that evolution is included in high school science courses."

And it's clear that some teachers have had no education in evolutionary biology (it's not clear from the article whether any of the teachers surveyed would welcome one). The recommendation of the paper's authors is an educational standard for biology teachers that includes evolutionary biology, "Our study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses."

One thing is clear, bringing a personal belief in young-Earth creationism to the biology classroom, to mix an ancient mythology with modern science, is not a design of any intelligence that will increase American students' science literacy. Next year is a double Darwin anniversary: the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of The Origin of the Species. It should be the perfect opportunity for high-school teachers to engage their students in the history of evolutionary theory.

Want to take bets that, in the U.S, it won't be?

Instant update: Only 1 hour after posting this, I found a related story at the NY Times.

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