House Bill 4224 Would Return "Strengths and Weaknesses" to Texas Science Standards
And Allow Students and Teachers to Express Creationist Beliefs Without Penalty

HB 4224 is the Texas "Academic Freedom" Bill

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 March 14

Newspaper articles about this bill:
Don't Penalize Texas Students for Any Belief About Science, Bill Says

Bypassing state agency rules and governance with special-interest legislation, as recently proposed, for example, to exempt the Institute for Creation Research from state laws governing the awarding of graduate degrees,  is a specialty of Texas religious right-wing Republican legislators. The latest example of this is the attempt by Representative Wayne Christian, Republican of Center, Texas, to return the unscientific "strengths and weaknesses" language to Texas science standards. The unscientific language was recently removed in a very close preliminary vote on January 22 by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).

Rep. Christian is a typical radical religious-right Texas politician. His own Texas House legislative biography says this about him:

As a pro-family conservative, also active in the House Rural Caucus, Texas Conservative Coalition and the House Republican Caucus. Christian is extremely active in the community as a member of the First Baptist Church of Center, Lions International, Gideons International, Promise Keepers and the Christian Coalition.

In fact, Rep. Christian is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) who sympathizes with the seven YEC radical religious-right Republicans on the SBOE. Seeing that his friends were having a problem, Rep. Christian graciously wrote a brief bill that will return the unscientific "strengths and weaknesses" language to Texas science standards. House Bill 4224 (PDF) is an Act "relating to the teaching of science in public schools." It is amazing that Creationist legislators in Texas are always obsessed with the need to legislate "the teaching of science in public schools." Don't they have more important issues to attend to, such as dealing with the global financial crisis and recession which is also affecting Texas citizens?

The three substantive parts of HB 4224 are short and can be reprinted here:

...the State Board of Education by rule shall establish elements relating to instruction on the scientific hypotheses and theories for grades 6-12.

(b) Instructional elements for scientific processes: the student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

(c) Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses;

(d) No governmental entity shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students to understand, analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.

An analysis of this very bad bill is relatively easy. First, subsection (b)  would continue the use of the damaging, unscientific "strengths and weaknesses" language in science standards that Creationists such as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have used in the past (1997 and 2003)  to attack the evolution, origin of life, and fossil history content of biology books submitted for adoption in Texas. This was the specific language that scientists and science educators worked to remove from the science standards during their recent revision which won't be completed until March 27. The TCS website contains many essays and reports about this language and why it is so unscientific and educationally-debilitating; perhaps the most complete is here.

Subsections (c) and (d) contain language similar to that used in several "Academic Freedom" bills that Creationists have tried to pass in several states. So far, only Louisiana has fallen prey to this latest Discovery Institute-inspired strategy to have state legislatures legislate unscientific and harmful science education practices. The general strategy of misnamed "Academic Freedom" bills is to protect the "academic freedom" of both students and teachers to teach, learn about, and express belief in "scientific" information that discusses the "weaknesses," "problems," criticisms," and "controversies" about scientific theories. Sometimes evolution is named and sometimes not.

The information to be taught and learned deals with Creationism, of course, although this is not explicitly named since it would be illegal to do so. The legislators trust the teachers who are Creationists to spread the good word and proselytize their students, a particularly unethical practice in the public schools which should be free of religious proselytization and indoctrination. Also, the bill protects students who want to talk about Creationism in class, as many are taught to do in their Bible schools. I have been expecting a Creationist Academic Freedom bill to be filed in the Legislature this year, and it appears that HB 4224 is that bill.

I have not yet had the opportunity or time to write a detailed analysis of the Creationist Academic Freedom bills since until today Texas has been spared this scientific and academic travesty. As many readers will understand, I have had to devote my attention to other topics of greater priority here in Texas during the past year. So I will have to refer readers to several other analyses of Creationist Academic Freedom bills. Perhaps the most comprehensive is the Wikipedia entry on Academic Free bills. Two dealing specifically with the Louisiana "Science Education Act" are by Barbara Forrest and John Timmer. Finally, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has been reliably covering the various Academic Freedom Bills filed in the various state legislatures. Major bills have been filed in Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, and South Carolina. Only in Louisiana have the Creationists been successful.

If we examine the language of HB 4224, it has several provisions similar to the typical Academic Freedom bills, although unlike those it does not use the term "academic freedom," hoping thereby to escape attention and the opprobrium of those notorious and nasty bills. Even NCSE in its HB 4224 analysis failed to detect that Rep. Christian's bill is an "Academic Freedom" bill. HB 4224 says that students may be evaluated on their understanding of course materials, but they "shall not be penalized in any way" if they "subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses." Since the scientific theory in question is evolution and the students will presumably express their agreement with Creationism rather than evolution, as is the case with approximately 40-50% of Texas high school students (who have been taught to believe Creationist doctrine in their churches and Sunday School classes), the two clauses of subsection (c) are contradictory.

Students and their parents do complain now about being taught evolution in Texas public schools, which is why many Texas biology teachers just avoid the topic, and students would challenge their teachers' assessment of them under the new law if HB 4224 were to pass. Such conflict and discord is exactly what Academic Freedom laws wish to create, because teachers will then feel even more pressured and intimidated to avoid the topic of evolution for all students to avoid criticism in their evaluation of Creationist students.

Subsection (d) is to protect Creationist teachers who want to indoctrinate students about bogus "weaknesses" of evolution. Such teachers are even protected for teaching Creationism outright, since they mendaciously believe that some forms of Creationism, such as Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design Creationism, have "scientific evidence and information" to support them. Inexplicably, the bill would also protect good science teachers who wish to teach the many strengths of biological evolution using legitimate scientific evidence and information. If the bill became law, Creationist parents would not be able to "prohibit" teachers--using the usual means of pressure on superintendents and principals--from helping students understand the scientific explanation for biological diversity, including the origin of humans. With a slight rewriting to remove the unscientific reference to "weaknesses," subsection (d) would actually be a valuable addition to state law that would dramatically improve science education in Texas.

House Bill 4224 has little chance of becoming law. "Strengths and weaknesses" is obviously an unscientific phrase that supports the Creationist agenda, as witnessed by the bitter effort of the seven YEC radical religious right SBOE members to keep it. In 2003, the Discovery Institute and other Creationist organizations used this law to attack the evolution content of biology textbooks, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful. It is true that the phrase has not hurt Texas science education for the past 18 years it has been included in the science standards, but only because scientists and science educators have successfully resisted all Creationist efforts to use it against the accuracy and reliability of science education.

This year, scientists made an effort to take the phrase out of the standards so that it would be more difficult for Creationists to attack science textbooks in Texas. The attacks will continue, of course, no matter what the law says, since the system that allows a small group of people--the SBOE--to choose textbooks for use in Texas schools still exists. A majority votes of this body, only eight individuals, can force publishers to revise (i.e. censor) the scientific content of their science textbooks. But removing the damaging and illegitimate "weaknesses" phrase will make Creationist attacks more difficult and the scientists' defense easier. The law now asks that students "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations," and this is general enough that Creationists will use it to demand that evolutionary biology be "analyzed" and "evaluated" in scientifically unnecessary and duplicitous ways. But science educators will be able to defend textbooks better without having the bogus "weaknesses" to deal with.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 March 18