The Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest Charter Schools of Houston
and K12 Curriculum Team Up to Provide Anti-Science Education
for Texas Grades 3-8 Online Distance Education Students
An Investigative Report by Texas Citizens for Science
Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
2008 August 15
Please send comments about this report to the Evo.Sphere Blog on Chron.com.
News articles and editorials about this topic are available.
The Texas Virtual Academy
Texas Citizens for Science learned on August 12 that the Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest (TXVA) was given approval from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to expand its enrollment up to 1,500 students in the major cities of eastern Texas. TXVA is the state's largest Web-based online charter public school program, serving grades 3-8. TXVA is a program of Southwest Schools of Houston, a Texas public charter school. Southwest Schools was founded in 1999 and its online distance school began operations in the 2006-2007 academic year with 171 students. In the 2007-2008 academic year, TEA raised the student cap to 750 and TXVA served 675 students in Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth. The new approval announced August 11 will increase the number of students up to 1,500 and add the cities of Waco, Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill SB 975 (Relating to electronic courses in public schools) directing the TEA to develop information on electronic courses and virtual learning. To implement the new law, the TEA established "Virtual School Pilot" program for the 2001-02 school year. Several school districts, charter schools, and various consortia participated in the pilot. Nearly 2,200 students enrolled in 357 courses including math, science, social studies, and English language arts. This pilot program later grew into the TXVA. In the 2003 Texas Legislature, heavy lobbying by K12 Chairman Bill Bennett in favor of a virtual charter school using the Biblically-based K12 curriculum was not appreciated, and various bills that would have implemented his virtual charter school failed. In the 2005 legislative session, House Bills HB 1263 ("an urban school choice [i.e., voucher] pilot program for certain public school students") and HB 1445 ("the creation and operation of a state virtual school network to provide education to students through electronic means") both failed. Despite the rejection of the virtual charter school program by the Texas Legislature, the program was kept alive on a very small scale by the TEA, which is now expanding it. I am not sure how the TEA has the authority to do this, but it may be under the original 2001 law. Commissioner Robert Scott has kept the Virtual School Pilot program going and is simply expanding it without legislative approval or funding. Apparently, he has the authority to do this since the Legislature has not told him not to.
Charter schools receive their financing from the state, so public tax money is used to fund them rather than local property taxes. The charter school concept was ostensibly established to provide competition to public schools in cities that were not serving their students well, and they are supposed to teach the state's curriculum and follow state education rules, such as those dealing with teacher certification and having a secular educational environment, but these requirements are rarely meant. The true reason for the existence of charter schools is to suck money from the public education system in order to weaken it and to give church-sponsored schools a way to educate students who don't have the money to attend private religious schools. There is no legitimate reason for charter schools to exist; they were initiated to provide a "camel's-nose-under-the-tent" or "stepping stones" solution to eventually obtain private school vouchers for religious schools. When that happens, almost all of the charter schools will convert to private religious schools, cut their ties to the TEA and state regulation, and be as openly sectarian as they want. In Texas, this final goal has not been accomplished, so charter schools have been left in limbo, having to accomplish their mission without obvious support from churches and having to continue to follow state rules, mandates, and curriculum standards. A few charter schools legitimately want to provide a high-quality secular education without religious influence; TCS has been unable to determine the intentions of Southwest Schools in this regard, but skepticism is warranted.
Most people aren't aware of this, but in a narrow and divisive 5-4 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state voucher programs for private religious schools are permissible if the program has a valid secular purpose. About the only such purpose is to provide "educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system." Such situations typically occur only for schools that serve poor neighborhoods in large cities. Since this is the law now, radical state public officials who want to create a state voucher plan--this includes Governor Rick Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and State Representatives Warren Chisum and Charlie Howard--have done everything they can to weaken public schools in urban areas, such as start charter schools to take students from them and reduce the public schools' financing, keep teacher pay low, create disruptive new administrative rules (such as the 65% rule), fault schools that don't have enough hard-to-find certified teachers, and require lots of testing that some poor, urban public schools will fail. If urban public schools can be seen as failing, vouchers in that city become legal. Craddick and his then henchman, State Representative Kent Grusendorf, tried to get such a program through the legislature in 2005, but failed on a very close vote. Since that failure, religious right radical state officials have put their money, both figuratively and literally speaking, into the virtual charter school online education program. Here they have had considerably more success.
Distance education (or distance learning) is an accepted means of delivering instruction to students who are unable or find it difficult to attend a local physical school or cannot attend such a school during the working day. I was the creator and instructor for the largest distance science education program in Houston during 1990-1994 for Houston Community College and am a firm advocate of this type of instruction for individuals who require it. However, distance education is usually used by working college students and adults who find it difficult to attend physical classes in the city or sometimes by young students who live in geographically widespread areas. There is a place for online learning and educational technologies, but these are not appropriate for children in grades 3-8. Young students need adult supervision and instruction; distance learning is for older students who have already developed the necessary study skills, self-discipline, and motivation to learn on their own. Speaking from over two decades of teaching experience, only college-aged and older students usually have these capabilities.
So there are no good reasons for young students of grades 3-8 in Texas cities--who live in a relatively small urban area with plenty of local schools, have the availability of bussing, and who are free during the normal working day to attend school--to obtain an education using a virtual online program. This makes the concept of an urban online distance education program for grades 3-8 in Texas highly suspect. In fact, the existence of this virtual instructional program has another purpose--its true but hidden purpose.
True Purpose of Online Virtual Education for Young Students
I explained the purpose of this virtual program in 2003:
The virtual charter schools program being considered by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is nothing more than a virtual home school vouchers program. The intent of its sponsors is to allow parents--primarily fundamentalist and evangelical Christian parents--the means to educate their children using a Christian curriculum at state expense.
I wasn't the only one who recognized this. The Austin Chronicle in 2003 said
Despite repeated rejections of "virtual charter schools"--using public school funds for online home-schooling--[the State Board of Education is set to approve the program] at a potential cost of millions of dollars in public school funds.
Carolyn Boyle, Coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools in 2003 said the same. Boyle made the point in 2005 that the state-financed virtual charter school program for home-schooling families (almost all of whom are Christian Fundamentalists who believe in Biblical Inerrancy and Young Earth Creationism) was a "deliberate maneuver to serve as a 'government bailout' for [James] Leininger," who I term the "Paymaster of the Radical Republican Religious Right." Leininger has over the years given over half a million dollars in campaign contributions to Republican legislators and SBOE members who share his extreme views on private school vouchers and antipathy to evolutionary science. For example, he financially supported all seven of the current rogue faction of Young Earth Creationists on the State Board who are causing all the problems for public education in Texas, such as illegally rejecting math textbooks, refusing to adopt scholarly and substantive standards for the new Bible course, mishandling the English standards revision, promising to damage biology standards in the upcoming science standards revision, and publicly insulting working teachers. Governor Rick Perry has received large campaign contributions from James Leininger, they have consulted together in private meetings, and Perry strongly supports Leininger public education policies. The appointment of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE is one example of Gov. Perry's willingness to further Leininger's extreme policies.
In 2003, Boyle made several points that are just as true today as they were then. She said Texas taxpayers
cannot afford new taxes to support online home-schooling via virtual charter schools [when] the state is experiencing a school funding crisis, and budgets are being slashed at all our neighborhood public schools. [The state funding crisis is over now due to high oil prices, but there is still inadequate state funding for public schools.]
cannot afford to purchase computers to be delivered to the homes of virtual charter school students, as well as pay their monthly Internet fees. [This money is available, but would be taken from public school funds and given directly to parents in the manner of vouchers.]
[F]urther research is needed over a longer time period to determine the educational benefits of electronic courses and appropriate funding and accountability structures. [There are] serious questions about whether young children can benefit from online courses and if the state budget could support a large demand for online home-schooling.
Virtual charter schools cannot meet No Child Left Behind standards of having a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom [since a parent will be the student's primary day-to-day teacher. A certified teacher is supposed to contact the parent and student online, but this is obviously inadequate.]
Another education watchdog in 2006, Karen Miller of the Houston area, said, "This is, more or less, subsidies to home schoolers to make money when the program has no proven benefits and high costs."
In short, the only real purpose of a virtual online distance program for grades 3-8 is to operate as a very un-virtual vouchers program to pump very real money into the religious family home-school network, thereby taking money from the legitimate public school system and weakening it even more. Before now, parents who wanted to opt out of public education and to home school (or private-school) their children had to take on the cost themselves as an extra expense and not forgo their traditional societal obligation to support the public education system for all children which has been the policy in the United States since the late nineteenth century. The virtual charter school concept is an insidious program, because it will difficult for opponents to prove the religious purpose of the new program, since it is embedded in the already existing system of charter schools, which supposedly has a secular purpose (but really doesn't). Perhaps there is one way, however, to demonstrate why the Texas Virtual Academy has a religious motive that makes it unconstitutional.
The K12 Curriculum and William Bennett
A virtual instructional program needs an appropriate online, technology-based curriculum. The one chosen by the Texas Virtual Academy is the one developed by K12, a politically-connected corporation located in Virginia outside Washington, DC. From 1991 to 1995, its CEO, figurehead, and principle spokesman was William Bennett, former Secretary of Education for Ronald Reagan and Drug Czar for George H. W. Bush and well-know Conservative author. During the 2003 Texas Legislature, Bennett made several trips to Austin to lobby for money and state approval of his virtual charter school, which at the time only existed as a small pilot project. However, he "was defeated on three separate bills during the  legislative session. He visited the Capitol twice during the session to personally lobby on behalf of virtual charter schools. In the first vote on virtual charters, the House voted to not bring the issue back the entire session because there was such strong opposition to it." The SBOE eventually took the program and gradually implemented and expanded it in opposition to the Legislature's intentions (sound familiar?). There was one benefit of this: Bennett asked that the Legislature exempt students from taking standardized tests and conforming to the state curriculum standards (the TEKS, or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). In effect, there was to be no accountability, which is what home-school parents want. The SBOE, however, could not abridge its own requirements so openly, so right now the Texas Virtual Academy must conform to the TEKS and administer the standardized TEA tests so online students must meet state accountability standards. But more on this later.
Research conducted by TCS in 2003 revealed that William Bennett's K12 curriculum distorted the topic of evolution and was thus anti-scientific. The distortion was by design, not by accident. The following statements reveal Bennett's pseudoscientific objectives:
"We're centered in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we do not ignore faith and religion, we do not ignore the arguments against evolution, because there are some."
You mentioned evolution. How does the curriculum does address the topic?
"[W]e're not up to that [age group] yet. I think what we'll say is, Here's evolution, this is a definition, this is what other people think, this is what a lot of the scientific community thinks, this is what a lot of the criticisms are. You decide, parent and child, working your way through this how you want to evaluate this." (Bill Bennett's Online Schoolhouse, 2001)
[A]ccording to Bennett, the science curriculum presents evolution, creationism, and intelligent design as equally tenable explanations for the existence of life. (Rating the Bennett Curriculum, 2001)
The K12 curriculum at that time reached the fifth grade without mentioning evolution. That is not unusual for any public school curriculum. However, Bennett obviously planed to misrepresent the true scientific nature and stature of the topic of evolution in his curriculum, and this is plainly wrong. The only possible reason to distort science in a home school curriculum is to pander to Fundamentalist and Literalist Christians who believe in Creationism rather than evolution. Bennett's virtual home school curriculum is explicitly "centered in the Judeo-Christian tradition" and today that is a code-phrase for omitting or distorting evolution. In the final analysis, William Bennett's K12 science curriculum will be an educational disaster from the viewpoint of legitimate modern science, and it is therefore not acceptable for adoption by any state that values quality science education for its students, as the Texas governor claims it does.
But the story doesn't end there, of course. William Bennett wrote The Book of Virtues, but lived a moderately unvirtuous life. He was a notorious slot machine and video poker gambling addict who lost millions of dollars (his book contains this aphorism: "We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing...[We] need ... to set definite boundaries on our appetites."). He secretly smoked cigarettes while telling his wife he had quit. But the worst indulgence came when he said "it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could--if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." If you don't understand why this statement is horribly racist, Bennett could have said the same thing about aborting babies who would have grown up in lives of poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods, with single or teenage parents, and no one would have complained about his rhetorically "modest" suggestion (he didn't really mean it, of course, any more than Jonathan Swift did for his modest proposal; Bennett is a Catholic and opposes abortion). By unjustifiably particularizing on skin color, this was the final bigoted straw, and Bennett had to resign from the board of K12 in 2005. Amazingly, Bennett later attempted to justify his statement as a "thought experiment...taken out of context." He just doesn't get it.
The Continuing Suppression of Evolution in the K12 Curriculum
It would be nice to report that the new leaders of K12 learned from Bill Bennett's negative lesson and repudiated his anti-science statements, knowing that he possessed poor judgment in this as in other things. But unfortunately that did not happen. Instead, the officers of K12, led by co-founder (with Bill Bennett) Ron Packard and CEO Andrew Tisch, continue to derogate and diminish evolution in science instruction. Here's the proof. The Lawrence, Kansas, Virtual School uses the K12 curriculum. In 2005, the local paper, the Lawrence Journal-World, interviewed parents and teachers about the topic of evolution, which is introduced to students in the seventh grade.
Phrases such as "scientists think" and words like "might" are used throughout the K12 lesson on the origin of life on earth.
"We deal with the theory of evolution as a theory -- not a fact," K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said. "We believe that the theory of evolution is accepted scientific theory. So, we believe it's important for kids to have the opportunity to learn and understand evolution as a theory. We're very clear with the parents about it."
Parents have the opportunity to view this curriculum even before working with their child, Kwitowski said.
Lloyd said even when parents discuss evolution, they could use it as a base to discuss other theories, such as intelligent design, or their own personal beliefs.
There are a fair number of deliberate distortions here about evolution and the origin of life introduced by the K12 curriculum. First, weasel words such as "scientists think" and "might" are not appropriate when introducing and explaining new scientific topics to students. Scientists consider scientific knowledge appropriately presented in the seventh grade to be as reliable and accurate as the most truthful knowledge that humans possess. This includes evolution, which scientists believe to be a fact. It is simply inaccurate to say that "evolution is a theory, not a fact." The occurrence of evolution is a fact and the mechanism of evolution is a scientific theory, and even that is as factual as anything students might learn in their entire lives. The K12 circumlocutions about evolution are deceitful and very anti-educational, not to mention shameful.
There's more. As described by Jeff Melcher of Pegasus News in 2007,
By 2003 backlash mobilized against virtual schools. Critics asserted that efforts to extend schooling beyond the bricks-and-mortar model were a mask to allow "parents--primarily fundamentalist and evangelical Christian parents--the means to educate their children using a Christian curriculum at state expense." In particular, attacks against the commercially-developed [K12] offerings singled out former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett. It was charged virtual schools would "pander to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who believe in creationism rather than evolution. Bennett's virtual home school curriculum is explicitly based on Judeo-Christian traditions, and today that is a code-phrase for diminishing or distorting evolution." [He quotes me twice without citation--SDS.]
Apparently, to whatever extent the criticisms were taken at face value, the State Board of Education's reaction was, "That's not a bug, that's a feature." A broad number of optional courses were established within the core curriculum, and parents began picking and choosing among menus of school subjects.
So true. The SBOE and TEA made the program more flexible and allowed parents to choose the courses they wanted. Also, as it turned out, parents could accept or reject specific topics within state-required courses, such as biology. The state education agency's purpose was to encourage parents to enter their children into the TXVA so the program would succeed. TXVA receives $4,900 per student each year, the same amount a physical public or charter school receives. Depending on the cost of the instructional materials and hardware, there is a tremendous profit to be made if these items can be amortized over many years. Test results for the TXVA in 2006-2007 were mixed: while reading scored the same as the physical charter schools, math was slightly less, and science was very far behind, averaging 40% on the TAKS exams while the physical schools' students averaged 70%. I do not have more recent data, but their consideration would be highly useful. The individuals who evaluated the initial TXVA test results thought they were favorable, but they certainly were not for science.
But wait, there's more. TCS examination of the TXVA curriculum for eighth grade Earth science, seventh grade science, and sixth grade science reveals disturbing results. For all three, the curriculum is terse and superficial (although this is not necessarily a problem). Earth science omits types of dating, measurements of deep time, and the ancient age of rocks, fossils, and the Earth, and there is no section that discusses fossils. Both the sixth- and seventh-grade science curricula contain a section titled "History of Life on Earth," and lists the following: "origin of life on earth, evidence for change over time, natural selection, the origin of new species." This is obviously quite satisfactory, but seventh-grade omits any mention of the e-word. Strangely, sixth-grade science mentions "05modern views of evolution [sic]," which appears to have been added later; I don't know what the "05" means or why it crept in. I conclude from examining these three sections and the discussion above that the current version of the K12 curriculum covers evolution, but apparently uses euphemisms ("change over time") and avoids the e-word. Also, an improper formulation of evolution is going to be given to students, presenting it as a "theory" (in a popular sense without the adjective "scientific") rather than as a scientific theory or fact. Biological evolution is as factual as the best and most reliable knowledge that humans possess and should not be qualified, euphemized, or dissembled to students, especially within an academic setting. Doing so will cause students to not only misunderstand or not learn the most important fact of biology (evolution, in case you didn't know)--which includes human life and existence--but also cause students to misunderstand or reject the scientific outlook, attitude, and spirit, which is frankly more important than any specific subject knowledge (which can easily be looked up online). Students must understand why scientists have confidence in their understanding of nature, and this especially includes knowledge of evolutionary biology.
The Unadvertised TEA Opt-Out of Evolution Policy
Now we come to the final item in K12's catalog of errors which generated the most attention. When my loyal Houston correspondent sent me the information about TXVA and K12 on August 12, it included this:
How does Ką˛ teach Evolution?
The concepts of evolution and creationism do not come up in grades K-2. In later grades, we teach evolution as a theory broadly accepted in the scientific community as an organizing theory of biology. We believe that a complete education includes understanding the basics of what this theory is about, even if one disagrees with it. Ką˛ emphasizes that parents have every right to explain to their children why they do or do not accept the theory and what they believe instead, including the concept of creationism. If parents aren't interested in any teachings surrounding the theory of evolution, they can skip these lessons.
Subsequently, two Austin journalists and bloggers on August 14--Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer in "Evolution is Optional" and Margaret Downing of The Houston Press in "You Can Ignore Evolutionary Theory in Texas"--each published independent columns about this item. Both journalists correctly discuss the expansion of the TXVA and report that according to original K12 materials instruction about evolution is optional. Wilder mentions that according to Texas education law, the Texas science standards (the TEKS--Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) require that each "student knows the theory of biological evolution." Both then quote TEA spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe to the effect that although students can opt out of evolution instruction, they are still responsible for learning all the topics required by curriculum standards (in this case, evolutionary theory) and they "could" be tested on it (in this case, in the 10th grade end-of-course biology exam--formerly the 11th grade TAKS test). Downing also reports that Ratcliffe says that evolution is not required in Texas in the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades, but only in high school, principally in biology in tenth grade, which is not a grade for which the TXVA is available. This is all correct and true information.
Wilder reports that Debbie Ratcliffe "said she’s never heard of a public school advertising an opt-out policy for evolution." However, what Debbie Ratcliffe conveyed is old information. It has been the case for decades--as long as I can remember, and I started my work in 1980--that students can get permission from their parents to skip evolution instruction in biology class in Texas (or any other topic, for that matter, that parents object to, such as sex education in a health class), but are responsible for learning the material for exams. This is an official TEA policy, but is not advertised to the public. Teachers and administrators are supposed to learn about it from in-service instruction of state education policies or by phoning or writing the TEA's Science Curriculum Director, and if students ask, the policy is explained.
So, with K12's policy, parents can skip evolution lessons, but in Texas virtual charter students will still be responsible for the information on state exams. What is a parent to do? Unfortunately, that question is easily answered, because the TEA has a dirty little secret. It has been the practice for as long as standardized Texas biology exams have existed to omit, diminish, or euphemize questions about evolution on these state tests. The TAKS 11th grade science test, for example, typically has no questions about evolution, even though it should have several. Rarely it contains a question about natural selection, adaptation, or change through time, but never a question about the e-word. This practice has been unofficial and very unadvertised TEA policy for as long as I remember. Teachers and administrators are not told of this policy, but many know of it anyway because part of teachers' training is to review old TAKS exams. I have interviewed plenty of biology teachers and TEA staff members about this. In Midland, where I live, the high school biology teachers were told by their district's science supervisor during a district in-service that examination of the previous biology TAKS exam revealed that no questions about evolution were asked, so teachers had her permission to leave this topic until last in the spring schedule, after students took the test, which meant that the topic would not be covered at all due to end of the semester time constraints. Since biology teachers know that evolution will not really be tested in Texas, there is no motivation to teach it. If the Christine Comer v. TEA lawsuit ever goes to trial, much more information about this and other anti-science TEA policies will be revealed under oath during deposition and trial.
The continuing fact that evolution is not tested in state TAKS or the new end-of-course exams is the primary mechanism used to suppress evolution education in the Texas public school science curriculum. Biology teachers do not really feel obligated to teach about evolution since they know it will not be tested. Less than half of Texas's biology teachers include evolution instruction, but only because they know it is a vital part of modern biology, not because their students will be tested about it on standardized tests. Of course, responsible teachers who have students who plan to go to college or take the Advanced Placement biology exam teach evolution because those students will be tested about it. This group of students is not a majority, so most Texas students never learn about evolution.
Do I have to mention that the MISD science supervisor was a Creationist? So are the science supervisors of many school districts in Texas, and the biology department chairs of my local community colleges, such as Midland and Odessa Colleges. When I worked at Houston Community College in the 1980s, I was asked by my supervisor, the HCC science chair, to go easy on evolution because a student had complained to her that I taught it (well, it was in the book!). I refused to do that, of course. I estimate that evolution is actually taught in no more than half of the biology classes in Texas, and in many of the others it is taught perfunctorily and hesitatingly without enthusiasm. Does this attitude affect students' appreciation of other sciences? You bet it does.
Even more problematic are the efforts inside the TEA assessment division to put questions about the "weaknesses of evolution" on the new biology end-of-course exams. These questions are scientifically unjustified and would be illegal, since the so-called "weaknesses" of evolution are bogus and were generated by Creationists with an agenda to damage science education in Texas. Unfortunately, the current TEA is now under the compete control of religious right-wing radicals with just such an agenda. The mainstream employees who possessed a conscience and the will to resist heavy-handed anti-science measures have mostly been purged, and those that are left are frightened and wary. The TEA assessment, curriculum, and instruction divisions have lost over a dozen experienced and mainstream top staff members since the radical religious right SBOE members led by Chair Don McLeroy and Commissioner Robert Scott (appointed by Gov. Rick Perry) seized control of the agency one year ago. These individuals were replaced with former Bush administration staffers and others who will follow Gov. Perry and Comm. Scott's policies without questions. They are currently actively searching for ways to promote bogus "weaknesses" of evolution and, by default, Intelligent Design Creationism using their positions as public officials. There is nothing citizens of Texas can do about this except by the ballot box. A few lawsuits are coming up, but they may have little or no effect for various legal reasons even if the litigation is successful. I urge readers to investigate which of the seven radical religious rightwing SBOE members have opponents this November and support those opponents. Our best hope is that the Texas Legislature will again strip the SBOE of the powers it uses to damage education in Texas. The SBOE has thumbed its nose at the Legislature on many occasions during the past year, and perhaps the legislators will finally become fed up.
I don't expect journalists to know the history and subtle policies about evolutionary science education in Texas, but I certainly know them because I have had to deal with them for 28 years. It took five years to get the anti-evolution stickers out of the biology textbooks in Texas. It took six additional years to finally get excellent biology textbooks that really covered evolution into Texas biology classrooms (the students don't read them, of course, but that is another problem). It took six more years to get evolution into the Texas science standards. I spent two years defending the biology textbooks from attacks of Creationists, then several more years investigating the radical religious right take-over of the SBOE, and I am spending this year trying to defend and improve our state's science standards. This is a slow, cumulative process, so I judge that by the time I am 70 and ready to retire, I will have been able to spend a few years trying to get Texas biology teachers to teach evolution in the classrooms. These teachers are so intimidated and frightened by parents, school administrators, local school board members, members of the State Board of Education, and legislators--many of whom are Creationists and vocally don't want evolution taught in Texas public schools, and won't support biology teachers if parents complain--that they have rationally decided to either minimize, euphemize, or omit evolution instruction in their classes just to save their jobs and peace of mind. Can you blame them?
If you want Texas science education to be first-rate, to be 21st century science education rather than 19th century, and if the information in this report makes you cringe, then welcome to the club. I feel the same way.
Updated, 2008 August 20: Some of my replies to comments on the Evo.Sphere blog are posted here for easier access with the original Investigative Report. Comments are indented, my replies are not.
"You appear to have things exactly [backward]. It is evolution that is the theory, and the mechanism of evolution that is the fact. Inheritance, mutation, recombination, genetic drift, etc. have all been confirmed in the laboratory and observed in nature. Evolution is the best explanation we have of the facts, the apparently relatedness and shared genes amongst all known life on earth."
I appreciate your point, but I hold to my description of the fact and theory of evolution. Of course mutation, recombination, natural selection, and genetic drift are facts, but so is evolution. All of these facts and many others explain how evolution works: that's the theory. Scientific theories are built on facts--reliable knowledge derived from corroborated hypotheses. Scientific theories are unifying and predictive constructs or models that explain natural phenomena. Evolution is defined as the systematic change in gene frequencies through time in species populations. Do you doubt that such change is and has occurred? That's the fact of evolution. But why, how, when, and where it occurs is the scientific theory of evolution. This terminology is confusing because we use the same name for both the natural process and scientific theory that explains it.
The Investigative Report is too political; "I expected your article to discuss the evolution curriculum, but instead it was a political tome."
This article is an investigative report; it's going to have a political tone. As I wrote in my first post, everything in Texas is political, and that includes science education. Let me put it this way: in Texas, I can't discuss the evolution curriculum without also discussing political motives. Do you think elected public officials in Texas are making decisions about and distributing money for everything, not just education, on a fair, just, rational, and scientific basis while putting their personal ideological and religious motives aside?
Public education in Texas is bad so charter and virtual schools are a good idea.
You criticize public education in Texas for several reasons. I don't disagree with you, but one solution is to improve public education, not take money from it to give to alternative charter, virtual, and religious schools. One way to improve public education is to remove the political interference in the system and give teachers control of their classrooms. I continue to claim that the reason some Texas politicians set up alternatives to the secular public school system is to weaken that system so that the sectarian private education system may prosper instead, and I think there are many societal, pedagogical, and legal reasons to oppose this agenda.
It is "simply untrue" that the TXVA uses the "discredited K12 curriculum once promoted by William Bennett."
Contrary to your claim, the TXVA does indeed use the K12 curriculum once promoted by William Bennett that I discredited in 2003. It has been improved considerably in the last five years; among other things, the topic of evolution has been strengthened, and that is a good thing, but not enough. As I discussed in great detail, however, the K12 curriculum continues to misrepresent the topic of evolution, terming it a theory rather than a fact that is essential for every biology student to understand. I documented that it uses the weasel words of "scientists think" and "might" when presenting evolution. K12 states: "K12 emphasizes that parents have every right to explain to their children why they do or do not accept the theory and what they believe instead, including the concept of creationism. If parents aren't interested in any teachings surrounding the theory of evolution, they can skip these lessons." This presentation and policy are all discreditable, so I claim the current K12 curriculum remains discredited.
Let me be clear about this since obviously you don't understand: it is scientifically impermissible and discreditable for a science curriculum writer to give parents the option to ignore an essential scientific topic. It is impossible to understand biology without understanding evolution, and to blatantly allow parents to "skip" evolution is educationally discreditable. The right to allow students to "skip" evolution is legitimately granted by the Texas Education Agency, not by the curriculum publisher, and even the TEA claims (disingenuously, I admit) that students are still responsible for learning the material.
Although Texas standardized tests omit, diminish, or euphemize questions about evolution, "students still need to know about evolution for the College Board biology tests and college courses in biology."
Your statement that students still need to know about evolution for the College Board biology tests and college courses in biology is true. I never claimed otherwise. My entire point is that the TEA is willfully damaging students' biology educations by its anti-evolution opt-out and non-testing policy. Students who plan to do well in college biology will have to learn evolution outside of a Texas high school biology classroom if necessary.
Questions about evolutionary weaknesses on state tests "are not illegal, but should be balanced by questions about the strengths of evolution."
Questions about bogus "weaknesses" of evolution on a state biology test are illegal because such weaknesses don't exist, so the only reason to require them is for anti-evolution religious reasons. This violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and that makes the practice illegal. High school students don't have time to learn about the legitimate scientific controversies concerning evolution, because these are very advanced subjects. They should only be exposed to the evolutionary concepts in which scientists have great confidence, and there are enough of these to fill up the entire year of biology with just these "strengths" of evolution. There is plenty of information available on the Web that documents that the Creationist "weaknesses" are false and ludicrous.
"I doubt that [anti-science TEA policies] are even mentioned in Comer's complaint and they cannot justify her behavior, anyway."
The Comer lawsuit and TEA's response all focus on official but unwritten anti-science TEA policies, and they will all come out in deposition and a trial. You obviously have not read these documents. Plenty of witnesses will be available to document the existence of these policies. Your statement that TEA policies "cannot justify her behavior" is untrue. All Comer did was forward a memo about an upcoming science presentation, and for that she was forced to resign. Do you really think such "behavior" is unjustifiable?
"You criticize political interference in the education system..."
Some political control of education is vital in a democracy. Citizens express their desires and goals through their elected public officials. But wise public officials rely on the knowledge and advice of experts to guide them in making decisions. The current Texas crop of hard religious right governor, legislators, and State Board of Education members, on the other hand, have made abundantly clear their contempt for curriculum experts, teachers, and education professors in many fields, including English, health, history, social studies, environmental science, math, and biology. These politicians have very limited knowledge of the educational subjects they control and they intend to make decisions based only on their political policy objectives, not on real educational needs or problems. So the problem is one of degree and wisdom, not the fact of political control.
Charter schools and traditional public schools are supposed to do exactly the same thing with the same amount of money and under the same state regulations. So why do we have charter schools? The public school system is susceptible to change through elected local school board members and their appointed superintendent and district administration. Parents can visit their children's teachers and relate their goals for these students. I explained my hypothesis for charter and virtual schools' existence--that they are stepping stones to take public tax money to weaken the public school system to ultimately fund religious institutions via a private school voucher program. I respect your right to disagree with me. I am aware of a very few charter schools in this country that started to actually provide a better or more focused education than traditional schools, but these are a minority. Where I live, most charter schools are associated with churches and were started to get children of a single religion out of the public schools. I believe they are waiting for vouchers--just one more Supreme Court decision will clear the way.
"The charter schools and other reforms return more control to the teachers and parents."
I am in favor of more teacher control of their own classrooms. To the extent that charter schools give teachers more control, then I am in favor of it. Of course, I am assuming in this case that the teachers will present good, secular, mainstream instruction and not openly proselytize. Texas has state standards. Other states have their very different standards. Even Conservative Republicans are advocating that states voluntarily adopt similar curriculum standards. Almost all industrialized countries on the planet have better K-12 public education systems that achieve better results than the U.S. All of these countries have national standards.
"Evolution remains a theory..."
I agree with you that evolution is a scientific theory. The reasons you cite for the power and veracity of evolution are the same ones I use. Evolution is also a fact. As I explained, we use the same term for both. I don't shove it down people's throats. I never taught more about evolution than the curriculum demanded (because there is so much else to cover). I have voluntarily become an advocate for evolution education because it is being politically censored in Texas schools for religious reasons. The public school system should be secular. My point is that evolution is not being taught in Texas very much at all. The topic is being openly and deliberately downgraded and ignored. This is one reason why Texas and U.S. students compare so unfavorably with the students of other countries on standardized biology exams. This situation is hurting our children's education and damaging our country's ability to compete in biotechnology and medical research.
"Amish children, Eskimo children, or Apache children raised and living in their native cultures are not victims of pedagogical mistakes." Similarly, Fundamentalist Christian children will do okay with their specialized and limited K-12 education. Why do you object?
Your argument about children of unique and isolated cultures obtaining specific K-12 educations that match their culture is fine. I agree with you. Religious and ethnic children in our very diverse country often get the idiosyncratic education that their parents want, and I have no argument with that. I believe in personal choice and freedom of conscience, as you do. My point is that biology education in Texas public schools is being systematically injured and dumbed-down due to the religious influence of elected officials who have no scruples about promoting their own religious and ideological agendas in ways that affect all students by censoring their science educations. Most students and their parents in Texas want their children to receive a high-quality, 21st century science education so they are able to compete in our increasingly technologically-advanced society, but the public officials are preventing that!
"This blog is a place where you have allowed an ideological extremist to falsely pose as a representative voice of Science to the public."
I am not extreme, but fairly represent the scientific position. Most scientists don't have the time, inclination, or knowledge to do what I do, and it needs to be done, because science is under political attack in this state and the only way to defend it is in the realm of public discourse. It can't be defended by writing editorials in scientific journals or addressing Creationists on the State Board of Education for three minutes once every six years. I have very strong support from scientists in Texas, including the most eminent biologists in the state. These individuals spend 14-16 hours a day doing science in Texas universities and Medical Schools and don't have the time to deal with people like you. Frankly, neither do I. I am responding to you because it is my responsibility as a blog writer, not because I think it will do any good.
"I condemn this blog, and the choice of Mr. Schafersman. I will be discussing this blog as well as his organization with Texas legislative leaders this week to make sure the status of his position and organization is well understood by the House and Senate members."
I am as afraid of your condemnation and naked threats as being excommunicated or having a thunderbolt thrown at me. Don't bother discussing my organization or me with Texas legislators; they already know me and agree with me. They don't want Texas to be thought of as a scientific backwater. If you actually had substantive arguments or real evidence against what I write about, you would use that rather than threatening to complain about me to legislators, as if that will do you any good. I will let readers investigate the two of us from our words and decide which one of us is telling the truth about science, evolution, and education in Texas.
"Instead of this blog discussing evolution, it seems to be a political forum. The moderator here is much more of a politician than a scientist....This is the least effective of the new forums,...and I think it will remain so as long as a politician, instead of a scientist, runs it."
You must be new here. I have said from the beginning and documented the fact that science education is politically controlled in Texas and is under political attack by Young Earth Creationists on the State Board of Education. There have been dozens of news stories about this in the past year. My job in this forum is to write about evolution and education in Texas, and that requires discussion of the political motives of the public officials who have official authority in those areas. I did write one column about an evolutionary scientific topic, and will write more in the future, but my emphasis will be on education. I really wish I could write just about science as you desire, but unfortunately this is not possible in Texas at this moment.
"I find it astonishing that someone who claims to be pro-science would have trouble with saying 'scientists think' in regards to scientific thought."
This is only wrong when the instructional material uses this phrase consistently and only about the topic of evolution. The K12 material doesn't use this phrase about gravity ("Scientists think the force of gravity pulls apples to Earth when they fall from trees."), genes ("Scientists think humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes."), respiration ("Scientists think oxygen is necessary for animals to utilize energy stored in chemical bonds in nutrients."), anatomy ("Scientists think the heart is the organ that is responsible for blood circulation"), and hundreds of other scientific topics. In this context, the phrase "scientists think" is helpfully provided by the K12 curriculum providers to immunize the evolutionary fact being presented from the delicate minds of students whose Creationist parents don't want their religious beliefs unnecessarily impugned. The same thing happened to Galileo: he was condemned by his day's religious authorities and told to write "hypothetically" about his new discoveries rather than present them as fact.
"Wise public officials don't need technocrats to tell them what is going on in a public school system they spent 12 years in, plus usually another 4 or more years of higher education with the best products of public education beyond that."
Public officials are the technocrats if they have the technological or specialized knowledge they need to make decisions. Most don't. I think they should rely on the specialized knowledge of scientists and science teachers when making decisions about the specific content of science curriculum standards. That's really a very modest suggestion, but it isn't being followed in Texas. Several SBOE members have announced publicly that they intend to keep the anti-scientific language in the new and revised standards and to weaken the evolution section even more.
I personally would rely on the specialized knowledge of English teachers and curriculum experts for the specific content of English standards, and the specialized knowledge of mathematicians and math teachers for math standards. I have even more education than you suggest is needed, and I wouldn't feel qualified to make such important decisions without relying on experts. The right-wing members of the SBOE, on the other hand, have no knowledge and little education about many of the topics for which they make very, very bad decisions, because they are ideologically driven. That should concern you.
"Rather than the charter schools being stepping stones to funding of religious education through vouchers, they are attempts to divert the drive to vouchers in a way that keeps the funds in the public school system."
This is a good point. I am sure you are right that some public officials had this motivation when they approved taking money from the public schools and giving it to charter schools. However, every other industrialized country on the planet has public schools that are doing a better job than we are and they have not felt the need to add charter schools in addition. So I really think there are more things we could have done to improve public schools before going the charter school route. I continue to believe that most officials had religiously-inspired motives when they approved charter schools.
Creationists make up 45% of the U.S. population. That is larger than every minority group I can think of. They certainly do have the right to, as you say, "fight for a share of the resources that they have contributed to" and fight for their views to be expressed in biology classrooms. First they have to amend the Constitution to remove the Establishment Clause and turn the U.S. from a secular democracy to a theocracy. Or they might want to try a taxpayer revolt that forces the Federal, State, and local governments to capitulate. They have already tried every possible legal theory in Federal and State courts and lost. The charter school program is their best current effort to eventually obtain vouchers, and the virtual academy network now gives them their best chance to teach their children Creationism at state expense.
I agree with your discussion of solutions to improving our public schools. I also have solutions I could suggest, such as banning student use of television and cell phones during the school week and more creative use of psychological behavior reinforcing and modification techniques. But I won't go into detail about these.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2008 August 20