News Reports about the Public and Expert Testimony, Debate, and Votes
on the Inclusion of "Strengths and Weaknesses" in Science Standards
Texas State Board of Education Hearings
2009 January 21-23

Compiled by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 January 27

Board to vote on evolution teaching

By Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 01/21/2009
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/Ed_board_to_vote_today_on_teaching_of_evolution.html

AUSTIN -- Science and religion collide today when the State Board of Education takes a preliminary vote on curriculum standards that could affect the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools for the next decade.

The argument hinges on a single word: weaknesses.

A panel of science experts has recommended that teachers no longer be required to present the "strengths and weaknesses" of various theories, including evolution.

Instead, the proposed science curriculum standards would encourage students to use critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Some parents and experts insist the "weaknesses" of scientific theory ? be taught as a matter of academic freedom, scientific inquiry and a search for truth.

Others contend the "weaknesses" provision simply is a backdoor attempt to legitimize "creationism" or "intelligent design" -- a concept that an intelligent being is responsible for the complex structure of biology rather than chance or undirected natural processes.

"Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates," said Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute.

The Seattle-based institute opposes evolution and promotes intelligent design.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group that supports public education, religious freedom and individual liberties, countered that "strengths and weaknesses are the cultural code words for undermining evolution and promoting creationism."

Miller said the "strengths and weaknesses" standard is a test balloon for a new political strategy to overcome court rulings banning the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

A narrow board vote is expected, with social conservatives intent on keeping the existing "strengths and weaknesses" language in the science curriculum standards.

The board didn't debate the issue Wednesday, but is expected to do so today.

Board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said she's "waiting for an example of where creation or intelligent design has been forced on teachers."

San Antonio parent Angela Weissgarber told the board that students should be able to question theories such as evolution, and that the absence of the "weaknesses" provision would chill the learning environment.

"All high school science classes should provide an environment that encourages our students to question and inquire instead of promoting silence and intimidation without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind," she said.

David Muralt, an Austin-based civil engineer, told the board there is no factual scientific proof that complex life came from disorder and chance.

"Teaching students that they evolved and are nothing more than animals, degrades their quality of life and robs them of meaning and purpose of life," Muralt said. "The fruits of this God-denying teaching are lying, cheating, stealing, promiscuity, chemical abuse, suicide, crime of all sorts and a reduction in academic achievement."

The board's policy on science curriculum standards will influence new science textbooks and "creation-inspired nonsense" would disadvantage Texas students, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, told the board.

She predicted publishers would have to produce a Texas edition for science textbooks.

"They will (include) any kind of nonsense that you want in it," Scott said. "The classroom is no place to fight the cultural wars."

Ronald Wetherington, Southern Methodist University anthropology professor, told the board that the alleged weaknesses of evolution have been debunked.

He said Texas schoolchildren "will be exposed to false knowledge" by keeping the "strengths and weaknesses" standard in new science books.

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Public hearing centers on how Texas should teach evolution

By TERRENCE STUTZ
The Dallas Morning News
tstutz@dallasnews.com
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-staffevolution_21tex.ART.State.Edition1.4efa57a.html

AUSTIN – Nearing a crucial vote on the issue, State Board of Education members will convene another public hearing today on proposed science curriculum standards that will dictate how evolution should be covered in science classes in Texas.

Testimony is expected from science teachers, college professors, parents and groups hoping to influence the board on proposed language that could require teachers and textbooks to cover both strengths and weaknesses of Charles Darwin's theory of how humans and other life forms evolved.

Curriculum review committees made up of science teachers and academics recommended last year that the state scrap its long-standing requirement that strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories – notably evolution – be covered in science classes.

One panel that drafted standards for biology classes proposed additional language that would keep supernatural and religious-based concepts such as creationism – the biblical explanation of how humans evolved – out of those classes.

But social conservatives on the state board and their allies – including evolution critics – want to preserve the requirement in the curriculum standards established by the board. A preliminary board vote is scheduled for Thursday.

The curriculum standards will spell out what is taught in science classes in all elementary and secondary schools as well as providing the material for state tests and textbooks. The standards will remain in place for a decade after their approval by the state board.

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Evolution education debate sparks heat

State Board of Education to vote Friday


by Ellen McNamara
Austin News KXAN.com
Wednesday, 21 Jan 2009
http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/texas/evolution_education_debate_sparks_heat

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The fight over science curriculum standards went before the State Board of Education Wednesday. It was standing room only during a public hearing inside the William B. Travis building when people spoke out about whether revisions should be made to the current standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for science.

The current curriculum requires teachers address strengths and weaknesses of scientific theory, like evolution. Many in the scientific community do not approve of the current curriculum, however. Meanwhile, others who spoke out worry that excluding creationism will push forward a left-wing agenda.

"Sensoring our students' ability to ask questions or participate in critical analysis in the theory of evolution smacks of ideologies that are not American," said parent Angela Weissgarber.

However, Kathy Miller with the Texas Freedom Network had a different perspective.

"Classrooms are best suited for teaching subjects like math and science," said Miller. "Congregations and homes and families are best suited for teaching religion and values."

Once voted on, the curriculum standards will help guide teachers for the next 10 years. The State Board of Education will have a preliminary vote Friday. The second and final vote is scheduled to happen sometime in March.

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EDUCATION
State Board of Ed split as science vote nears

Local board members unsure what outcome will be in evolution teaching debate.


By Molly Bloom
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, January 22, 2009
http://www.statesman.com/news/content/region/legislature/stories/01/22/0122sboe.html

As the State Board of Education heads toward a decision on how Texas schools will teach theories about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, the board appears split between those pushing to continue teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories including evolution and those who favor removing the phrase.

Some who support removing the phrase -- which has been part of the state science curriculum since 1988 -- argue that the phrase can promote the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

Board member Terri Leo , who represents part of Harris County, said at a Wednesday board meeting attended by more than 150 people that she was unaware of any board member who supported teaching creationism in public schools.

"To my knowledge there is no one" pushing for that, she said.

The board plans to hold an initial vote on adopting the new science standards today , a second vote on Friday and a final vote at its March meeting.

Proposed new standards written by a committee of educators and revised several times over the past year would remove the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase and instead require students to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations."

University of Texas cellular biology professor Arturo De Lozanne told the board that the revised language is a more "accurate and descriptive" way of explaining how science should be taught.

Texas science standards play a major role in determining the material covered in textbooks, discussed in classrooms and covered on standardized tests.

Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist who is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a California-based nonprofit group that advocates teaching evolution in public school science education, told the board that the debate over the new science standards is "about textbooks."

"This is about, two years from now, what will textbook publishers put in textbooks in order to sell them in Texas?" she said.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, who represents Travis, Williamson and other counties, said she didn't see any disadvantages to leaving in the "strengths and weaknesses" language. Although some people who addressed the board said that the language could lead to the teaching of incorrect information about evolution, Dunbar said she was not concerned about that.

"Our students are smart enough that they can see through that," she said. "Taking (the phrase) out would further limit any active discourse in the classroom."

Board member Ken Mercer, who represents Travis, Hays and other counties, said that he's leaning toward keeping the language in place, but he pointed out that the proposed new standards are significantly different than the current ones in many ways.

"There are hundreds of revisions in there," he said. The strengths and weaknesses phrase "is just one part."

Although at least half a dozen vocal conservative board members have indicated that they support retaining the phrase, Mercer said he didn't have a clear sense of what the board would do when it voted.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said.

Board member Rick Agosto , who represents a South Texas district , said that he expected today's vote on the science standards to be close. Agosto said he was "still listening to what both sides have to offer" but would probably vote in favor of the revised standards .

"I hope to see the expertise of our teachers and (curriculum writing) experts respected," he said.

mbloom@statesman.com; 512-445-3620

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In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate

By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
The New York Times
January 22, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/education/22texas.html

AUSTIN, Tex. -- The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum.

The debate here has far-reaching consequences; Texas is one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.

Many biologists and teachers said they feared that the board would force textbook publishers to include what skeptics see as weaknesses in Darwin's theory to sow doubt about science and support the Biblical version of creation.

"These weaknesses that they bring forward are decades old, and they have been refuted many, many times over," Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, said after testifying. "It's an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution."

In the past, the conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes to change textbooks. This year, both sides say, the final vote, in March, is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

The chairman of the board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist, pushed in 2003 for a more skeptical version of evolution to be presented in the state's textbooks, but could not get a majority to vote with him. Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin's theory and thinks that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

On the surface, the debate centers on a passage in the state's curriculum that requires students to critique all scientific theories, exploring "the strengths and weaknesses" of each. Texas has stuck to that same standard for 20 years, having originally passed it to please religious conservatives. In practice, teachers rarely pay attention to it.

This year, however, a panel of teachers assigned to revise the curriculum proposed dropping those words, urging students instead to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence."

Scientists and advocates for religious freedom say the battle over the curriculum is the tip of a spear. Social conservatives, the critics argue, have tried to use the "strengths and weaknesses" standard to justify exposing students to religious objections in the guise of scientific discourse.

"The phrase 'strengths and weaknesses' has been spread nationally as a slogan to bring creationism in through the back door," said Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science in Education, a California group that opposes watering down evolution in biology classes.

Already, legislators in six states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina -- have considered legislation requiring classrooms to be open to "views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent-design movement.

Stephen C. Meyer, an expert on the history of science and a director at the Discovery Institute, denied that the group advocated a Biblical version of creation. Rather, Mr. Meyer said, it is fighting for academic freedom and against what it sees as a fanatical loyalty to Darwin among biologists, akin to a secular religion.

Testifying before the board, he asserted, for instance, that evolution had trouble explaining the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid diversification that evidence suggests began about 550 million years ago and gave rise to most groups of complex organisms and animal forms.

Of the Texas curriculum standards, Mr. Meyer said, "This kind of language is really important for protecting teachers who want to address this subject with integrity in the sense of allowing students to hear about dissenting opinions."

But several biologists who appeared in the hearing room said the objections raised by Mr. Meyer and some board members were baseless. The majority of evidence collected over the last 150 years supports Darwin, and few dissenting opinions have survived a review by scientists.

"Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science," said David M. Hillis, a professor of biology at the University of Texas. "These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas."

Many of the dozens of people who crowded into the hearing room, however, seemed unimpressed with the body of scientific evidence supporting evolution.

"Textbooks today treat it as more than a theory, even though its evidence has been found to be stained with half-truths, deception and hoaxes," said Paul Berry Lively, 42, a mechanical engineer from Houston who brought along his teenage son. "Darwinian evolution is not a proven fact."

Other conservative parents told board members that their children had been intimidated and ridiculed by biology teachers when they questioned evolution. Some asserted that they knew biology teachers who were afraid to bring up theories about holes in Darwin's theory.

Business leaders, meanwhile, said Texas would have trouble attracting highly educated workers and their families if the state's science programs were seen as a laughingstock among biologists.

"The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all," said Eric Hennenhoefer, who owns Obsidian Software.

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Third state education board vote mandates teaching students challenges to evolution

By Molly Bloom
Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, January 22, 2009
http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/education/entries/2009/01/22/state_board_of_ed_deals_tempor.html

The State Board of Education this afternoon rejected efforts to continue to require Texas children to learn the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories including evolution. But a narrower challenge to evolutionary theory was approved.

Two motions to leave the "strengths and weaknesses" language, or similar phrasing, in place failed. It was a defeat for a group of conservative board members who have been pushing to keep the phrase, which has been part of the Texas science curriculum for all public school students since 1988.

However, the board later approved a motion by board Chairman Don McLeroy, R, College Station, to require students to evaluate the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of scientific theories about common ancestry of different species. The prevalent scientific theory explaining the diversity of species is evolution; creationism is the belief that the universe was created by a higher power.

The board is considering a draft document crafted by a committee of teachers and other education experts who had recommended replacing the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase with a requirement to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations." Some who supported removing the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase from state science standards have argued that the phrase can promote the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

Today's votes were by a committee of the board. Members will vote again on Friday on the state science standards. The board will hold a final vote at its March meeting.

Texas science standards play a major role in determining what material must be covered in textbooks, discussed in classrooms and covered on standardized tests.

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, (pictured at right) moved to reinsert the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase this afternoon.

"I think the safest and best route to go, then, is to keep the exact language as it currently exists, which has been tried and true for two decades." said Dunbar, whose district includes Williamson County and parts of Travis County. "It has in no way risen to the level of a government agency of any kind (being involved in) inappropriate religious activity."

Her initial motion was defeated by a 7-7 vote, with board member Rene Nunez, D-El Paso, absent from the room. Dunbar's subsequent motion -- to require students to evaluate scientific theories "by examining scientific evidence supportive or not supportive of those explanations" instead of by evaluating "strengths and weaknesses" -- was also defeated.

Board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, who voted against both of Dunbar's amendments, said the longevity of he "strength and weaknesses" language did not mean that it was appropriate.

"The 'strengths and weaknesses' phrase has taken on a different meaning from what it might have meant perhaps 10 years ago or 20 years ago," Knight said.

Several board members said Dunbar's motions echoed the board's decision last year to reject recommendations from a teachers' working group regarding state language arts standards.

"We appointed individuals, educators -- good solid people -- to review the (standards) in science. They made a recommendation, and again we are taking this away from what the educators have indicated to us is the best wording," said Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, who voted against both of Dunbar's motions.

Replacing the requirement that students be taught "strengths and weakness" with a requirement that they learn to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations "allows discussion," Craig said. "It allows free thinking. It puts it in scientific terms."

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Board sides with evolution in curriculum debate

By APRIL CASTRO
The Associated Press
Jan. 22, 2009
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/6225827.html

AUSTIN -- The State Board of Education tentatively decided to amend school science curriculum standards Thursday, dropping a 20-year-old requirement that critics say is used to undermine the theory of evolution.

The change in curriculum drops the mandate that science teachers address both "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory. It would be in place for the next decade.

A panel of science teachers had recommended that the language be dropped.

Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, has argued that the word weaknesses "has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism."

Federal courts have ruled against forcing the teaching of creationism and the similar theory of intelligent design.

Education board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, offered failed amendments to keep "strengths and weaknesses" or similar wording in place. Dunbar argued that changing the requirement could be potentially damaging.

"The language as it exists has gone without a challenge for more than two decades," she said.

But, the 15-member board overruled her.

"The language has not worked," said board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas. "It has taken on a different meaning and I am opposed."

Critics of dropping the weaknesses mandate blame "left-wing ideology," for trying to stifle free speech.

"It's outrageous that our highest elected education officials voted to silence teachers and students in science class," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "Despite being overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls to keep strengths and weaknesses, the divided State Board of Education ignored constituents and sided with a small group of activists.

"This decision shows that science has evolved into a political popularity contest. The truth has been expelled from the science classroom."

The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks. The vote, which capped two days of heated debate, was part of a series of votes on the standards that is expected to be finalized in March.

A more specific challenge to evolution was approved, in an amendment by Republican board member Don McLeroy, a College Station dentist. The amendment involved challenging the ancestry of different species.

"Keeping 'strengths and weaknesses' out of the standards is a huge victory for Texas students," Miller said. "But it's astonishing that a dentist would presume to know more about evolution than the professional scientists and teachers who wrote the draft standards. What he did is a ridiculous way to craft education policy and simply complicates the standards."

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Texas wrestles with science standards, evolution

By APRIL CASTRO
Associated Press
January 22, 2009
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jKkeY6qfvjWTlGdDT-WC9YWijT9AD95S4O6O0

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution is taught in Texas' public schools made their case before the state's board of education.

Dozens of people, including a six-member expert review panel, lined up to testify as the board considers new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks.

The crowd -- as well as the review panel -- was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Instead, a panel of science experts recommended that students use critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Critics say the use of the word "weaknesses" has been used to undermine Darwin's theory of evolution and promote creationism -- or intelligent design.

"In science education, 'weaknesses' has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism," said Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network. "If it weren't, we wouldn't see this crusade by some of the board members and outside pressure groups to keep this single word in the science standards."

Critics of dropping the "weaknesses" mandate blame "left-wing ideology," for trying to stifle free speech. The review panel, which was appointed by the education board, has suggested putting similar language back in.

"The board is being asked to choose between free and open scientific inquiry and censorship," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "That's an easy choice."

Last year, legislation permitting criticism of Darwinism in schools was introduced in Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Michigan and Louisiana, according to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports teaching students about the criticism of evolution.

A tentative vote in Texas is expected later this week, but the board is not expected to make a final decision on the curriculum proposal until March.

Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on the scientific evidence of evolution.

"I hope you understand now that there are good reasons to think that, yes, evolution has weaknesses that reasonable people can see, that, yes, those weaknesses do really influence the theory," said Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who served on the review panel.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, said the proposal to drop the inclusion of weaknesses is a "superior critical thinking standard."

"Abandoning the inaccurate strengths and weaknesses language does not encourage the singling out of evolution for special treatment," Scott said.

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State amends school science curriculum standards

By GARY SCHARRER
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Jan. 22, 2009
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6225713.html

AUSTIN -- The State Board of Education tentatively decided to amend school science curriculum standards Thursday, dropping a 20-year-old requirement that critics say is used to undermine the theory of evolution.

The change in curriculum drops the mandate that science teachers address both "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory. It would be in place for the next decade.

A panel of science teachers had recommended that the language be dropped.

Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, has argued that the word weaknesses "has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism."

Federal courts have ruled against forcing the teaching of creationism and the similar theory of intelligent design.

Education board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, offered failed amendments to keep "strengths and weaknesses" or similar wording in place. Dunbar argued that changing the requirement could be potentially damaging.

"The language as it exists has gone without a challenge for more than two decades," she said.

But, the 15-member board overruled her.

"The language has not worked," said board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas. "It has taken on a different meaning and I am opposed."

Critics of dropping the weaknesses mandate blame "left-wing ideology," for trying to stifle free speech.

"It's outrageous that our highest elected education officials voted to silence teachers and students in science class," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "Despite being overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls to keep strengths and weaknesses, the divided State Board of Education ignored constituents and sided with a small group of activists.

"This decision shows that science has evolved into a political popularity contest. The truth has been expelled from the science classroom."

The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks. The vote, which capped two days of heated debate, was part of a series of votes on the standards that is expected to be finalized in March.

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'Weakness' standard in science curriculum rejected

By Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
Web Posted: 01/22/2009
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/Board_rejects_weakness_standard_in_new_science_curriculum.html
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/38170889.html

AUSTIN - Social conservatives on the State Board of Education failed Thursday in an effort to continue allowing Texas public school teachers to teach both "the strengths and weaknesses" of evolution theory.

That phrase has become a lightening rod in the debate over new science curriculum standards for Texas public schools. Critics of the "strengths and weaknesses" standard argue that evolutionary theory is well tested and attempts to dilute evolution are little more than a backdoor way to elevate creationism or intelligent design.

Supporters counter that teachers and students should have the freedom to ask questions about evolution without fear of running afoul of state law. The standard has been in place for 20 years without any problems. But science experts recommending new science curriculum standards removed the controversial clause.

The board unanimously voted for the new science curriculum standards after rejecting the "strengths and weaknesses" standard.

Social conservatives voted as a seven-member bloc to restore the "strengths and weaknesses" standard – one vote short of passing. However, the issue could come up again Friday when the 15-member board takes another vote on the new curriculum standards. The board will take final action at its March meeting.

Board member Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, provided the swing vote rejecting the "strengths and weaknesses" provision for teaching evolution – the theory that life has evolved through natural selection over many years.

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State Board of Education debates evolution curriculum

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
tstutz@dallasnews.com
Thursday, January 22, 2009
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/legislature/stories/DN-evolution_22tex.ART.State.Edition1.4e90af7.html

[photo]
Texas Board of Education member Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands questioned a witness Wednesday in Austin.

AUSTIN – Most State Board of Education members appeared to have their minds made up Wednesday in the latest debate over evolution in science classes as dozens of teachers, parents and others tried to sway the board before it votes on the issue.

The focus of the debate was whether to require that weaknesses as well as strengths in the theory of evolution be taught in high school biology classes under new state curriculum standards for science.

Evolution critics – backed by several board members – want the strengths and weaknesses requirement included in the standards, arguing there are many flaws in Charles Darwin's theory of how humans and other life-forms evolved.

Evolution supporters, on the other hand, said there is no controversy over the theory and contended that critics are really trying to "open a back door" into schools to undermine Darwin's theory and foster teaching of creationism – based on the biblical explanation for the origin of humans.

Board members will have their first vote on the standards today. And while most members' questions Wednesday indicated the way they are leaning, the vote looks to be so close that it could break either way.

A bloc of social conservatives on the board wants the strengths and weaknesses language kept in the curriculum standards as it has been for several years.

"As a creationist, I don't want creationism taught in science classes, but this proposal [to drop the strengths and weaknesses rule] smacks of censorship," said John Huffner, chairman of the math department at Kilgore High School.

"The list of discredited theories in science goes on and on," he said. "What's wrong with being allowed to question theories? What's wrong with telling the truth?"

Curriculum review committees of science teachers and academics recommended last year that the requirement be scrapped because it suggests the scientific community is divided on the theory that humans evolved from lower life-forms.

"There are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution," said Eugenie Scott, an anthropologist and executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

Scott warned the board that if it adopts the requirement, it will lead to textbooks that contain pseudoscience and inaccuracies as publishers try to appease the state and get their books sold in Texas.

"If you require textbook publishers to include bad science, you're going to have problems," she said, asserting that Texas students will suffer as a result.

The curriculum standards adopted by the board will spell out what is taught in science classes in all elementary and secondary schools as well as providing the material for state tests and textbooks. The standards will remain in place for the next decade.

Ryan Valentine of the progressive Texas Freedom Network said board members should listen to teachers and college professors who developed the science standards and not those who want to publicize "phony weaknesses" in the theory of evolution.

"A misguided crusade to include phony weaknesses in the theory of evolution in our science curriculum will send a message to the rest of the nation that science takes a back seat to politics in Texas," he said.

But Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation, aligned with social conservatives on the board, said not requiring the weaknesses of evolution to be covered in science classes amounts to censorship. He noted that the rule has been in place for nearly two decades.

"The board is being asked to choose between free and open scientific inquiry and censorship," Saenz said. "That's an easy choice."

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Methods of teaching evolution stirs debate

Ben Wermund
Daily Texan Staff
Thursday, January 22, 2009
http://www.dailytexanonline.com/methods_of_teaching_evolution_stirs_debate

[photo]
Clare Wuellner, executive director of Center for Inquiry, attends a public hearing before the State Board of Education Wednesday morning at the William B. Travis Building. Wearing a historic teacher's costume with a sign on her back, she voiced to attendees that evolution, controversial 150 years ago, should not be today.

Teachers, students, scientists and skeptics debated how to teach evolution in public schools at a Texas State Board of Education hearing Wednesday.

The board will decide Friday whether students should be asked to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence" instead of the current curriculum of learning the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories.

"I come here as a scientist and as a parent of two children in public schools to remind you of the words spoken by our new president just yesterday: 'We need to restore science to its rightful place,'" said UT biology professor Arturo De Lozanne.

De Lozanne argued in favor of the evaluation stance and said the change would encourage students to apply critical thinking to scientific theories.

Angela Weissgarber, a parent of two UT students, told the board her children were unable to raise questions about evolution in their high school science classes. She said she feared the exclusion of the "strengths and weaknesses" clause, which requires educators to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, could lead to censoring students' questions, which she argued belonged to "ideologies that are not American."

Christopher Mittal, a Texas high school student, told the board that after attending a recent science conference, he was disappointed to find there were professors taking part in seminars in which they could "talk out different ways of shaking students' faith." This included discussing a lack of weakness in the theory of evolution, Mittal added.

"Doubt isn't a bad thing," Mittal said, referring to evolution. "It fuels more study and research and often a greater understanding of science."

Royal Smith, a psychologist with a doctorate from the University of North Texas, also voiced his concerns over the proposed removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" clause.

"To continue to use strengths and weaknesses will create good scientific investigation," Smith said.

He also voiced concerns about the confusion that could arise if weaknesses were not explicitly taught: primarily the difference between microevolution, the small-scale changes to a population over generations, and macroevolution, or transmutation from one species to another.

"Ninety percent of the genes of a chimpanzee are represented in a human, but I don't think that would get you child support," Smith said, causing the room to erupt with laughter. "The missing link in evolution just doesn't exist."

The board's decision will impact not only Texas education standards but the entire nation's, said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. Texas is the second largest adopter of textbooks in the nation, and publishers will be looking to the state for guidelines on what to include in their books, he said.

"Texas really is the big enchilada," Quinn said.

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Conservatives lose first evolution vote

Strengths and weaknesses stripped from TEKS


by Kimberly Reeves
Austin News KXAN.com
Thursday, 22 Jan 2009
http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/education/Conservatives_lose_evolution_vote

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The drama over the potential inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in Texas biology curriculum is over for now as a coalition of six Democrats and two Republicans defeated an amendment that would have maintained discussion of evolution's "weaknesses."

The Texas vote on evolution was in the crosshairs of both state and national media this week because textbook publishers cater to Texas because of its high-volume purchases. If Texas chose to make significant changes to the science standards, other states would likely be forced to follow suit. The standards, once approved on final reading in March, will stand for 10 years.

Member Cynthia Dunbar (R-Richmond) made the motion for the controversial amendment, which was to re-incorporate the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" into the discussion of evolution in state biology curriculum. That's the way the standard has been for at least 10 years now -- with no real problems -- but liberal lobbying groups such as the Texas Freedom Network fought against the inclusion of the language, saying it had become a code phrase used by groups such as the Discovery Institute to open the door to a discussion of intelligent design or creationism in the classroom.

Dunbar vehemently denied the issue of "strengths and weaknesses" had anything to do with religion. Instead, Dunbar said stripping the language would stifle academic freedom and force teachers to tell their students they could not discuss all sides to evolution in the classroom. She also said current standards had never faced a significant court challenge and were, therefore, safer.

Conservative groups have lobbied heavily against the change. During testimony yesterday, parent Angela Weissgarber accused those who wanted to strip the language of stifling free speech.

"Censoring our students ability to ask questions or participate in critical analysis in the theory of evolution smacks of ideologies that are not American," Weissgarber said.

Bob Craig, who voted down Dunbar's motion, said he was perfectly comfortable deleting the language, since other language supported evaluating all theories with scientific evidence. Craig said he didn't want the science curriculum to be a repeat of last year's English-language arts vote, in which SBOE members chose to overrule the wishes of the state's English teachers on grammar.

Dunbar's amendment failed initially, 7-7, as Rene Nunez (D-El Paso) was absent from the meeting at the time of the vote. Later, Nunez returned and cast a "no" vote, 7-8.

Those who joined Dunbar included Terri Leo (R-Spring), science teacher Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), Gail Lowe (R-Lampasas), Don McLeroy (R-Bryan), David Bradley (R-Beaumont) and Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio).

While his colleagues carefully refrained from the use of the "R" word - religion -- Mercer made passionate statements about the ability of Christians to understand evolution but support other theories. He noted persecution against Christians who failed to toe the evolution line.

That group of seven conservatives was enough for Dunbar to win her vote, as long as she picked up an additional Republican or Democrat. However, two moderate Republicans -- Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) and Geraldine "Tincy" Miller (R-Dallas) -- sided with the Democrats on the vote against the strengths and weaknesses language. Rick Agosto, a Democrat out of San Antonio who is frequently the swing vote in favor of conservative motions, said he would have to represent the interests of his constituents and chose to vote with the anti-strengths and weaknesses bloc.

This is only the first of a number of votes on the science curriculum. Thursday's meeting was the committee of the whole. Friday, the full board will pass language on first reading for the state's science curriculum. In March, the full board will pass language on second, and final, reading.

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Texas Board of Education votes against teaching evolution weaknesses

State Board of Education votes to drop evolution 'weaknesses' from Texas science curriculum


By TERENCE STUTZ
The Dallas Morning News
tstutz@dallasnews.com
Thursday, January 23, 2009
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/012309dntexevolution.1d0cd401.html
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/012309dntexevolution.1d0cd401.html
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/tv/stories/DN-evolution_23tex.ART.State.Edition2.4e8893c.html
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/012309dnmetevolutionvote.1d3015e6.html

AUSTIN – In a major defeat for social conservatives, a sharply divided State Board of Education voted Thursday to abandon a longtime state requirement that high school science teachers cover what some critics consider to be "weaknesses" in the theory of evolution.

Under the science curriculum standards recommended by a panel of science educators and tentatively adopted by the board, biology teachers and biology textbooks would no longer have to cover the "strengths and weaknesses" of Charles Darwin's theory that man evolved from lower forms of life.

Darwin's theory has long been widely accepted in the scientific community, although proponents for a biblical explanation of the origin of humans continue pointing to what they say are flaws in evolution theory.

Those concerns caused the state board to adopt the so-called strengths and weaknesses requirement in the 1980s. Opponents of the requirement had warned that it would eventually open the door to the teaching of creationism in science classes. Board members who backed the rule insisted that was not their intention.

The seven Republican board members supporting the rule have been aligned with social conservative groups that in the past have worked to cast doubt on science-based theories on the origins of life.

The key vote Thursday was on an amendment to the proposed curriculum standards that would have restored the weaknesses rule. The amendment failed to pass on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat – who would have opposed the amendment – was absent.

"We're not talking about faith. We're not talking about religion," said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, who opposed the amendment. "We're talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do."

Rep. Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, who supported the weaknesses requirement, said there have been "significant challenges" to evolution theory. She cited a recent news article in which a European scientist disputed Darwin's "tree of life" showing common ancestors for all living things.

She also denied that some board members were trying to make it easier to teach creationism in science classes.

"I don't think this means you're supposed to teach creationism or intelligent design," she said, referring to another movement related to creationism.

Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who also supported the requirement, cast the issue as a battle about "academic freedom" and "freedom of speech" over whether students can thoroughly examine evolution.

He accused supporters of evolution theory of using false evidence to back the theory.

"Those arguing against us have a bad history of lies," he said.

Board member Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, rejected the argument by social conservatives that teachers and students won't be able to question the theory of evolution under the new standards.

"There has never been anything in our standards that prevents a teacher from talking about all aspects of what they teach," she said.

"We need to respect what our teachers have recommended to us."

Dallas' two board members, Miller and Democrat Mavis Knight, supported the plan drafted by teachers. They were joined by Republican Pat Hardy of Fort Worth.

Evolution critics did score a minor victory, as the board agreed to an amendment that calls for students to discuss the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of Darwin's tenet that living things have a common ancestry.

That change was proposed by board chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, who also supported the defeated strengths-and-weaknesses requirement.

The new curriculum standards, tentatively approved on a voice vote, spell out not only how evolution is to be covered, but also what is supposed to be taught in all science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as providing the material for state tests and textbooks.

The standards will remain in place for the next decade, although the process for approving new textbooks won't start until 2011.

The decision will reverberate beyond Texas. Because of the large number of students here, textbook makers tend to carry curriculum decisions made in Texas to other states.

With regard to evolution and other scientific theories, the educator panel advising the state board proposed language that stated students shall "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing."

In deleting the strengths-and-weaknesses rule, the panel said the requirement suggested that the scientific community was divided on the theory of evolution when in fact there is little disagreement.

The bloc of seven Republicans supporting the rule tried to add a similar amendment calling for science students to be taught evidence "supportive of and not supportive of" the theory of evolution and other scientific explanations. But it was rejected on an 8-7 vote.

A second vote on the science curriculum standards is scheduled for today.

Action on the science standards caps several months of debate by groups who sought to influence the board on the teaching of evolution. The issue last flared up when the board adopted new biology textbooks in 2003, as social conservatives sought to reject books that were deemed too pro-evolution.

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Split Outcome in Texas Battle on Teaching of Evolution

By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
New York Times
January 23, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/24/education/24texas.html

AUSTIN, Tex. -- Moderates on the Texas Board of Education prevailed over conservatives Friday when, in a battle over the teaching of evolution, the board voted to drop a 20-year-old mandate that science teachers explore with their students the "strengths and weaknesses" of all theories.

Still, the conservative faction, led by the board's chairman, Dr. Don McLeroy, managed to pass several amendments to the state's science curriculum that opponents say would open the door to teaching objections to evolution and might encourage students to reject it.

Chief among these amendments is one that would compel science teachers to instruct students about aspects of the fossil record that do not neatly fit with the idea of species' gradually changing over time, like the relatively sudden appearance of some species and the fact that others seem to remain unchanged for millions of years.

Dr. McLeroy, a dentist from College Station who describes himself as "a Darwin skeptic," said during debate on Thursday that students should know that the fossil record does not depict a clean picture of gradual changes.

But some defenders of evolution said the amendment was intended to engender doubt in students about what most biologists accept as fact: that evolution occurs, even if there is debate about how and why.

Friday's voting capped two days of discussion on the state's science standards, which are routinely revisited every 10 years. But the final vote does not come until March.

Whatever the 15-member board decides then will have consequences far beyond Texas, since the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the nation. The new standards will be in place for the next decade, starting in 2010, and will influence the writing of the next generation of biology texts, which the state will order this summer.

Though the requirement to teach strengths and weaknesses of theories was first adopted here two decades ago, teachers have largely ignored it. But it has taken on new importance in recent years, as groups questioning Darwinism have invoked the mandate in raising objections to evolution's being taught to the exclusion of other theories.

This year, a panel of science teachers charged with the once-a-decade rewriting of the curriculum recommended dropping the standard and requiring instead that students "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical data."

Many mainstream biologists say most of the objections like Dr. McElroy's can be explained under Darwin's theory. They accuse dissenting scientists of twisting the evidence to promote the notion of a divine hand guiding creation, an approach known as intelligent design. The federal courts have ruled that public schools' teaching of either creationism or intelligent design violates the separation of church and state.

But even as evolution's opponents have lost in the courts in recent years, they have gained ground on the Texas school board and now hold 7 of the 15 seats. In deliberations on Thursday, conservatives fought hard to keep the strengths-and-weaknesses standard, arguing that it protected the rights of students and some teachers to question evolution's underpinnings.

"This is a battle of academic freedom," said one member, Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican. "This is a battle over freedom of speech."

But the board's Democrats and moderate Republicans said the change recommended by the panel of teachers left plenty of room for teachers to raise problems with the theory. In the end, the conservative faction could not garner the eight votes it needed.

Still, critics of modern evolutionary theory hailed the board's decision to ask students to learn more about what skeptics of Darwinism see as puzzles in the fossil record.

"They did something truly remarkable today," John G. West of the Discovery Institute, a group that questions Darwinism, said in a statement. "They voted to require students to analyze and evaluate some of the most important and controversial aspects of modern evolutionary theory."

Some biologists, however, said Dr. McLeroy's amendment had handed teachers a hopelessly muddled task. They said species evolve at different rates -- sometimes gradually, sometimes rapidly, sometimes remaining unchanged for eons -- and that this has nothing to do with whether they share a common ancestor.

The amendment "makes no sense to me," said David M. Hillis, a prominent professor of biology at the University of Texas, adding, "It's a clear indication that the chairman of the state school board doesn't understand the science."

=========

Scientists: Board proposals undermine evolution teaching

By GARY SCHARRER
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Jan. 23, 2009
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/tech/news/6227807.html

AUSTIN -- Texas schools won't have to teach the weaknesses of evolution theories anymore, but the State Board of Education ushered in other proposed changes Friday that some scientists say still undermine evolution instruction and subject the state to ridicule.

The new proposals came just one day after the board -- in a move celebrated by many scientists -- narrowly agreed to delete a provision in current curriculum standards that requires teachers to instruct students in weaknesses and strengths of evolution theory.

The "strengths and weaknesses" standard has been a staple in the curriculum for about 20 years.

On Friday, however, the board looked again at the issue and decided students should have to evaluate a variety of fossil types and assess the arguments against universal common descent, which serves as a main principle of evolution -- that all organisms have a common ancestor.

The board's effort to undermine "universal common descent" in public schools will make the state's science standards "an object of ridicule," said Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

"It's really unscientific. It promotes creationism. It says that students will be required to learn arguments against common descent or ancestral connections," Schafersman said. "The only alternative to common descent is creationism in their minds."

Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March. New science curriculum standards will influence new science textbooks for the state's 4.7 million public school children beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

One board member who pushed for the change said that fossil records create scientific evidence against universal common descent -- and students should be allowed to study the possibility.

"There are many, many gaps that don't link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other's opinions," said Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, a former science teacher.

She scoffed at claims that social conservatives on the 15-member board were just trying to find another way to expose students to creationism -- the belief that life, Earth and the universe were created by a supreme being.

"This isn't about religion. I don't know how many times we have to say it before people accept it," she said. "It's about science. We want to stick to the science."

Also added to the proposed standards by board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, is an amendment that directs science teachers and students to "describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

Proposed change 'absurd'

They are asking students to explain something that does not exist, said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner.

"This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert," Hillis said.

Efforts Friday to restore the old "strengths and weaknesses" language were rejected.

"We view this as one step back, two steps forward," said John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Seattle that disputes the theory of evolution. "The board unfortunately failed to reinstate specific language requiring coverage of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. But, in the area of evolution, it significantly improved the standards by adopting a series of amendments to make sure that students have to analyze and evaluate the major parts of evolutionary theory."

gscharrer@express-news.net

=========

Evolution teaching provision fails first test

By Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 01/23/2009
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/Evolution_teaching_provision_fails_first_test.html

AUSTIN -- A 20-year-old Texas tradition allowing public schools to teach "both the strengths and weaknesses" of evolution succumbed to science Thursday when the State Board of Education voted to abolish the wording from its curriculum standards.

The tentative vote removing the controversial wording came after a seven-member bloc of social conservatives on the board failed in its efforts to leave the provision in place.

However, the issue could come up again today when the 15-member board takes another vote on the new curriculum standards. The board will take final action at its March meeting.

Science experts recommending new science curriculum standards removed the "strengths and weaknesses" clause, which had been in place for 20 years without any problems.

But the phrase has become a lightning rod in the debate over the teaching of evolution with longtime critics arguing scientific evolutionary theory is well tested and attempts to dilute evolution are little more than a back-door way to elevate creationism or intelligent design.

Supporters have countered that teachers and students should have the freedom to ask questions about evolution without fear of running afoul of state law.

The deciding vote on the matter came from board member Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, who rejected the strengths-and-weaknesses provision.

"I have to consider the experts," Agosto said of the teachers and scientists who recommended the new standards.

Agosto said he got "a lot of pressure" from both sides and objected to scare tactics used by some who suggested that teaching the weaknesses of evolution would open the doors for creationism or intelligent design to be taught in public schools.

Intelligent design is the concept that an intelligent being is responsible for the complex structure of biology rather than chance or undirected natural processes.

The new science curriculum standards will take effect beginning with the 2010-2011 school year and last about 10 years.

The new curriculum standards will guide publishers in producing new science textbooks for elementary, middle and high school students.

Instead of allowing teachers to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory, the proposed science curriculum standards would encourage students to apply critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving "to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing."

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who voted to keep "strengths and weaknesses," said he wouldn't rubber stamp recommendations from the experts.

"This is a battle of academic freedom. This is a battle over freedom of speech," Mercer said. "It's an issue of freedom of religion."

But Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, who described himself as a Christian with "very strong faith beliefs," emphasized the debate involves science, not religion.

The proposed standard calling for students to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations "does not restrict discussion in any way. It allows it," Craig said. "That in no way restricts academic freedom. That's a bogus argument. It allows discussion. It allows free thinking."

Members Terri Leo, R-Spring, and Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, wanted to keep the strengths-and-weaknesses provision.

"We have had a solid standard that has worked for this state. We are not separating evolution out and teaching it differently," Leo said. "That's where you get into trouble."

Former science teacher Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, disputed critics who oppose the teaching of weaknesses of evolution on grounds it could open the door for religion.

"We are being very clear. That's not what we want taught ... we do not want creation and intelligent design taught," she said.

Jonathan Saenz, a spokesman for the Free Market Foundation, said it was "outrageous that our highest elected education officials voted to silence teachers and students in science class. Despite being overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls to keep strengths and weaknesses, the divided State Board of Education ignored constituents and sided with a small group of activists."

=========

State board shuns disputed language on evolution

Board to hold second vote on science standards Friday.


By Molly Bloom
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, January 23, 2009
http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/01/23/0123sboe.html

The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected efforts to continue to require Texas children to study the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories including evolution. But a narrower challenge to evolutionary theory was approved.

Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Houston, who voted against including the "strengths and weaknesses" language, called for the board to "do better at representing everybody in the process and not just our individual ideologies."

The board has been considering a draft document crafted by a committee of teachers and other education experts who recommended replacing the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase with a requirement to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations." Some education observers who supported removing the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase from state science standards argued that that language could promote the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

Thursday's vote was by a committee of the full board. Board members will vote today on the state science standards and could propose more changes. The board will hold a final vote at its March meeting.

Two motions to leave the "strengths and weaknesses" language, or similar phrasing, in place failed by narrow margins Thursday.

Their failure was a defeat for a group of board members who have been pushing to keep the phrase. It has been part of the Texas science curriculum for all public school students since 1988.

However, the board later approved, 9-6, a motion by board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, to require students to evaluate the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of scientific theories about common ancestry of different species. The prevalent scientific theory explaining the diversity of species is evolution; creationism is the belief that the universe was created by a higher power.

Texas science standards play a central role in determining what material must be covered in textbooks, discussed in classrooms and included on standardized tests.

Board Member Cynthia Dunbar , a Republican from Richmond whose district includes Williamson County and part of Travis County, made the motion at Thursday's board meeting to include the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase.

"I think the safest and best route to go, then, is to keep the exact language as it currently exists, which has been tried and true for two decades," Dunbar said. "It has in no way risen to the level of a government agency of any kind (being involved in) inappropriate religious activity."

That motion failed in a 7-7 vote, with board member Rene Nunez, D-El Paso, absent from the room. Board Member Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican whose district includes several Central Texas counties and the rest of Travis County, voted in favor of the motion.

Including the "strengths and weaknesses" language supports "academic freedom" and "freedom of speech," Mercer said. "Teachers should not have the right to say, 'This is a fact. There will be no questions.' "

Dunbar's subsequent motion to require students to evaluate scientific theories "by examining scientific evidence supportive or not supportive of those explanations" was defeated 7-8.

Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, who voted against both of Dunbar's amendments, said the longevity of the "strength and weaknesses" language does not mean that it is appropriate.

"The 'strengths and weaknesses' phrase has taken on a different meaning from what it might have meant perhaps 10 years ago or 20 years ago," she said.

Some board members who supported Dunbar's motions said including such language would protect teachers who think they would get in trouble for discussing questions about evolution. But Knight said those concerns would best be addressed by better training for school officials rather than through curriculum wording.

Several of those who voted against Dunbar's motions said the motions echoed the board's decision last year to reject recommendations from a committee of experts regarding the state language arts standards.

"We appointed individuals, educators -- good solid people -- to review the (standards) in science. They made a recommendation, and, again, we are taking \u2026 away from what the educators have indicated to us is the best wording" said Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, who also voted against both of Dunbar's motions.

Craig said the requirement to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations "allows free thinking. It puts it in scientific terms."

mbloom@statesman.com; 512-445-3620

=========

Evolution: Hanging On by Its Fingernails

The Austin Chronicle
January 23, 2009
http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Blogs/News?oid=oid%3A730337

[photo]
SBOE chair Don McLeroy: Apparently, being a dentist makes him more of an evolution expert than the world's most brilliant biologists.

Just how close is Texas' educational system to becoming a laughingstock like that of Kansas? Only a vote or two away.

Over the past three days, the State Board of Education's meeting room Downtown has been the site of a bruising battle between scientists advocating for the theory of evolution versus supporters of intelligent design (aka creationism). The fight centered around the recommendation of scientific and education professionals to remove a requirement that the theory's "strengths and weaknesses" be taught in Texas high schools, in favor of language requiring that students "evaluate and analyze" evolution.

Scientists wanted the language changed for two reasons: One, they argue, the theory has no real weaknesses and is as sound as the theory of gravity; two, "intelligent design" groups such as Seattle's Discovery Institute in recent years have seized upon the "strengths and weaknesses" language as a wedge to push creationism into the classroom, or at the very least to cast doubts in youngsters' minds about evolution.

On Thursday, the SBOE narrowly fended off an attempt to re-insert "strengths and weakness" on a 7-7 vote – a decision made all the more scary for evolutionists because one of their badly needed votes, board member Rene Nunez of El Paso, was mysteriously away from his seat when the motion was being debated.

That was a win for the science side, but setbacks came later: Board Chair Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist, succeeded in getting narrower language passed (9-6) stating that teachers should examine the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of common ancestry to explain certain aspects of the fossil record. Barbara Cargill of The Woodlands narrowly passed a few amendments weakening language on teaching the history of the universe. (She failed, 7-7-1, to get the phrase "Big Bang" removed.)

The votes were part of a larger process of revising the state's teaching requirements, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. This week's vote was a first reading; final passage will come in March.

While Democrats and moderate Republicans may be making up ground in the Texas Legislature, the SBOE is largely ignored by the broader electorate and has become a haven for religious fundamentalists to fly under the radar and get elected.

What did the board member from liberal Austin have to say about this week's events? Nothing. There isn't one. Conservative map-drawers years ago craftily carved Austin in half, putting north Travis County into District 10, which stretches out almost to Houston, and south Travis into District 5, which takes in the very conservative Hill Country. Thus, blue Austin (and, in a sick irony, the powerhouse science faculty of UT-Austin) is represented by two of the most rabidly anti-evolution board members: Dist. 5 has Ken Mercer of San Antonio, while the Dist. 10 chair is held by Richmond's Cynthia Dunbar.

The latter made infamous headlines before the November election when she wrote an editorial titled "Martial Law Under an Obama Administration" for the Christian Worldview Network website and published a book calling public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion."

More on this in next week's print edition.

=========

Scientists gawk at curriculum tweaks

By Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 01/24/2009
http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/Scientists_gawk_at_curriculum_tweaks.html

AUSTIN -- Texas schools won't have to teach the weaknesses of evolution theory under proposed new science curriculum standards, but several changes made Friday by the State Board of Education still could undermine evolution instruction and subject the state to ridicule, some scientists said.

The changes came just a day after the board -- in a move celebrated by many scientists -- narrowly agreed to delete a provision in current curriculum standards that requires teachers to instruct students in weaknesses and strengths of evolution theory. The "strengths and weaknesses" standard has been in the curriculum for about 20 years; its removal was recommended by a panel of experts.

On Friday, the board looked again at the issue and directed students to evaluate a variety of fossil types and assess the arguments against "universal common descent," a main principle of evolution which supports the idea that all organisms have a common ancestor.

An effort to undermine universal common descent in public schools will make the state's science standards "an object of ridicule," said Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

"It's really unscientific. It promotes creationism. It says that students will be required to learn arguments against common descent or ancestral connections," Schafersman said. "The only alternative to common descent is creationism in their minds."

Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March. New standards will influence new science textbooks for the state's 4.7 million public school children beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

But board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, who pushed for the change, said some scientists contend that gaps in fossil records create scientific evidence against universal common descent. "There are many, many gaps that don't link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other's opinions," said Cargill, a former science teacher.

She scoffed at claims that social conservatives on the 15-member board were trying backdoor ways to expose students to creationism – the belief that life, Earth and the universe were created by a supreme being. "This isn't about religion. I don't know how many times we have to say it before people accept it," she said. "It's about science. We want to stick to the science."

Board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, also added an amendment to the proposed curriculum standards that would direct science teachers and students to "describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

They are asking students to explain something that does not exist, said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner.

"This new proposed language is absurd," Hillis said.

The board earlier rejected an effort to restore a clause in the new science standards that would have required teachers to present both "the strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Many scientists claimed doing so would subject Texas students to "pseudo science" as evolution is a universally accepted theory.

"We view this as one step back, two steps forward," said John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank based in Seattle that disputes the theory of evolution.

"The Board unfortunately failed to reinstate specific language requiring coverage of strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. But, in the area of evolution, it significantly improved the standards by adopting a series of amendments to make sure that students have to analyze and evaluate the major parts of evolutionary theory," he said.

=========

Texas education board approves science standards that don't include evolution 'weaknesses'

By TERRENCE STUTZ
The Dallas Morning News
tstutz@dallasnews.com
Saturday, January 24, 2009
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-evolution_24tex.ART.State.Edition1.4e8bee6.html

AUSTIN – State Board of Education members tentatively approved new science curriculum standards Friday that scrap a longtime requirement that students be taught the "weaknesses" in the theory of evolution.

The action came after board members aligned with social conservatives were unable to muster enough support on the 15-member board to retain the rule in a preliminary vote Thursday. The decision was a major setback for the seven Republican board members, who argued vigorously for keeping the "weaknesses" requirement.

However, evolution critics scored a minor victory when a majority of board members agreed to an amendment that calls for students to discuss the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of Charles Darwin's tenet that humans and other living things have common ancestors.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that sought to preserve the "weaknesses" rule, said the amendment and another similar change adopted by the board would make it easier for teachers and students to raise questions about the theory of evolution. The institute promotes an alternative explanation for the origin of man, one that says life on earth is the result of "intelligent design" by an unknown being or entity.

John West, an associate director of the institute, said the changes will let students analyze "some of the most important and controversial aspects of modern evolutionary theory such as the fossil record and universal common descent."

Representatives for the Texas Freedom Network, which fought to scuttle the "weaknesses" rule, said it will seek to rescind the amendments by social conservatives when the board has a final vote on the curriculum standards in March.

The changes "could provide a small foothold for teaching creationist ideas and dumbing down biology instruction in Texas," said TFN president Kathy Miller, adding that science teachers and college professors will review the changes and make recommendations before the March board meeting.

She also called the board decision against requiring weaknesses of evolution to be taught "a very important victory for sound science education."

All three Dallas-area board members opposed the "weaknesses" rule, citing the recommendations of a review committee of science teachers and academics who contended it would undermine teaching of Darwin's theory. Those board members were Republicans Geraldine Miller of Dallas and Pat Hardy of Weatherford, and Democrat Mavis Knight of Dallas.

Approved on a voice vote, the new curriculum standards spell out not only how evolution is to be covered, but also what is supposed to be taught in all science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as provide the material for state tests and textbooks over the next decade.

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Editorial

Texas Two-Step

New York Times
January 25, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/opinion/26mon3.html

One would think that by now the teaching-evolution-in-schools debate was settled. But not in Texas, where the State Board of Education fumbled a decision on curriculum standards last week. The struggle will be resumed in March, when the board is scheduled to take its final votes on new science standards that will govern what is taught in the classroom and in textbooks.

Seven of the board's 15 members are deemed social conservatives. What the board decides could have an impact on many other states, because Texas is a huge market for textbooks and publishers are often reluctant to produce multiple versions of the same textbook.

The voting, a preliminary test of how the culture-war winds are blowing, concerned whether to approve or amend proposed new standards that had been carefully crafted by teams of educators and other experts. The new standards dropped a phrase that had been in previous ones requiring students to study the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. Although that language may seem innocuous, it has been construed in recent years as code words for introducing critiques of evolution theory put forth by advocates of creationism and its close cousin, intelligent design.

We were heartened when the board beat back, by a very narrow margin, efforts to reintroduce the language on "weaknesses." But the conservative bloc immediately recouped by pushing through amendments that require students to assess the arguments "for and against" common ancestry, a core element of evolution theory, and its "sufficiency or insufficiency" to explain the fossil record. How that differs from the old language of "strengths and weaknesses" is not readily apparent.

The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education.

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Creationism defeated in Texas

by Andy Coghlan
New Scientist
26 January 2009
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16485-creationism-defeated-in-texas.html

Campaigners against the teaching of creationism in science lessons last week celebrated a key victory in Texas.

In meetings to revise science standards in Texan schools, the 15 members of the Texas State Board of Education elected to get rid of wording which has allowed the standing of evolution to be attacked for 20 years in Texan science lessons.

The offending wording invites teachers and students to debate "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. In practice, this was used as a pretext to attack evolution in lessons and textbooks.

"Removing the concept of 'strengths and weaknesses', when the supposed weaknesses are completely bogus, is a real victory," says Michael Zimmerman of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a campaigner against creationism.

"Its removal is a huge step forward," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, and a witness at board meetings last week in Austin, Texas.

Anti-evolution campaign

The clash in Texas is the latest between creationists, orchestrated by the pro-creationism Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, and mainstream scientists.

It follows a much larger test case in 2005 in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, in which the Discovery Institute argued unsuccessfully for science lessons to include "intelligent design" - the idea that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an unspecified designer. The trial exposed intelligent design to be creationism by another name.

The meetings last week were tense, as the elected board was finely split between creationists and scientists. Zimmerman says that six, including the chairman Don McLeroy, are creationists, and seven are definitely pro-science, leaving two "floaters" holding the balance of each vote.

In most cases, science had the edge eight to seven. But the creationists did manage to slip through some late amendments, mainly because of abstentions by members demanding more scientific advice on the matter before deciding.

Transitional fossils

The most serious amendment, one of five in the standards for teaching Earth in space and time, sought to throw doubt on the validity of the fossil record as solid evidence for evolution.

The previous text invited students to: "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness and rate and diversity of evolution".

The altered text, introduced by creationist member Barbara Cargill, slipped the phrase "proposed transitional fossils" into the text, implying unwarranted doubt about whether transitional fossils are genuinely evolutionary staging posts as species changed.

"Transitional fossils are not 'proposed'," says geologist Steven Schafersman, president of the campaign group Texas Citizens for Science. "There is no doubt about their existence, so insertion of the word 'proposed' makes that part unscientific, since it suggests a false uncertainty."

Common descent

Secondly, Cargill scrapped the final clause altogether, replacing it with an invitation for students to "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in the light of this fossil evidence".

In other words, she sought to stimulate unwarranted debate about common descent, the idea that all life arose through evolution.

"This change is by far the most unscientific revision, and is completely unacceptable," says Schafersman. "There are no good arguments in modern science 'against universal common descent', which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply."

In essence, says Schafersman, "the added phrase supports an anti-evolution intent which is not scientific."

No more creationism?

The board is to agree the final text of the draft standard at a meeting on 26-27 March. The hope is that all the anti-evolution amendments can be removed then.

If they are, then Texas schoolbooks will be free of them for at least 10 years. But failure to remove them could lead to spread of the resultant pro-creationist standards to other states.

In the time between now and then, Zimmerman urges people to visit "Teach them Science", a site that he has helped set up through his "Clergy Project" initiative launched in 2006 to promote acceptance of evolution by churchgoers. The site was set up jointly with The Center for Inquiry, a secular group.

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Board's vote to change state evolution curriculum stirs controversy

Ben Wermund
Daily Texan Staff
Monday, January 26, 2009
http://www.dailytexanonline.com/1.1311493

Patricia Hardy, who represents Fort Worth, attends a State Board of Education meeting Friday. The board approved changes to the state's evolution curriculum.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to adopt controversial changes for Texas public schools' science curriculum.

The board deleted the words "strengths and weaknesses" and added language about "analyzing and evaluating" scientific explanations of evolution as argued over during Wednesday's public hearing.

The board also voted to adopt amendments, proposed by some board members during a meeting Thursday, that have many scientists and activist groups concerned.

"Today's adoption was a big victory for making sure kids in Texas get a 21st-century science education, because the strengths-and-weaknesses language has been used for years now by pressure groups to try and dumb down science education" said Dan Quinn, spokesman for watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

"What the creationists on the board succeeded in doing, though, was inserting in smaller, more-narrow places standards that would require students to question some core concepts," Quinn said. "Thursday was essentially their Hail Mary pass because they knew they had lost the big battle."

One of Thursday's most controversial amendments pertained to teaching about fossils.

According to the the amendment, students should "evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages and significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence."

Steven Schafersman, a geologist and a member of the workgroup that helped write the new standards, said the revision is unscientific and unacceptable. Schafersman is also the current president of Texas Citizens for Science, an advocacy group opposing the teaching of creationism in schools.

"Transitional fossils are not 'proposed,'" Schafersman said in a written response to the amendments. "There is no doubt about their existence, so insertion of the word 'proposed' makes that part unscientific, since it suggests a false uncertainty."

Schafersman added, "There are no good arguments in modern science 'against universal common descent,' which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply, especially to high school students."

Don McLeroy, the chairman of the education board and writer of the amendment, said he would defend it to the hilt.

"I know my amendment will be very controversial, and I'm looking forward to a public debate on evolution," McLeroy said. "Teachers are going to be able to have a really great discussion with students that will encourage a lot of excitement about science. I think it will encourage a lot of debate like we'll have in March, and I think it will be just excellent."

David Bradley, vice chairman of the board, supported Thursday's additional amendments.

"There were some very quality amendments brought in the other day that strengthen the document even further," he said.

While the board voted unanimously for the adoption in Friday's first hearing, the changes will be posted for public comment before being voted on again in the second and final hearing in March. Some board members are still uncertain about the changes made Thursday.

"I support the workgroup document, and basically that's what was adopted," said Bob Craig, a board member from Lubbock. "There were a few minor amendments Thursday, and there's one that I'm still concerned about that I think needs to be looked at."

Mavis B. Knight, a board member from Dallas, also had concerns about the amendments but said she can live with them for now.

"[The changes] appear minor right now, but I won't be really comfortable until I have a chance to discuss them," Knight said. "Even though it's just slight wording change, even one word can change the connotation of something."

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Editorial: Word games with evolution

The Waco Tribune-Herald
Monday, January 26, 2009
http://www.wacotrib.com/opin/content/news/opinion/stories/2009/01/26/01262009waceditorial.html

Was it a victory for science education or a setback? Two votes involving the State Board of Education last week begged such a question.

Thursday, in what brought the most attention and was a stinging setback for evolution opponents, a committee voted to uphold this recommendation made by a curriculum advisory panel:

Drop the current requirement in state standards that requires teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Though the standards in question aren't explicit, it's clear the phrase was meant to open the door to the undermining of evolution theory.

Well, score one for sound science.

Then, in a move that brought less fanfare, the board approved wording proposed by chairman Don McLeroy, a creationist.

It would insert into high school biology standards the requirement to "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

Yikes. Is this a timed exercise?

This confusing wording is a fall-back attempt by the right wing of the board to hang tough in its effort to undermine evolution theory.

Just as Texas' standards have shed the "strengths and weaknesses" wording pending final approval in March, so should this add-on be subtracted.

Such wording is micromanaging, down to the microbe, what biology classes teach.

Ingenuously, the anti-evolution forces call it "censorship" to remove the "strengths and weaknesses" requirement from standards. No, it isn't. No one, certainly not teachers, is prohibited from addressing the intricate and fascinating scientific debate over the origins of species.

At the same time, language like the proposed dictum on "common ancestry" is tantamount to putting words in science teachers' mouths, quite an indulgence coming from nonscientists.

Texans should insist that when these standards are finalized, religiously driven word games are not part of the end result. The result should be science in science class.

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Fossils

Some on Texas Education Board prove yet again that evolution is a long, slow process


Houston Chronicle Editorial
Jan. 27, 2009
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/6233709.html

Finally, the science curriculum for Texas students and its standards for teaching evolution are poised to enter the 21st century. Well, almost. It sure looked that way for a while when the Texas Board of Education met last week to set standards for its new science curriculum.

But, as if to remind the world that evolution is indeed a long, slow process, the social conservatives on the board are still attempting — in the face of all reliable evidence to the contrary — to keep the bogus controversy over evolution alive and to sabotage, yet again, Texas’ chances of being taken seriously in the realms of science and education.

It started off pretty well: In an 8–7 vote last Thursday, the board took a stand for scientific integrity when it voted to remove a contentious phrase from its curriculum standards, following the recommendations of a panel of teachers and scientists.

That phrase — the requirement that teachers should present the “strengths and weaknesses” of various scientific theories, including evolution — had long been viewed by scientists as a back-door attempt to inject creationism into the teaching of evolution.

It was first inserted into the standards 20 years ago to mollify religious conservatives, but became an issue in the last several years as the board added more socially conservative members with strong stands on social issues covered in textbooks.

But this same faction — which includes both the chair and vice chair of the board, and has the support of Gov. Rick Perry — immediately tacked on several amendments that could serve the same purpose if they survive a final vote in March.

A majority of the board voted that students should assess, among other red herrings, arguments against “universal common descent,” a generally accepted principle of evolution that all organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestral gene pool.

As with the finally discredited “weaknesses” provision, this is a none too subtle attempt to undermine scientific evidence with a particular religious belief.

After the final vote by the board, standards will be adopted for new biology textbooks. But the content of the books has ramifications far beyond Texas, which is one of the nation’s largest buyers of textbooks. Publishers would prefer not to have to print several versions of a given textbook, and these books will be in use for the next 10 years.

That’s far too long for Texas students to be sidetracked and confused by unscientific twaddle posing as honest inquiry. Let’s hope that come the vote in March, the voices of reason — and science — will prevail.


Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 January 27