News Articles and Editorials about the Forced Resignation of
Texas Education Agency Director of Science
Christine Castillo Comer
State science curriculum director resigns
Move comes months before comprehensive curriculum review.
By Laura Heinauer
Thursday, November 29, 2007
TEA director of science curriculum resignation letter
TEA memo regarding director of science curriculum
The state's director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.
Chris Comer, who has been the Texas Education Agency's director of science curriculum for more than nine years, offered her resignation this month.
In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation.
Agency officials declined to comment, saying it was a personnel issue.
Comer was put on 30 days paid administrative leave shortly after she forwarded an e-mail in late October announcing a presentation being given by Barbara Forrest, author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," a book that says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Forrest was also a key witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case concerning the introduction of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, "FYI."
Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, "it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science."
The memo adds, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."
In addition to the e-mail, the memo lists other reasons for recommending termination, including Comer's failure to get prior approval to give a presentation and attend an off-site meeting after she was told in writing this year that there were concerns about her involvement with work outside the agency.
It also criticized Comer for allegedly saying that then-acting Commissioner Robert Scott was "only acting commissioner and that there was no real leadership at the agency."
Comer, who hadn't spoken about her resignation publicly until Wednesday, said she thinks politics about evolution were behind her firing.
"None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. Comer said her comments about Scott, who eventually received the commissioner appointment, were misconstrued. "I don't remember saying that. But even if I did, is that so horrible?" she said. "He was, after all, acting commissioner at the time."
Comer said other employees don't report off-site activities and that the presentation mentioned in the memo had been approved previously. Agency officials did not respond to Comer's assertions.
As for the e-mail, Comer said she did pause for a "half second" before sending it, but said she thought that because Forrest was a highly credentialed speaker, it would be OK.
Comer's resignation comes just months before the State Board of Education is to begin reviewing the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the statewide curriculum that will be used to determine what should be taught in Texas classrooms and what textbooks are bought.
Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the issue of teaching creationism in schools has not been debated by the board in some time.
"There's been a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught. And while we've had a great deal of public comment about evolution and creationism at state board meetings, it's not been a controversial issue with the board."
The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education. She also served as deputy legislative director for Gov. George W. Bush. She joined the Texas Education Agency as the senior adviser on statewide initiatives in January.
Reynolds, who was out sick the day Comer forwarded the e-mail, received a copy from an unnamed source and forwarded it to Comer's bosses less than two hours after Comer sent it.
"This is highly inappropriate," Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer's supervisors. "I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.
"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which sent the original e-mail to Comer announcing the event, said Comer's situation seems to be a warning to agency employees.
"This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that monitors state textbook content, said the group wants to know more about the case. The network has raised questions about past comments made by State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy about teaching creationism.
"It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller said. "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."
November 29, 2007
Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding a short e-mail message announcing a presentation in Austin by Barbara Forrest. The Austin American-Statesman (November 29, 2007) reported, "Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, 'FYI.'" Less than two hours later, Lizzette Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, complained to Comer's supervisors, writing, "This is highly inappropriate ... I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities ... it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
The e-mail was then cited in a memorandum (PDF) recommending Comer's termination, the American-Statesman noted: "They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, 'it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.' The memo adds, 'Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.'" Other reasons for recommending her termination were listed in addition.
But Comer told the newspaper that she thought that the long-standing political controversy over evolution education in Texas was responsible: "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott suggested that Comer's termination seemed to be a warning to TEA employees. "This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."
Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which advances a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right, also expressed her concern. "It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller told the American-Statesman. Alluding to previous battles over the place of evolution in Texas science standards and textbooks, she added, "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."
In a report dated November 29, 2007, Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science contended that the real reason that Comer was forced to resign was her defense of the integrity of science education during her long tenure at TEA. Describing Comer as a martyr of science, he added, "But she will not be a victim," predicting that scientists and science teachers in Texas will be "outraged by her treatment by a state agency that is now publicly and officially forgoing accurate and reliable science to serve the ideological and religious biases of a small minority of state public education officials."
Barbara Forrest herself was aghast at the news, telling NCSE, "In my talk, I simply told the truth -- about the history of the 'intelligent design' movement, about the complete rejection of its claims by the scientific community, and about the Kitzmiller trial and my involvement in it. Maybe the TEA can't afford to take a position on what constitutes good science education -- maybe it must remain neutral on whether or not to lie to students about evolution -- but if so, that's just sad." A professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a member of NCSE's board of directors, Forrest is the coauthor (with Paul R. Gross) of Creationism's Trojan Horse.
Comer's resignation comes a few months before the Texas board of education is expected to review the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state science standards that determine both what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state. In 2003, there were concerted if ultimately unsuccessful attempts to wield the TEKS to compromise the treatment of evolution in the textbooks then under consideration, and it is expected that such attempts will recur -- especially since the new president of the board is himself a vocal creationist.
State official blames evolution politics for resignation
Curriculum chief says evolution led to ouster; TEA talks of neutrality
Friday, November 30, 2007
AUSTIN -- The state's director of science curriculum said she resigned this month under pressure from officials who felt she gave the appearance of criticizing the instruction of intelligent design.
The Texas Education Agency put Chris Comer on 30 days' paid administrative leave in late October, resulting in what she described as a forced resignation.
The move came shortly after Ms. Comer forwarded an e-mail announcing a presentation being given by the author of Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse. In the book, author Barbara Forrest says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Ms. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities.
Ms. Comer, who held her position for nine years, said she believes evolution politics were behind her ousting.
"None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said.
TEA officials declined to comment on the personnel matter, but they explained their recommendation to fire Ms. Comer in documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act.
"Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," the officials said.
Next year, the State Board of Education begins a review of the state science curriculum, which will set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection.
The TEA documents show agency officials recommended firing Ms. Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination.
The officials said that forwarding the e-mail conflicted with Ms. Comer's job responsibilities. The e-mail also violated a directive for her not to communicate with anyone outside the agency regarding the upcoming science curriculum review, officials said in the documents.
The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, started the push to fire Ms. Comer over the e-mail.
"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports," Ms. Reynolds said in an e-mail to Ms. Comer's supervisors.
Ms. Reynolds joined the agency in January and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education and as a deputy legislative director during President Bush's term as governor.
Advocacy groups said the action against Ms. Comer was troubling.
"This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."
Evolution Debate Led to Ouster, Official Says
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: November 30, 2007
AUSTIN, Tex., Nov. 29 (AP) — The state’s director of science curriculum said she resigned this month under pressure from officials who said she had given the appearance of criticizing the teaching of intelligent design.
The Texas Education Agency put the director, Chris Comer, on 30 days’ paid administrative leave in late October, resulting in what Ms. Comer called a forced resignation.
The move came shortly after she forwarded an e-mail message announcing a presentation by Barbara Forrest, an author of "Creationism’s Trojan Horse." The book argues that creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Ms. Comer sent the message to several people and a few online communities.
Ms. Comer, who held her position for nine years, said she believed evolution politics were behind her ousting. "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said.
Education agency officials declined to comment Wednesday on the matter. But they explained their recommendation to fire Ms. Comer in documents obtained by The Austin American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act.
"Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that T.E.A. endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," the officials said.
The agency documents say that officials recommended firing Ms. Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination.
The officials said forwarding the e-mail message conflicted with her job responsibilities and violated a directive that she not communicate with anyone outside the agency regarding a pending science curriculum review.
The documents criticize Ms. Comer for giving a presentation and attending an off-site meeting without approval. It also said she had complained that "there was no real leadership at the agency."
Americans United Blasts Ouster Of Texas Educator For Supporting Sound Science
Friday, November 30, 2007
Church-State Watchdog Group Calls On Officials To Rehire Staffer Forced Out For Noting Lecture Criticizing 'Intelligent Design'
Officials with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) should rehire a science curriculum expert who was forced to resign after she notified people about a lecture critical of "intelligent design" (ID), says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Chris Comer, director of science curriculum, was pushed out after she circulated an e-mail mentioning that a leading scholarly critic of ID, the latest variant of creationism, would be speaking in Texas. Comer sent a notice about the talk as an "FYI."
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, blasted officials at TEA and called on them to promptly reinstate Comer.
"It’s a sad day when a science expert can lose her job merely for recommending that people hear a speaker defend sound science," Lynn said. "Officials in Texas seem intent on elevating fundamentalist dogma over academic excellence and common sense."
Lizzette Reynolds, a former staff member at the U.S. Department of Education now working for TEA as a senior adviser, played a key role in Comer’s ouster. She responded to Comer’s e-mail about the ID lecture by urging Comer’s bosses to fire her.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that Reynolds’ message said, "This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities. This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
Lynn noted that the lecture on ID was to be given by Barbara Forrest, who serves on the Americans United Board of Trustees. She is an acknowledged expert on intelligent design. Coauthor of the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, Forrest served as an expert witness in a federal lawsuit in Dover, Pa., that struck down the teaching of ID.
"By noting Forrest’s talk, Comer was simply doing her job: alerting people to a resource they might find useful," Lynn said. "I am appalled at this action by TEA and urge officials to immediately correct this gross injustice."
Is misdeed a creation of political doctrine?
By The Editorial Board
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Is this state’s education agency being driven by a political orthodoxy so fierce that it dumped its science director for passing along a harmless e-mail? It’s possible.
Chris Comer was director of the science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency for nearly a decade when she was forced to resign recently. Her offense, as unbelievable as it is to relate, was forwarding an e-mail message about a presentation by an author critical of the intelligent design approach to science education.
The education agency, of course, portrays the problem as one of insubordination and misconduct. But from all appearances, Comer was pushed out because the agency is enforcing a political doctrine of strict conservatism that allows no criticism of creationism.
This state has struggled for years with the ideological bent of the state school board, but lawmakers took away most of its power to infect education some years ago. Politicizing the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the education of children in public schools, would be a monumental mistake.
This isn’t the space to explore the debate over creationism, intelligent design and evolution. Each approach should be fair game for critical analysis, so terminating someone for just mentioning a critic of intelligent design smacks of the dogma and purges in the Soviet era.
But then, this is a new and more political time at the state’s education agency.
Robert Scott, the new education commissioner, is not an educator but a lawyer and former adviser to Gov. Rick Perry. This presents an excellent opportunity for the governor and his appointee to step in firmly to put an end to ideological witch hunts in the agency.
The person who called for Comer to be fired is Lizzette Reynolds, a former deputy legislative director for Gov. George Bush. She joined the state education agency this year as an adviser after a stint in the U.S. Department of Education.
In her memo criticizing Comer, Reynolds said that Comer’s passing along the e-mail "assumes this is a subject that the agency supports." That’s absurd, of course, but it is in keeping with enforcing a doctrine that says creationism must not be criticized.
Creationism is a religious belief that rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution and holds that life on Earth was created by a deity. Intelligent design is the theory that the universe is the result of an intelligent cause - a designer - not natural selection.
Intelligent design has been debated for two decades, and some view it as a way to explain both the biblical account of creation and aspects of evolution. Critics, such as the author whose presentation Comer passed along, believe it is mere cover for creationism.
Whether one accepts the theory of intelligent design or not, discussion encourages scientific exploration, which is what a science curriculum director should do. Forcing Comer out of her job because she passed on an e-mail about the critic’s presentation is egregiously wrong.
It looks like the Texas Education Agency has fallen victim to a smelly little orthodoxy, to quote author George Orwell. And that cannot be good for the schools or the schoolchildren of Texas.
If this agency is indeed in the grip of an unforgiving political ideology, it bears close scrutiny by all Texans.
Official Leaves Post as Texas Prepares to Debate Science Education Standards
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
The New York Times
December 3, 2007
HOUSTON, Dec. 2 — After 27 years as a science teacher and 9 years as the Texas Education Agency’s director of science, Christine Castillo Comer said she did not think she had to remain "neutral" about teaching the theory of evolution.
Christine Comer, the former director of
science in Texas.
"It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law," said Ms. Comer, citing the state’s science curriculum.
But now Ms. Comer, 56, of Austin, is out of a job, after forwarding an e-mail message on a talk about evolution and creationism — "a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," according to a dismissal letter last month that accused her of various instances of "misconduct and insubordination" and of siding against creationism and the doctrine that life is the product of "intelligent design."
Her departure, which has stirred dismay among science professionals since it became public last week, is a prelude to an expected battle early next year over rewriting the state’s science education standards, which include the teaching of evolution.
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state’s education agency in Austin, said Ms. Comer "resigned. She wasn’t fired."
"Our job," Ms. Ratcliffe added, "is to enact laws and regulations that are passed by the Legislature or the State Board of Education and not to inject personal opinions and beliefs."
Ms. Comer disputed that characterization in a series of interviews, her first extensive comments. She acknowledged forwarding to a local online community an e-mail message from the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution group, about a talk in Austin on Nov. 2 by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, a co-author of "Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse" and an expert witness in the landmark 2005 case that ruled against the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover, Pa., schools.
"I don’t see how I took a position by F.Y.I.-ing on a lecture like I F.Y.I. on global warming or stem-cell research," Ms. Comer said. "I send around all kinds of stuff, and I’m not accused of endorsing it." But she said that as a career science educator, "I’m for good science," and that when it came to teaching evolution, "I don’t think it’s any stretch of the imagination where I stand."
Ms. Comer said state education officials seemed uneasy lately over the required evolution curriculum. It had always been part of her job to answer letter-writers inquiring about evolution instruction, she said, and she always replied that the State Board of Education supported the teaching of evolution in Texas schools.
But several months ago, in response to an inquiry letter, Ms. Comer said she was instructed to strike her usual statement about the board’s support for teaching evolution and to quote instead the exact language of the high school biology standards as formulated for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test.
"The student knows the theory of biological evolution," the standards read, and is expected to "identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities and embryology," as well as to "illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior and extinction."
The standards, adopted in 1998, are due for a 10-year review and possible revision after the 15-member elected State Board of Education meets in February, with particular ramifications for the multibillion-dollar textbook industry. The chairman of the panel, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist and Sunday School teacher at Grace Bible Church in College Station, has lectured favorably in the past about intelligent design.
Ms. Ratcliffe, of the Texas Education Agency, said Dr. McLeroy played no part in Ms. Comer’s departure.
Ms. Comer said that barely an hour after forwarding the e-mail message about Dr. Forrest’s talk, she was called in and informed that Lizzette Reynolds, deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, had seen a copy and complained, calling it "an offense that calls for termination." Ms. Comer said she had no idea how Ms. Reynolds, a former federal education official who served as an adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, had seen the message so quickly, and remembered thinking, "What is this, the thought police or what?"
Under pressure, Ms. Comer said, she sent out a retraction, advising recipients to disregard the message.
But Ms. Comer, the divorced mother of a grown son and daughter and the supporter of an ailing father, was still forced out of the $60,000-a-year job, she said, submitting her resignation on Nov. 7. She and the agency said nothing about her departure until The Austin American-Statesman obtained a copy of the "proposed disciplinary action" and her resignation letter.
Ms. Comer said that Tom Shindell, director for organizational development, had told her to resign or be terminated for a series of unauthorized presentations at professional meetings and other reported transgressions.
"Tom," Ms. Comer said she asked, "am I getting fired over evolution?"
Texas Science Curriculum Director Canned for Mentioning Evolution
By Brandon Keim
December 03, 2007
A Texas science education official forced to resign in October wasn't -- as her bosses inisted -- fairly punished for insubordination. Her real crime: daring to tell people about a lecture critical of intelligent design.
The Austin-American Statesman reported last week that science curriculum director Chris Comer's ouster followed her circulation of an email announcing an upcoming speech by Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design and an expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover. That lawsuit was brought in 2005 by Dover, Pennsylvania parents upset with a school board's decision to teach intelligent design -- the belief that some phenomena can only be explained as divinely manufactured -- as a scientific theory comparable to evolution.
A federal judge sided with the parents and legally established intelligent design as religion, not science. But Texas education officials seem to disagree.
Hours after Comer used her work email account to forward the Forrest announcement to friends and a few online communities, Texas Education Agency adviser Lizzette Reynolds emailed Comer's bosses and called for her dismissal. A former legislative adviser to President Bush during his Texas governorship and later a Department of Education appointee, Reynolds wrote, "This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities. This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.”
Education Agency officials mentioned Reynolds' e-mail in their decision to fire Comer. Informing people about Forrest's lecture, they said, "directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science ... [And] implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."
That a science education official should avoid politicization is understandable. However, supporting evolution isn't political; it's scientific. But even if that were not the case, Comer's views weren't clear from her email, to which she'd simply added an "FYI" above the lecture's announcement. It was neutral -- and that gives the lie to the Texas Education Agency's allegations.
As the Austin-American Statesman editorialized this weekend,
The education agency, of course, portrays the problem as one of insubordination and misconduct. But from all appearances, Comer was pushed out because the agency is enforcing a political doctrine of strict conservatism that allows no criticism of creationism.
This state has struggled for years with the ideological bent of the state school board, but lawmakers took away most of its power to infect education some years ago. Politicizing the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the education of children in public schools, would be a monumental mistake.
This isn’t the space to explore the debate over creationism, intelligent design and evolution. Each approach should be fair game for critical analysis, so terminating someone for just mentioning a critic of intelligent design smacks of the dogma and purges in the Soviet era.
In Texas, then, "neutrality" has become a term used by conservatives to preserve ignorance, equate informed debate with partisan heresy and push a radical agenda unsupported by verifiable fact. But it could backfire: next year, the Texas Board of Education will review the state's science curriculum -- and the nation will be watching.
Evolution and Texas
The New York Times
December 4, 2007
Is Texas about to become the next state to undermine the teaching of evolution? That is the scary implication of the abrupt ousting of Christine Comer, the state’s top expert on science education. Her transgression: forwarding an e-mail message about a talk by a distinguished professor who debunks “intelligent design” and creationism as legitimate alternatives to evolution in the science curriculum.
In most states, we hope, the state department of education would take the lead in ensuring that students receive a sound scientific education. But it was the Texas Education Agency that pushed out Ms. Comer after 27 years as a science teacher and 9 years as the agency’s director of science.
As Ralph Blumenthal reported in The Times yesterday, Ms. Comer forwarded to a local online community an e-mail message from a pro-evolution group announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. Professor Forrest testified as an expert witness in a 2005 Dover, Pa., case that found intelligent design supernatural and theological and definitely not part of a scientific education.
An hour later, Ms. Comer was called in by superiors, pressured to send out a retraction and ultimately forced to resign. Her departure was instigated by a new deputy commissioner who had served as an adviser to George Bush when he was governor of Texas and more recently worked in the federal Department of Education.
It was especially disturbing that the agency accused Ms. Comer — by forwarding the e-mail message — of taking a position on “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” Surely the agency should not remain neutral on the central struggle between science and religion in the public schools. It should take a stand in favor of evolution as a central theory in modern biology. Texas’s own education standards require the teaching of evolution.
Those standards are scheduled to be reviewed next year. Ms. Comer’s dismissal and comments in favor of intelligent design by the chairman of the state board of education do not augur well for that review. We can only hope that adherents of a sound science education can save Texas from a retreat into the darker ages.
Official forced out for telling the truth on intelligent design
Corpus Christi Caller-Times
December 4, 2007
Christine Castillo Comer, who was until recently the state's director of science teaching, made the mistake of telling the truth. That is, she intimated that intelligent design is not on the same level as evolution as a natural science. In fact, intelligent design is not science at all, but a stalking horse for an assault on evolution by religious conservatives. Now Comer is out of a job.
State education agency officials told The New York Times that Comer wasn't fired, but resigned.
But the truth is that Comer, who has decades of experience as a science teacher and had been director of science for the Texas Education Agency for nine years, was shown the door.
Her indiscretion was sending out an e-mail in November that informed readers about a lecture in Austin to be given by a prominent supporter of evolution. In turn, this spurred disciplinary action by TEA officials who accused her of misconduct and, most tellingly, for taking sides against intelligent design.
It's no coincidence that Comer's ouster comes before the State Board of Education takes up new science teaching standards early next year.
Intelligent design is no more than Bible-based creationism dressed up as science.
People of faith have a perfect right to hold to their belief within the realm of religion and as part of their individual tenets. But proponents of intelligent design are aiming to supplant evolution, or at least to call it into question, not because there is a scientific basis for questioning the long-held and examined theory of evolution, the basis for all biology and zoology, but to advance their own religious views. In effect, by proposing to insert intelligent design into the schools, they wish to impose their religious views over other students and to undermine science teaching in the bargain.
Texas has managed to avoid the science-bashing exercises that other states have undergone. But the TEA is apparently getting squeamish about its support for evolution with the appointment of a new Education Board chairman who has spoken approvingly of intelligent design.
Education officials say that Comer should have been neutral on evolution. What a shame. Instead of supporting teachers as defenders of truth and scientific inquiry, apparently state education officials want educators to perpetuate an academic scam on the state's schoolchildren in service to special interests.
Ouster of science curriculum chief suggests religious doctrine might be infecting education agency.
Dec. 4, 2007
It would appear that even hinting that intelligent design is religion masquerading as science is forbidden at the Texas Education Agency.
Chris Castillo Comer, a veteran science teacher and for nine years the TEA's director of science curriculum, was forced to resign for what seems like the most trivial of offenses: forwarding an e-mail announcement to her contacts of an upcoming talk by an author of a book critical of the intelligent design movement.
With a State Board of Education review of the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills scheduled early next year, Comer's ouster could portend a renewed effort to establish creationism and intelligent design as science class fare.
Creationism contends that the natural world was created by a deity, while intelligent design seeks to explain evolution as a process set in motion by that creator. The writer whose presentation was mentioned in the e-mail is Barbara Forrest, the coauthor of Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse, and a key witness in a Pennsylvania case that challenged the inclusion of intelligent design in a school district's curriculum. In forwarding the event announcement sent by a pro-evolution group called the National Center for Science Education, Comer was simply alerting people to a relevant presentation by a reputable education writer.
That's not how Lizzette Reynolds, a former U.S. Department of Education employee saw it. Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives for less than a year, fired off a memo calling for Comer's termination less than two hours after the e-mail had been sent. "This is something that the State Board, the governor's office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject the agency supports," Reynolds wrote.
Since Texas policy supports the inclusion of evolution in science curriculum, it's hard to see how Comer was violating state policy by circulating an event notice sent out by a group that also endorses teaching evolution. Although TEA officials later cited Comer's attendance at a meeting of the same group, that seems a bogus rationale for dismissal and a violation of academic freedom.
"Maybe [the TEA] must remain neutral to whether or not to lie to students about evolution — but if so, that's just sad," Forrest said.
It will be more than sad if the Texas Education Agency is leaning toward taking an anti-evolutionary stance and allowing religious doctrine to be taught side by side with valid science in the state's classrooms. If intelligent design is a Trojan horse for creationism, the Comer episode indicates Texans need to be wary of TEA bureaucrats bearing undesirable gifts.
A move worthy of 'monkey trial
By Bill Wineke
Wisconsin State Journal
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
I suppose you don 't really need another reason to be happy you live in Wisconsin and don 't live in Texas.
But, just in case you haven 't thought about the matter recently, here 's one: Texas just forced the resignation of its director of science for the Texas Education Agency because the director is suspected of being pro-evolution.
The director is Christine Comer, a science teacher for 27 years and the science director in Texas for nine. The rap against Comer is that she is insufficiently neutral in the debate between evolution and "intelligent design. "
Evolution posits that life evolves through a process of natural selection. It is a theory that has been tested and proved over and over and over again. Intelligent design is a theory suggesting life is so complex it must be the result of a superior intelligence. It is an appealing theory, suggesting that God planned things to work out the way they have. The problem is there is no way to test it against reality.
The intelligent design theory was developed after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1987, ruled schools couldn 't teach "creation science " as fact. Intelligent design has virtually no backing among scientists. It has been condemned by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Comer 's superiors at the Texas Education Agency said that by forwarding an e-mail about a lecture from an opponent of intelligent design, Comer violated a state policy saying that evolution is "a subject on which the agency must remain neutral. "
Are the official leaders of education in the Texas really saying the state 's director of science is supposed to be "neutral " on this issue? Are Texas teachers really supposed to go back to the days of the Scopes "monkey trial? "
Yes. That is exactly what the state education agency is saying.
"Our job is to enact laws and regulations that are passed by the Legislature or the State Board of Education and not to inject personal opinions and beliefs, " Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency told the New York Times.
And that 's where the story gets interesting. Those standards are up for review in February and the chairman of the panel doing the reviewing is a proponent of intelligent design.
This is distressing.
If proponents of this scientific quackery can terrorize a state education agency and force the resignation of a veteran science teacher, they will establish a precedent that will cripple serious science education not only in Texas but around the country. That 's the last thing this country needs.
The Program for International Student Achievement, an organization that ranks students around the world, reported Tuesday that in science American students ranked lower than their peers in 16 other countries in 2006. That 's out of 30 countries ranked. We 're in the bottom half.
This is not the time to be promoting religious romanticism over the scientific method. Revelation has its place. That place is not in the science classroom.
Why science needs history
Commentary by Rick Casey
Dec. 5, 2007
A recent flap at the Texas Education Agency demonstrates why we need to teach history better so we can teach science better.
After nine years as the Texas Education Agency's science director, Chris Comer resigned after being suspended for appearing to oppose the "intelligent design" theory of the origins of the universe.
TEA officials say other factors were involved in her firing, but e-mails obtained by the Austin American-Statesman make clear that Comer's scientific orthodoxy and apparent political heresy were a major factor.
Her mortal sin was that in October she sent an e-mail to an Austin online community announcing an upcoming lecture by Barbara Forrest, a Southeast Louisiana University philosophy professor and co-author of Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse.
Forrest is hardly alone in her notion that "intelligent design," which argues that gaps in evolution theory means that a Creator must be responsible for the universe, is itself the creation of biblical creationists.
Two years ago a federal judge in Pennsylvania, after listening to six weeks of expert testimony and legal arguments, ruled a school board could not require the teaching of "intelligent design," which he called "creationism relabeled."
Apparently the first call for Comer's firing came from TEA staffer Lizzette Reynolds who had been sent a copy of the e-mail. Reynolds served as a legislative director for then-Gov. George Bush and went on to serve in his U.S. Department of Education. She was hired as the TEA's "senior adviser on statewide initiatives" last January.
A Christian nation
Reynolds e-mailed Comer's bosses, saying Comer's apparent recommendation of the lecture "is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities."
So a science educator should be fired for promoting a lecture by a supporter of science? What kinds of "statewide initiatives" does this senior adviser promote? One possibility: The State Board of Education soon will review our schools' science curriculum.
Promoters of creationism and intelligent design sometimes suggest that the biblical account deserves a special place in our schools (as opposed to, say, Hindu or Hopi creation stories) because the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation.
Here are some historical incidents that prove that we were, indeed, founded as a Christian nation:
• In the early 17th century, Sam Maverick, an English immigrant to Boston and an ancestor of the famous Texas Mavericks, was jailed for repeatedly missing church.
• About the same time, Baptist preacher Roger Williams came to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution in England. After being quoted as saying local Puritan authorities "cannot without a spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship," he was secretly warned by Gov. John Winthrop that he was in peril.
He fled to live with a group of Native Americans, then purchased what is now Rhode Island from them, setting it up as a colony that honored religious freedom.
• In 1844, a Jesuit priest in Maine advised Catholic families to go to court to block a school board order that required their children to read the Protestant King James version of the Bible in school. The priest was grabbed by a mob while hearing confessions on a Saturday evening, stripped of his clothes, tarred and feathered.
• In 1859, 11-year-old Tom Wall refused to recite the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments in his Boston public school. After consulting with his principal, Tom's teacher hit the boy across the knuckles with a 3-foot rattan stick.
The boy again refused. The punishment was repeated. The boy still refused. After half an hour of the painful punishment, he relented despite fearing that he was betraying his God. His father filed assault charges and went to court to challenge the reading requirement. He lost.
• In 1869, the Cincinnati school board voted 22-15 to honor the request of Catholic parents to end the reading of the Bible in school. Protestant parents filed suit.
A three-judge panel ruled 2-1 for the Protestants, saying the reading of the Bible was necessary for good government.
The doctrine of separation of church and state is not found in the Constitution. It evolved through the courts and through public consensus based on painful experience.
It was not a sop to Jews or Muslims or ACLU atheists. It was developed to keep some Christians from ruling the consciences of other Christians, just as for centuries they had attempted to do in Europe.
Its logic was most forcefully stated by the Christian judges of the Ohio Supreme Court, who overturned the above ruling with these words:
"When Christianity asks the aid of government beyond mere impartial protection, it denies itself. Its laws are divine and not human. Its essential interests lie beyond the reach and range of human governments. United with government, religion never rises above the merest superstition; united with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows us that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better it is for both."
Politicization of science
Column by John Young
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
When it comes to explaining human origins and early man, don’t forget:
The club came before fire.
Long before man figured out that lumber could be burned to illuminate and heat the cave, he knew that he could wield lumber to clobber his fellow man.
That was the case in Austin the other day in a 21st-century way.
A person whose job was illumination got clubbed.
Some alarmed observers assert that it was way too symbolic. The clubbing, they say, was on the altar of those who insist dinosaurs and man shared the same marshes a few thousand years ago.
Whatever the case, what happened to Chris Comer appears to have set us back a few eons — if we’ve been here that long.
Comer until last month was the director of science curricula for the Texas Education Agency. In that role she had won high marks for devotion to high standards when science class is ever in the cross hairs of the oh-so-powerful religious right.
Heaven forfend that each of us would be fired for what Comer did. She committed the 21st-century offense of forwarding an e-mail.
Neutrality on this?
The agency says that act alone isn’t what cost Comer her job. But according to one TEA official high up in the clubbing order, it was enough unto itself.
The forwarded e-mail was about an upcoming speaking engagement by Barbara Forrest, author of Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse.
Forrest is an expert on the cottage industry devoted to Biblicizing science class by getting a foot in the academic door with the theory of intelligent design.
TEA officials said that Comer’s forwarding of an announcement about Forrest’s speech was tantamount to endorsing the anti-creation science point of view.
Imagine. Someone devoted to real science forwarding an e-mail about someone devoted to the same thing.
To Lizette Reynolds, this act was unfathomable, “an offense that calls for termination.”
The accused, for nine years TEA’s science curricular chief, you might call the definition of an education professional. The accuser you might call the definition of a political appointee. A former staffer to Gov. George W. Bush, Reynolds worked a few years in his U.S. Department of Education. As of last January, she’s been senior adviser to TEA Commissioner Robert Scott.
Reynolds said Comer violated an agency position of neutrality on intelligent design. I guess you can read anything you want into the act of forwarding an e-mail.
Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education said that she reads “the politicization of science education” into the fact that Comer has lost her job for it.
People who are concerned about this point out that Comer’s ouster comes just as TEA prepares next month to rewrite the state’s essential elements for teaching science.
Concerns have been expressed that a right-leaning State Board of Education might seek to diminish the current requirement to teach about evolutionary biology.
Instead, the thrust for the creation science-intelligent design crowd is to cast doubt, to require that teachers “teach the controversy.”
But there’s no controversy about evolution as a process, just as no controversy surrounds the greenhouse effect and what increased greenhouse gases do in an atmosphere.
We can only hope that the state school board is not so inclined as to turn discussions of evolution, as with the greenhouse effect, into the picking of nits that completely undermines and ignores the immense science backing both biological facts.
Steve Schafersman, a PhD and president of Texas Citizens for Science, says Chris Comer now joins the ranks of “martyrs of science, much like Galileo and Nikolai Vavilov,” the latter jailed by Stalinist Russia for studying genetics. Yes, that was a crime.
Imagine what a crime the Stalinists would have assigned to forwarding an e-mail.
Viewpoint: Monkey business
The Daily Texan
In 1925, John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher, taught his class about Darwinism and ignited a countrywide debate, not to mention one of the most dramatic trials of the 20th century. In what became known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," he was charged with violating a Tenneesee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. After the intense eight-day trial that brought to light the everlasting battles between church and state and science and religion, Scopes was found guilty and sentenced to pay a $100 fine.
Fast forward to today in Texas. Christine Comer, who served as the science director of the Texas Education Agency for nine years, left her post because she came under fire for questioning creationism. And perhaps questioning is even too strong a word - all Comer did was forward an e-mail about a lecture on the subject to a colleague. But that action was enough to stir certain Texas education officials into a tailspin. And these officials, many of whom have close connections to our home-grown boy over in Washington, called for Comer's resignation.
Texas school standards expect evolution to be taught in science classes. Apparently, however, those guidelines do not coincide with the personal beliefs of many state education officials, creating the dissonance that perhaps forced Comer from her job. For example, the chair of the Texas Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a Sunday school teacher who has given talks on the merits of intelligent design.
Rumors whisper that the Board of Education wants to tighten the state's stance on intelligent design when the school standards come up for review next year. Right now, Texas' needle of opinion on intelligent design points at neutral, but even that position upsets many.
According to UT integrative biology professor Eric Pianka, intelligent design is "creation by another name." At least one federal judge agrees with him. In the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Judge John E. Jones III slammed the Dover Area School Board for voting to amend Dover High School's curriculum to allow for exploration of intelligent design after several parents complained about the district's one-sided approach to the theory of life. Jones ruled this action unconstitutional and forbade intelligent design from being taught in Dover schools, proclaiming the concept "flawed and illogical."
And Jones is not the only one who believes intelligent design is academically insubstantial. In an e-mail to The Daily Texan, assistant professor of integrative biology Dan Bolnick wrote: "I know of only one piece of original peer-reviewed research that has been published supporting intelligent design, and every biologist I know considers the study design to be fundamentally flawed. In contrast, there were 1,570 original peer-reviewed research papers with the key words 'natural selection' or 'sexual selection' in their title or abstract last year alone, and these papers are only a subset of evolutionary subjects."
Darwin's theory of evolution may be just that - a theory, and as much of one as intelligent design - but scientifically, a theory is a call for questioning and synthesis, and a path toward tangible fact. Science and religion exist in different realms and cannot - should not - be reconciled, especially in textbooks.
"It's a poor thing for scientists to say 'I believe in evolution.' Believing in evolution is not scientific. The way science works is by keeping an open mind," Pianka said.
Agenda-ridden boards and agencies cry dogma back and forth, but science is science. Proof is proof. There are facts and there are suppositions, and as the TEA has proven, the former does not belong in the realm of political politesse. But the latter does not belong in our schools. - L.F.
Bad sign from Texas Education Agency
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Texas parents, teachers and lawmakers should be extremely upset over the recent dismissal of the Texas Education Agency’s director of science curriculum.
Chris Castillo Comer, whose credentials include 27 years as a science teacher and nine years as the agency’s director of science, got the old heave-ho from the TEA for forwarding an e-mail to some colleagues and others about an upcoming talk by a university professor and author of a book critical of creationism and intelligent design.
She forwarded an e-mail about an issue that should be of interest to most Texans — especially people involved in science, teaching or the science curriculum in schools.
Comer’s firing offense was not advocating a position regarding creationism or intelligent design. She simply passed along an e-mail that Barbara Forrest, author of Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse, was giving a presentation involving her book.
The e-mail cited Forrest’s role as witness in a 2005 Dover, Pa., federal lawsuit that struck down a school board’s requirement that intelligent design be taught in public school science classes.
In a 139-page detailed ruling, federal Judge John E. Jones III, a 2002 Bush appointee, ruled that intelligent design is not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”
After six weeks of expert testimony, Judge Jones concluded that requiring intelligent design to be taught in public schools was unconstitutional since it violated the Establishment Clause forbidding the state from promoting religion.
While it is reasonable to assume that a talk on this subject would be of interest to many in Texas, Lizzette Reynolds, TEA’s senior adviser on statewide initiatives, viewed Comer’s forwarded e-mail as grounds for dismissal.
According to documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act, Reynolds fired off her own e-mail to Comer’s bosses.
“This is something that the State Board, the Gov.’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports,” Reynolds wrote.
TEA officials took the advice of Reynolds, who formerly advised George Bush as governor.
The TEA put Comer on 30 days paid administrative leave. Though her departure was classified as a resignation, Comer calls it a forced resignation.
Because the State Board of Education will review the state science curriculum next year and set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection, Comer’s abrupt removal could signal an opening for the insertion of creationism or intelligent design into science classrooms in Texas.
Texas parents, teachers and lawmakers should be on guard that the state avoids the mistakes that led to the 2005 Dover, Pa., lawsuit.
Education workers reined in before curriculum review, ex-administrator says
Employees are often asked not to take sides before state board takes action on topics such as science courses, agency spokeswoman says.
By Laura Heinauer
Austin American-Statesman Staff
Thursday, December 06, 2007
It started with restrictions on travel and extended in recent months to warnings about what certain Texas Education Agency employees could say and include in presentations about an upcoming science curriculum review, a former official said.
The chill that has descended on the state's curriculum department started about a year ago and intensified in the past few months, said Chris Comer, the agency's former head of science curriculum for the past nine years.
Comer said she was forced to resign shortly after forwarding an e-mail message that her superiors felt was biased against the idea that life is a result of intelligent design.
"We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it," Comer said, maintaining that her ouster was political and that she felt persecuted for having supported the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms.
Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said that reminders to be unbiased are not unusual before curriculum reviews and that staffers' computer slide presentations have been looked at in advance since this summer to ensure that they were consistent.
She said charges of misconduct against Comer were prompted by a lack of professionalism and not by politics associated with the hiring of a former Bush administration employee as Comer's boss or the appointment of a self-avowed creationist to chair the State Board of Education.
Ratcliffe said that although there are no written rules defining what agency employees can say regarding evolution, creationism or intelligent design, employees in the curriculum department were verbally warned recently to be careful when dealing with issues that might come up as part of the state's upcoming curriculum adoption process.
"An employee shouldn't say something that's contrary to the curriculum, and they shouldn't look like they are siding with one camp over another," Ratcliffe said. "It's no secret that there are political differences on the State Board of Education. ... And employees have to be able to work with all the members in a fair way without the perception that they are siding with one group or another. That's why it's important for us to be neutral on issues and just to say what the policy is and not to create it ourselves."
After typing the abbreviation "FYI" in the body, Comer forwarded an e-mail from a pro-evolution group announcing a speech by Barbara Forrest, a key witness in a court case in Pennsylvania that ruled against teaching intelligent design in schools. It was sent to several individuals and two e-mail discussion groups used by science educators.
"Obviously, there was a concern about the forwarding of that e-mail ... that she was supporting that particular speaker and (how) that could be construed ... as taking a position that could be misinterpreted by some people," Ratcliffe said.
Comer said curriculum employees at the agency have been scrutinized increasingly for the past year. It started with restrictions on travel to conferences; then, two months ago, came a verbal requirement that all slide shows had to be submitted for approval by the governor's office.
"We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't speak," she said. "They just started wanting everything to be channeled."
Ratcliffe said, "In general, when someone has performance issues, their work product is more likely to be reviewed than others."
In the case of Comer's e-mail controversy, it was Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs and a former U.S. Education Department employee, who appeared to have raised the first alarm.
Reynolds came to the agency in January and was put in charge of the curriculum division in September. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
About an hour and a half after Comer's e-mail was sent, Reynolds, who was also an adviser to George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas, forwarded it to her superiors, calling it "an offense that calls for termination."
Ratcliffe said Comer's position has not been filled or even posted.
In an early November memorandum, the forwarded e-mail was one of several reasons for which agency officials said Comer should be terminated.
Comer was also cited for comments she was said to have made in October about a lack of leadership at the agency.
She was further cited for not obtaining approval to attend an October meeting in Austin on a new online training program for teachers and for not getting approval to make a presentation to the Texas Science Educational Leadership Association in August that included information about the upcoming education board review of science curriculum standards.
Board Chairman Don McLeroy said that he does expect evolution to be a hot topic during the upcoming review and that neither he nor anyone else on the board had anything to do with Comer's resignation.
"As far as I'm concerned, (agency employees) can say what they want," McLeroy said. "They've got freedom of speech."
Currently, evolution is spelled out as a concept that should be taught in Texas science classrooms; creationism and intelligent design are not.
Proponents of intelligent design say that evolution is an incomplete and unverified theory and that good science mandates students study its scientific criticisms and disputes.
Most scientists, however, say that the theory of evolution has been thoroughly tested and modified when necessary using sound scientific principals and that intelligent design is nothing more than a repackaged form of creationism that cannot be tested scientifically.
The American Psychological Association, among many science groups across the country, has refuted the claim that intelligent design is science at all.
In its 2007 Resolution on the Teaching of Intelligent Design, the group said, "Proponents of intelligent design present ID theory as a viable alternative scientific explanation for the origins and diversity of life. However, ID has not withstood the scrutiny of scientific peer review of its empirical, conceptual, or epistemological bases and thus is not properly regarded as a scientific theory."
In its deliberations on what Texas students should be taught about science, the education board will hear public testimony and receive recommendations from educators before voting on curriculum standards for all public schools in the state.
McLeroy said that although he is a creationist, he doesn't necessarily think creationism should be taught in schools. Rather, he said, he supports current curriculum standards that say students should "analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses."
McLeroy said he would support changes that further spell out what evolution's strengths and weaknesses are.
Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, said he plans to fight to get the "strengths and weaknesses" language removed from the state's curriculum standards.
The group is one of several that have questioned why state employees need to remain neutral on the subject.
"This 'teach the controversy' and 'weaknesses of evolution' is nothing more than an attempt to distort and disparage what really is one of the most highly corroborated explanations in science," Schafersman said.
On intelligent design, a lesson in Political Science 101
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Fri, Dec. 07, 2007
To heck with what's in your wallet. What's in your kid's science textbook?
If the ruling mullahs in Austin get their way, creation theology will be there, no matter whether we want religion mixed with classroom science.
Gov. Rick Perry already said that he supports teaching "intelligent design" - the belief that a higher power had a hand in creation.
He called it a "valid scientific theory."
Perry, of course, has a Texas A&M University degree in science - animal science.
His degree certainly should help him identify the BS that came out of the Texas Education Agency recently.
On the eve of a rewrite of school science curriculum, the state director of science curriculum resigned under pressure, punished for forwarding an e-mail about a speech criticizing creationism.
Those who believe in teaching creation as science often argue that both sides of a debate should be heard.
Yet when Christine Castillo Comer, a former science teacher, forwarded an e-mail announcing a public speech by creationism critic Barbara Forrest, suddenly that side no longer needed to be heard.
Comer, 57, landed in the cross hairs of Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, the TEA's acting deputy commissioner. Reynolds complained that Comer's e-mail "calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment. .... It assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."
TEA officials have said that Comer had been warned, and that employees have been told, not to take sides on the validity of evolution.
An agency official will rewrite the science curriculum next year, presumably to match Perry's view and that of religious conservatives on the state school board.
Texas already teaches evolution as a theory.
The question is whether it is science's only theory.
Kevin Fisher, the science coordinator for Lewisville schools, is a past president of Texas science teachers.
"The most astonishing part of this is that the Texas Education Agency would want science classes to remain neutral between evolution, which is science, and creationism, which is religion," Fisher said. "I think everybody in Texas wants a 21st-century education for our children. Bringing creationism into the classroom is 15th-century education."
Creationism has a place in church, Fisher said, but not in science classes.
Comer, a former San Antonio middle school science teacher, had been the state director of science curriculum for nine years.
Reynolds, the TEA adviser who complained, apparently has no teaching experience.
According to her résumé, she has a degree in political science. She worked for a Panhandle state senator and as a lobbyist before moving to then-Gov. George W. Bush's office and on to Washington and the Department of Education.
Returning to Austin this year, she was hired by the TEA and is now listed as an acting deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, overseeing state testing and educator standards.
For Barbara Forrest, the Louisiana philosophy professor mentioned in the e-mail, the news of Comer's resignation is chilling.
"It's scary when science has become so politicized that simply mentioning a lecture can cost someone her job," Forrest said by phone from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La.
Along with co-author Paul R. Gross, a former University of Virginia provost and biology professor, she wrote Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. The book argues that evangelicals want creationism taught as science to wedge religion into school.
"What happened in Texas is absurd," Gross said, calling from Massachusetts. "To have forced out a longtime administrator is low-class."
Instead of a science lesson today, let's all sing that old classic from the governor's hymn book:
Gimme that old-time ... politics.
Opinion - Editorials
Dallas Morning News
Friday, December 7, 2007
The state of Texas doesn't merely advocate teaching the science of evolution; our education policy requires it. So why jettison a high-ranking educator who seems to have no problem carrying out that policy?
Christine Comer was forced to resign as director of science at the Texas Education Agency on Nov. 7 after she had forwarded an e-mail notice about an Austin lecture, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," by a professor who serves on the board of the National Center for Science Education. Ms. Comer provided no commentary with her message. But the mere fact that she forwarded it was deemed by her bosses as advocacy.
TEA Education Commissioner Robert Scott explained that other factors played into her dismissal. He couldn't discuss personnel matters, but he specified that "she may have given the impression that we were taking a position as an agency – not as an individual, but as an agency – on a matter."
Ms. Comer declined to comment to us. But she told The New York Times she felt she was being monitored by the "thought police" when her boss, Deputy Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds, quickly seized upon the e-mail as a firing offense.
We hope this isn't the beginning of a worrisome trend within the new leadership of the TEA and State Board of Education. Professional educators need assurance that no one aims to impose a religious agenda on students and require the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in science classes.
If Ms. Comer was incompetent, it's certainly not reflected by her 27-year career as a teacher and nine years of service as director of science. The impression we get is that her bosses were gunning for her, and the forwarded e-mail was the most expedient excuse they could find.
This action could not have sent a worse message to our state's educators, when we should be doing everything possible to encourage people to choose teaching as a career, not frightening or bullying them into leaving.
Point of Contact
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Our Q & A with Robert Scott, education commissioner of the Texas Education Agency in Austin. He spoke about last month's dismissal of Christine Comer, the agency's director of science curriculum, after she forwarded an e-mail to colleagues about a lecture advocating the science of evolution over creationism.
Q. This issue has generated nationwide coverage and criticism. Are people's concerns unjustified that Ms. Comer's bosses appear to be imposing a religious or political agenda at the agency?
A. I'm aware of the reports and a bit disturbed by them because they're not based in reality or fact. It's speculation as to motivation [for her dismissal], speculation as to outcome, speculation as to whether we're going to try to hire somebody with a political bent. There are no litmus tests for employment at TEA. This is not about the curriculum standards. ... The political ideology – or lack thereof – or the religious nature of a staffer at the agency is irrelevant to the process.
Q. Is it true she was forced to resign just because she forwarded that e-mail message without even commenting on it?
A. That's an absolute falsehood. It's a personnel matter. The really frustrating part about this is, if I start talking about activities and things that happened, I get sued. So all I can say is that there are other factors, and I understand that certain interest groups would like to pick upon that one issue and make it the issue of the day. ... That's their business, but that's not how we're running the agency.
Q. Was her advocacy of evolution over creationism an element in her dismissal?
A. She wasn't advocating anything. My understanding is that the e-mail she forwarded – let me rephrase that. She wasn't advocating for evolution. But she may have given the impression that ... we were taking a position as an agency – not as an individual but as an agency – on a matter.
Q. Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution? Texas students are required to study it.
A. I don't think the impression was that we were taking a position in favor of evolution. We teach evolution in public schools. It's part of our curriculum. But you can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too. I don't know all the facts, but I think that may be the real issue here. I can't speak to motivation but ... we have standards of conduct and expect those standards of conduct to be followed.
State rebukes evolution foe
An Education Department official used her position to oppose the science standard.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
December 8, 2007
The debate over evolution, creation and Florida's science standards has grown increasingly heated as a decision nears, and a state Department of Education manager who has waded into it now finds herself in hot water.
Selena "Charlie" Carraway, program manager for the department's Office of Instructional Materials, recently used her personal e-mail on personal time to send a missive urging fellow Christians to fight the proposal to include evolution as a "key idea" in the science curriculum.
But she invoked her position as a way to, in her words, "give this e-mail credibility." And that, it turns out, is a no-no.
"It is inappropriate for any department employee to use their public position to advocate their personal positions," department spokesman Tom Butler said Friday. "Ms. Carraway has been counseled."
That means human resources personnel met with Carraway and warned her not to do this again, but she remains on the job.
That's quite a different result than the one that befell the Texas Education Agency's director of science for a similar situation.
Last month, Christine Comer was forced to resign from her job in Texas after forwarding an e-mail announcement of a speech by an author who favored teaching evolution. In several articles, Comer blamed evolution politics for her fate in Texas, which also is reviewing its science standards.
Observers familiar with both situations said it looked like Carraway, more than Comer, had done something deserving of reprimand. They praised the Florida Education Department for acting with restraint.
"They behaved with much more proportionality," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education. "Indeed, Ms. Carraway should not use her public position to promote her religious position. ... Now she has a second chance, and hopefully she'll behave more responsibly."
Joe Wolf, president of the pro-evolution Florida Citizens for Science, agreed.
"I think she's allowing her religious beliefs to interfere with her public duty," Wolf said. "I wish she hadn't done it. But I think it's an internal matter."
Scott and Wolf both observed that such restraint can be difficult in this charged atmosphere.
Carraway did not respond to several requests for an interview. Butler said he confirmed that the e-mail in question, which has been widely distributed across Florida, came from her.
Here's how she introduced herself:
"My name is Charlie Carraway, and I'm a member of Sopchoppy Southern Baptist Church, Sopchoppy, Florida, but I also work for the Florida Department of Education as the Director of the Office of Instructional Materials," Carraway wrote. "That means I oversee the adoption process of books and materials in the state, and I work in close proximity to the folks in the Office of Mathematics and Science, who have been in charge of the revision of the science standards. I say all of this, obviously, to give this e-mail credibility."
Carraway detailed the proposed standards, which have won accolades from scientists, and provided ways to contact the State Board of Education.
"Once these become adopted standards and benchmarks, FCAT assessment will be based on them," she wrote. "Districts will not have a choice in teaching evolution as a theory, but will be expected to teach it as stated in these standards, big ideas, and benchmarks. ... Whose agenda is this and will the Christians in Florida care enough to do something about it?"
She ended by urging recipients to lobby against the standards, ending, "The least we can do is make sure evolution is presented to our children and grandchildren as a theory as it has been in the past. Hopefully, though, we can do better than that." Carraway was not part of the committee that recommended the science standards.
Carraway is just the latest public official to get embroiled in the controversy, which has gained national attention. The Polk County School Board has stated it might allow alternatives to evolution to be in its schools, and State Board of Education member Donna Callaway gained attention for her statement that evolution "should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origins of life."
The State Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposed science standards early in 2008. The public can comment on the proposals through Dec. 14 at http://www.flstandards.org.
Science, not faith, belongs in schools
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 12/10/2007
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released the results of a test that assesses science and math skills of students in 30 industrialized countries. The results showed American students scored in the bottom half — worse than their peers from 16 other countries, and better than only those from Italy, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Mexico.
U.S. students do not reach "the baseline level of achievement ... at which students begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology," the report says. The comparative results for math were even worse.
Many explanations exist for the lagging performance in science by American students. One that cannot be avoided is that some of the adults who are responsible for their science educations don't take science seriously enough.
Christine Comer was a science teacher for 27 years. And for nine years until last month, she was the Texas Education Agency's director of science. She says she was forced to resign because — hold on to your monkey trials — she failed to show impartiality in the debate between advocates of intelligent design and evolution.
Specifically, the Austin-American Statesman reported, she forwarded an e-mail to a pro-evolution group announcing a speech by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. Forrest served as a key witness in a Pennsylvania court case that found intelligent design lacked sufficient evidence to be included in a scientific curriculum.
That puts Forrest and Comer at odds with some members of the State Board of Education. "Employees have to be able to work with all the members in a fair way without the perception that they are siding with one group or another," spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told the newspaper. "That's why it's important for us to be neutral on issues and just to say what the policy is and not to create it ourselves."
Ratcliffe obviously didn't catch the irony of the "create it ourselves" line. The real issue, however, is not group dynamics. There's a place for faith, and a place for science. And the two shouldn't mix in public school classrooms.
Do Texans truly want their educators to be neutral on the teaching of religious faith versus science in schools? If so, then the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency are well on their way to making students in Italy, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Mexico feel proud.
The Texas University Biology Professors' Letter with over 100 signatures is posted at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/biology-professor-letter.htm.
December 10, 2007
To Robert Scott, Commissioner of Education for Texas,
As biology faculty at Texas universities1, we are deeply concerned by the forced resignation of Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Ms. Comer’s ouster was linked to an email that she forwarded announcing a lecture by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor and distinguished critic of the intelligent design movement. A few days after sending the email, Ms. Comer was told she would be terminated. The memorandum she received from her superiors claimed that evolution and intelligent design are a “subject on which the agency must remain neutral”.
It is inappropriate to expect the TEA’s director of science curriculum to “remain neutral” on this subject, any more than astronomy teachers should “remain neutral” about whether the Earth goes around the sun. In the world of science, evolution is equally well-supported and accepted as heliocentrism. Far from remaining neutral, it is the clear duty of the science staff at TEA and all other Texas educators to speak out unequivocally: evolution is a central pillar in any modern science education, while “intelligent design” is a religious idea that deserves no place in the science classroom at all.
A massive body of scientific evidence supports evolution. All working scientists agree that publication in top peer-reviewed journals is the scoreboard of modern science. A quick database search of scientific publications since 1975 shows 29,639 peer-reviewed scientific papers on evolution in twelve leading journals alone2. To put this in perspective, if you read 5 papers a day, every day, it would take you 16 years to read this body of original research. These tens of thousands of research papers on evolution provide overwhelming support for the common ancestry of living organisms and for the mechanisms of evolution including natural selection. In contrast, a search of the same database for “Intelligent Design” finds a mere 24 articles, every one of which is critical of intelligent design3. Given that evolution currently has a score of 29,639–-while “intelligent design” has a score of exactly zero–-it is absurd to expect the TEA’s director of science curriculum to “remain neutral” on this subject. In recognition of the overwhelming scientific support for evolution, evolution is taught without qualification– and intelligent design is omitted– at every secular and most sectarian universities in this country, including Baylor (Baptist), Notre Dame (Catholic), Texas Christian (Disciples of Christ) and Brigham Young (Mormon).
Evolution education is more than an academic question. Biotechnology is a key player in our economy, and biotech firms move to places with well trained biologists. Evolutionary biology has made fundamental contributions to drug synthesis, medical genetics, and our understanding of the origins and dynamics of diseases. Principles of evolution are at the basis of human genomics and personalized medicine and are applied daily by people working in medicine, agriculture, engineering, and pharmaceuticals. In contrast, anti-evolutionary ideas like intelligent design have yet to produce any medical or technological advances.
Even if the scientific evidence were not so one-sided, there remains the fact that intelligent design is a religious concept. In the 2004 court case Kitzmiller vs. Dover, Judge John E. Jones III (an appointee of President Bush) concluded that “not one defense expert was able to explain how the supernatural action suggested by ID [intelligent design] could be anything other than an inherently religious proposition” and that the school board was trying to present “students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory.” Teaching intelligent design in public school science classes clearly violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, as emphasized in the 1987 Supreme Court decision Edwards v. Aguillard. The Texas Education Agency has a constitutional duty to keep intelligent design out of public school science classes, and leave religious instruction of children to their parents.
In Kitzmiller v. Dover Judge Jones concluded that the school board exhibited “breathtaking inanity” when it tried to adopt “an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy.” The TEA appears to be flirting with an equally unsupportable policy. There can be no neutrality on an issue that is scientifically and legally clear-cut: evolution should be taught at the K-12 level in the same fashion that we teach it in universities, an accepted and rigorous science, not juxtaposed with a religious idea however politically popular. The agency should work to bolster evolution education in Texas rather than undermining it.
Dr. Daniel Bolnick, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology, UT Austin
Dr. David Hillis, Professor of Integrative Biology, UT Austin
Biology professors statewide react to science scandal
More than 100 college professors say state education officials shouldn't have to take neutral stance on evolution.
By Laura Heinauer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
More than 100 biology faculty members from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution.
The letter is in response to the departure of science curriculum director Chris Comer, who says she was forced to resign days after forwarding an e-mail that her superiors said made the agency appear biased against the idea that life is a result of intelligent design.
"I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," said Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, who has been collecting signatures since last week.
In addition to UT faculty, the signers include professors from Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State, Rice and Baylor universities and the universities of North Texas and Houston.
"As educators, we simply feel strongly that scientifically sound information be taught in public schools, and certainly having people sympathetic to quality evolution education at the TEA is important," Bolnick said. Having students in his classes without a basic grounding in evolutionary theory is comparable to having students in college-level math courses who haven't learned algebra, he said.
David Hillis, a UT professor of integrative biology who also signed the letter, said, "I think it is a clear sign of how far we have slipped into scientific illiteracy in this country when a science director at the Texas Education Agency is fired for merely forwarding an e-mail about a talk related to science education. It is extraordinarily unfortunate and inappropriate that religious views are dictating hiring and firing decisions at the Texas Education Agency.
"This is an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies," Hillis said.
The concept of intelligent design holds that life is so complex that it must have been created by a higher authority.
State officials, meanwhile, maintain that Comer's resignation was due to a pattern of not following agency policies.
In a November memorandum recommending that she be terminated, Comer's superiors cited comments she made about leadership at the agency and a failure to get approval before making speeches and presenting slideshows.
It also cited her decision to forward an e-mail sent to her by a pro-evolution group that announced a speech about the intelligent design movement in schools. The deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, Lizzette Reynolds, showed the e-mail to Comer's supervisors, calling it an "offense that calls for termination."
Days later, Comer resigned.
Personnel documents released Monday under the Texas Public Information Act offer further insight into her career at the agency. In 2003, Comer was put on disciplinary probation for one year after she accepted travel reimbursement from grants that she was responsible for administering. The issue was not brought up in the termination memorandum.
In separate reviews, she was chastised for spending too much time at conferences; however, she was also given several merit raises and got high marks in other areas.
Although Comer's failure to consistently follow professional standards has been cited as an issue, Scott and other officials declined to be specific, saying they fear being sued.
"I am really frustrated with the issue, knowing the truth and not being able to talk about it," Scott said.
Comer, who said Monday that she is considering a defamation suit, added that the only time she was reprimanded recently was in February, after she attended a meeting of science educators without getting prior approval.
"Did I question them when they said things that I thought were wrong? Yes, I did that," Comer said. "I did speak up for myself. I was not a shrinking violet. But then, as the director of science, I thought it was important to hear my expert opinions of what is going on."
Texas biology professors voice support for evolution education
The Associated Press
December 11, 2007
AUSTIN -- Biology professors from across Texas stressed the importance of educating students about evolution in a letter to the state education commissioner and said Texas Education Agency employees shouldn't be required to stay neutral on the subject.
More than 100 faculty members from the universities of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State, North Texas, Houston, Rice and Baylor signed the letter. It was sent Monday to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.
"I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," said Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, who started collecting signatures last week.
The professors sent the letter in response to the departure of Chris Comer, who said evolution politics were behind her forced resignation last month as the state's director of science curriculum.
Comer said she came under pressure after forwarding an e-mail that her superiors felt made the agency appear to be biased against the instruction of intelligent design. Intelligent design holds that the universe's order and complexity is so great science alone cannot explain it.
UT integrative biology professor David Hillis said the Comer's ouster shows the country is slipping into "scientific illiteracy."
"It is extraordinarily unfortunate and inappropriate that religious views are dictating hiring and firing decisions at the Texas Education Agency," he said. "This is an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies."
Education officials say Comer's resignation came after repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. Scott and other officials declined to comment specifically, because they feared being sued.
"I am really frustrated with the issue, knowing the truth and not being able to talk about it," Scott said.
According to TEA documents, Comer's superiors recommended she be terminated because of comments she made about the agency's leadership and her failure to get approval for making presentations outside the agency.
The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, notified Comer's superiors after Comer forwarded an e-mail announcing a presentation by an author who argues that creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools
"This is something that the State Board, the Gov.'s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports," Reynolds said in the e-mail to Comer's supervisors.
Comer said her only recent reprimand was in February after she attended a meeting of science educators without getting prior approval.
"Did I question them when they said things that I thought were wrong? Yes, I did that," Comer said Monday. "I did speak up for myself. I was not a shrinking violet. But then, as the director of science, I thought it was important to hear my expert opinions of what is going on."
Next year, the State Board of Education begins a review of the state science curriculum, which will set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com
Don't mess with science standards
By ALAN I. LESHNER
Tue, Dec 11, 2007
Special to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of science curriculum director Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, stands as both shocking and sad. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the official explanation for it.
Comer's forwarding of an e-mail about a lecture by Barbara Forrest, author of the book Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse, apparently rubbed some TEA higher-ups the wrong way. The agency must, after all, "remain neutral," according to a memo calling for Comer's termination. Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe later went on to explain how "there's been a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught."
These comments -- suggesting that scientific facts based on indisputable physical evidence are somehow subject to debate on nonscientific grounds -- are especially troubling in a state known for its innovation and filled with high-quality research universities.
Everyone has a constitutional right to interpret the origins of life based on Christian or any other doctrine. Religious discussion might be perfectly appropriate in theology or philosophy classes.
But scientific theory is based on facts, and creationism and intelligent design are not. If educators remain neutral about sticking to science in science classrooms, they will surely wind up confusing students about the nature of science versus religion.
Evolution describes how Earth's life forms gradually arose from common ancestors, beginning with one-celled organisms billions of years ago. It is a core concept, based on robust evidence such as radiometric measurements of the ages of Earth's rocks as well as meteorites and moon rocks. These tell us that our solar system formed 4.55 billion years ago, probably after a major supernova explosion. The first life on Earth emerged between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago.
Intelligent design advocates hypothesize that some natural events and structures are so complex that they must have been the work of an intervening supernatural agent. Others believe that the universe and all its inhabitants appeared in their current forms within the past 10,000 years.
In a free country, there's room for both religion and science. The scientific acceptance of evolution is compatible with the religious views of many Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu believers.
As geneticist Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, has said, "Faith is the way to understand questions that science can't answer, like 'Why are we all here? Why does it matter? Is there a God, and does he care about me?'"
Did Comer show poor judgment in forwarding that e-mail? Possibly -- if only because former Bush administration official Lizzette Reynolds immediately demanded Comer's termination. But, the more important question is this: Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is "no."
American competitiveness depends upon providing the best possible science education for all students. This point seems well-understood by business leaders and by policymakers such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped pass the America COMPETES Act, authorizing the recruitment of 10,000 science and math teachers.
If today's students are to thrive, education leaders cannot pick and choose which scientific facts they want to accept. We urge the state's education leaders to help prevent children from becoming stragglers in this age of science and technology.
Alan I. Leshner is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science.
Teaching of evolution set to go under microscope
With science director out, sides ready to fight over state's curriculum
By KAREN AYRES SMITH
The Dallas Morning News
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Former TEA science director Chris Comer said she is not optimistic about
evolution's future in the state's classrooms.
LEANDER, Texas – Science instruction is about to be dissected in Texas.
The resignation of the state's science curriculum director last month has signaled the beginning of what is shaping up to be a contentious and politically charged revision of the science curriculum, set to begin in earnest in January.
At stake is the way teachers present evolution, the biological theory that humans and other species evolved from lower forms of life.
Former science director Chris Comer says she resigned from the Texas Education Agency to avoid being fired after officials told her she had improperly endorsed evolution. She had forwarded an e-mail announcing a speech by a prominent scholar on evolution, which the state requires schools to teach.
"For all the years I was there, I would always say the teaching of evolution is part of our science curriculum. It's not just a good idea; it's the law," Ms. Comer said last week during an interview in her Leander home. "We have teachers afraid to teach it, parents who don't want it taught and parents who do want it taught. It comes from all different angles."
TEA officials say Ms. Comer, 57, also made unauthorized remarks not tied to evolution. But in disciplinary paperwork they stressed that she needed to remain neutral in what was becoming a tense period leading up to the first review of the science curriculum in a decade.
Many conservatives, including the chairman of the State Board of Education, have long wanted biology teachers in Texas to address issues that some national groups and scientists say expose weaknesses in the theory of evolution.
They stress that they aren't pushing for schools to teach creationism or intelligent design, a theory that says certain features of the universe are so complex that they are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
But their opponents argue that there is no debate: Research consistently supports evolution. They argue that attempts to discredit Charles Darwin's theory of evolution amount to sneaking God into the classroom under the guise of intelligent design.
The board must vote on any changes to the curriculum. Most board members, including the chairman, have said publicly they don't want to introduce intelligent design into the curriculum, and many of them also have said they want to keep the current language on evolution.
To some, this exercise could turn into a pivotal opportunity for change. Even small changes in the language could mean big changes in textbooks later on.
The curriculum standards will be used to develop content for textbooks in Texas and across the nation.
"Emphatically, we are not trying to 'take evolution out of the schools,' " said Mark Ramsey of Texans for Better Science Education, which wants schools to teach about weaknesses in evolution. "All good educators know that when students are taught both sides of an issue such as biologic evolution, they understand each side better. What are the Darwinists afraid of?"
The state adopted the current science curriculum in 1998, the same year Ms. Comer started at the TEA.
The requirements dictate that students understand the theory of biological evolution, including elements of natural selection that determine how organisms adapt to their environments. Years before, state board members had approved requirements in another section of the biology curriculum that require students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any theories.
With 27 years of teaching behind her, Ms. Comer knew she was entering a polarizing debate. But she said she was inspired to take on the job. Children are natural-born scientists, she says.
She received questions about evolution from the beginning. Many parents wanted creationism or intelligent design taught. Others said they believed weaknesses in the evolution theory were ignored. Some teachers opted not to teach evolution for fear of retaliation from opposing parents.
Ms. Comer, who describes herself as a Christian, said she responded with the same polite but firm message every time: Evolution is mandatory.
"Any science teacher worth their salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy," said Ms. Comer, a mother of two grown children. "It is time for America to grow up."
In 2003, the tension escalated when the state board started reviewing biology textbooks.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that supports intelligent design, and the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution group, both descended on Texas. As one of the largest textbook purchasers, the state could dictate content across the nation.
John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said his group didn't want to insert intelligent design into the curriculum, but rather to correct errors and address weaknesses his group sees in the theory of evolution in textbooks. The institute maintains that evolution doesn't appear capable of building complex cells and questions whether the fossil record's overall pattern can be explained by evolution.
"It seems to me that one of the problems is that Darwin is taught as dogma," Dr. West said. "Students don't get an idea of the underlying evidence and underlying debate about some of the things."
But their opponents said suggesting that there are weaknesses amounts to teaching that God is responsible for human life.
"It all boils down to the idea that to counter evolution you teach students that evolution is crummy science in the hopes that students will reject it," said Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. "It's a way of getting creationism in without the 'C' word."
The board approved the books by an 11-4 vote.
Don McLeroy, a conservative board member on the losing side of the vote and a Sunday school teacher, later told a church group that he believed he could have persuaded more members to reject the books if he had challenged the assumption that nature is all there is.
"How can the materialistic philosophic naturalistic base dependency of Darwinism be brought into the discussion and used for our benefit?" Dr. McLeroy asked, according to a recording of the speech. "We didn't use it. All we did was stay with evidence, and we got run over."
Dr. McLeroy is now chairman of the board. Gov. Rick Perry appointed the Bryan dentist to the post in July.
On Oct. 26, Ms. Comer received an e-mail from the National Center for Science Education announcing a speech in Austin by Barbara Forrest, an author and scholar who has criticized the intelligent design movement for undermining science education.
Dr. Forrest also testified in a prominent federal district court case in Pennsylvania in 2005 that resulted in a ruling that struck down the Dover school district's policy of introducing intelligent design in the classroom as unconstitutional.
Ms. Comer forwarded the message to some science teachers and professors with a short message: "FYI."
An hour later, Ms. Comer says, a TEA official came to her office and showed her an e-mail from Lizzette Reynolds, another official in the agency, who said the FYI e-mail was worthy of termination or reassignment because it implied that TEA supported the speaker. Ms. Reynolds came to the TEA to run the agency's educational initiatives after working with the Bush administration.
Ms. Comer said she doesn't know who forwarded the e-mail to Ms. Reynolds.
Ms. Comer said she quickly sent out another e-mail stressing that her original message didn't express the views of the TEA.
After spending the next week out of the office, Ms. Comer said, she returned to hear that she had one day to resign or she would be fired.
TEA officials presented her with a three-page memo criticizing her for speaking at a conference without permission and for questioning the leadership at the agency when Robert Scott was serving as acting commissioner. Mr. Scott had since been named commissioner.
The memo also stated that Ms. Comer's e-mail about Dr. Forrest's speech had compromised the agency's neutrality in the curriculum revision process.
"I left there in shock," Ms. Comer said. "I was so embarrassed. I've never been fired in my life."
She resigned the next day.
"Obviously this is a personnel issue I can't comment on," Mr. Scott said. "Suffice to say there are other issues as well."
The TEA posted the science director's position a few days ago. Debbie Ratcliffe, an agency spokeswoman, said Ms. Comer's replacement will probably be chosen by a panel of agency employees.
The agency hopes to fill the position in January, the same time review groups are set to begin meeting and examining each aspect of the science curriculum.
On the horizon
Since Ms. Comer's departure, professors and teachers across the country have lined up to support her, as well as scientifically sound lessons on evolution. She now plans to retire. She is talking to a lawyer, but she said she hasn't yet decided whether to sue the agency. She said she is not optimistic about what the final standards will say about evolution.
"The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance," she said.
Ten Republicans and five Democrats sit on the state board. Dr. McLeroy is part of a bloc of seven social conservatives who often vote together.
Mavis Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, said she supports evolution from a scientific standpoint.
"I think intelligent design is a sophisticated slick way of easing in biblical perspective, and that is not what science is about," she said.
The Science Teachers Association of Texas has issued suggested curriculum standards that keep evolution but eliminate the specific requirement to teach the strengths and weaknesses of theories.
Dr. McLeroy said he wouldn't vote to approve the change. He said he supports the current wording and also could support an addition that requires teaching the strengths and weaknesses specific to evolution.
"I'm a Christian, and I think about how this impacts everything," Dr. McLeroy said. "Religion is not just something you put on the side. It's everything. I see us all created in the image of God. I don't believe nature is all there is."
The Texas biology curriculum requires that a student do the following to demonstrate an understanding of scientific processes and concepts:
The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:
analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;
The student knows the theory of biological evolution. The student is expected to:
(A) identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities and embryology; and
(B) illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior and extinction.
THEORIES OF LIFE
What is evolution?
Biological evolution refers to the cumulative changes that occur in a population over time. These changes are produced at the genetic level as organisms' genes mutate and/or recombine in different ways during reproduction and are passed on to future generations.
What is intelligent design?
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
The Comer controversy continues
National Center for Science Education
December 14, 2007
Over two weeks after it was first reported that Christine Comer was forced to resign from her post at the Texas Education Agency, apparently because she forwarded a brief e-mail announcing a lecture on "intelligent design" by Barbara Forrest, the state's newspapers continue to provide a steady stream of news and commentary. And groups with a stake in the integrity of science education in Texas continue to voice their concern. As the Austin American-Statesman (December 14, 2007) observed in its latest story, "The controversy over Comer's departure put the agency’s scientific credibility at risk at a time when Texas is trying to attract star researchers and scientists for a growing biomedical and biotech industry, and just before the State Board of Education begins developing new science standards next month."
Comer herself appeared on NPR's "Science Friday" on December 7, 2007, relating her story to the show's host, Ira Flatow. After receiving the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, she said, "you know, I had a half minute and I said, gee, this is really interesting. And then, I looked up the credential on my computer, I Googled Barbara Forrest and I said, oh my goodness, this is quite a credential[ed] speaker. And then I thought to myself -- you know, I'm telling my biology teachers almost on a weekly basis, teach the curriculum, teach the evolution curriculum because it's part of the state-mandated curriculum. And now, I should be -- you know, I should be walking the talk here, and I -- there's nothing wrong with this e-mail, of course." Less than two hours later, a colleague was calling for her termination, and in the following week, she was effectively forced to resign.
Comer told Flatow that there were previous indications that the TEA was discouraging its employees from taking a stand on evolution. At a meeting during which employees were told that they must be careful about what they say and do, Comer recounted, she mentioned the topic of creationism: "And she said, I'm so glad you brought that up ... because it's important for us to realize that if the company line is that we endorse creationism, then that's what we have to say. I was shocked. I said, my goodness, even the president's ... own science adviser, was not held to that standard. And she said, well, I'm just telling you." Comer was referring to John H. Marburger III, Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, who told The New York Times (August 3, 2005), "Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept."
Over the weekend, the Austin American-Statesman (December 8, 2007) again expressed its concern about both Comer's ouster and about what it signifies about the TEA's attitude toward evolution education. Acknowledging that the TEA cited a number of Comer's supposed misdeeds in the memorandum recommending her termination, the editorial concluded, "But there is no doubt that the e-mail incident riled an influential boss at TEA and played a role in Comer's resignation." As for the TEA's policy of "neutrality" about evolution, the editorial urged the TEA to heed the scientific community, quoting the biologist David Hillis of the University of Texas, Austin -- just two blocks away from the TEA -- as saying, "There is absolutely no scientific basis or evidence for 'intelligent design.' It is simply a religious assertion, and it has no place in a science course."
The TEA's commissioner Robert Scott was interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (December 9, 2007). He denied that Comer was forced to resign just for forwarding the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, alluding to "other factors" that he was not able to discuss. Asked, "Was her advocacy of evolution over creationism an element in her dismissal?" he replied, "She wasn't advocating for evolution. But she may have given the impression that ... we were taking a position as an agency -– not as an individual but as an agency -- on a matter." Asked, "Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution? Texas students are required to study it," he replied, "you can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too. I don't know all the facts, but I think that may be the real issue here." He did not explain how Comer's behavior was supposed to constitute faith-bashing.
While on "Science Friday," Comer thanked her supporters, saying, "Science educators and rational minds have really gone to bat and have written letters, made e-mails, and sent phone messages. It's really been an incredible response." As NCSE previously reported, Texas Citizens for Science, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Institute for Biological Sciences have all issued statements critical of the TEA, focusing especially on the claim, expressed in the memorandum (PDF) recommending Comer's termination, that "the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism." In a statement released through NCSE, and a subsequent post at Oxford University Press's blog, Barbara Forrest herself deplored the situation, writing (in the latter), "I find it difficult to avoid concluding that Ms. Comer has become a casualty of the pro-ID political agenda."
The Society for the Study of Evolution released a statement (PDF) reading, in part, "Professional ethics demands that one not 'remain neutral' when science is deliberately misrepresented by creationists. Chris Comer thus acted responsibly and professionally in forwarding the announcement about an educational lecture regarding 'Intelligent Design' creationism. In contrast, the administrators who called for her termination and who forced her resignation acted irresponsibly and in direct opposition to the professional standards expected of those who oversee science education. Their comments, quoted above, make it clear that they have sacrificed not only a dedicated public servant but also the facts and the very nature of science to partisan political ideology. It is a sad day for Texas when TEA administrators resort to Stalinist-style purging to suppress the truth about the bankruptcy of 'Intelligent Design' arguments."
Similarly, as the Austin American-Statesman (December 11, 2007) reported, "More than 100 biology faculty members from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution." Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, Austin, told the newspaper, "I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," and his colleague David Hillis added that the Comer controversy represented "an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies." The letter (PDF) was signed by biologists from across Texas, at both public and private universities.
And Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, drove the message home, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (December 11, 2007): "As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of science curriculum director Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, stands as both shocking and sad. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the official explanation for it. ... Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is 'no.' ... If today's students are to thrive, education leaders cannot pick and choose which scientific facts they want to accept."
A common theme in the coverage of the Comer controversy is that it foreshadows a clash over the place of evolution in the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the state science standards that determine both what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state. The Dallas Morning News (December 13, 2007) summarized, "The resignation of the state's science curriculum director last month has signaled the beginning of what is shaping up to be a contentious and politically charged revision of the science curriculum, set to begin in earnest in January. ... in disciplinary paperwork [officials at the TEA] stressed that she needed to remain neutral in what was becoming a tense period leading up to the first review of the science curriculum in a decade."
Although creationists in Texas, including the chair of the Texas state board of education, Don McLeroy, have disavowed any intention of trying to include creationism in the TEKS, there are clear signs that they will press to include language attempting to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. Mark Ramsey, representing a group styling itself Texans for Better Science Education, was characterized, for example, as wanting "weaknesses in evolution" to be taught. (Ramsey is also associated with the Greater Houston Creation Association, as Texas Citizens for Science reports.) NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott told the Morning News, "It all boils down to the idea that to counter evolution you teach students that evolution is crummy science in the hopes that students will reject it ... It's a way of getting creationism in without the 'C' word."
For her part, Comer told the Morning News, "Any science teacher worth their salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy" over the scientific status of evolution. That, she said, was her approach during her tenure at the TEA, where she frequently responded to questions about evolution education in Texas: "We have teachers afraid to teach it, parents who don't want it taught and parents who do want it taught. It comes from all different angles." She added, "For all the years I was there, I would always say the teaching of evolution is part of our science curriculum. It's not just a good idea; it's the law." But now she is not optimistic about the future of science education in Texas, lamenting, "The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance."
Arkansas Teachers Avoided Evolution Under Huckabee
Administrators Cautioned Staff About Using the 'E Word'
By Arthur Allen
The Washington Independent
Science educators in certain U.S. states operate a bit like dissidents in the old Soviet bloc. They have to pick their battles as they walk the fine line between telling the truth and keeping their jobs. This was nowhere truer than in Arkansas under Gov. Mike Huckabee, a professed Young Earth Creationist who disdained Darwinism and the theory of evolution.
As governor, Huckabee funded a creationist museum and loudly endorsed the teaching of "creation science." While his political allies in the state legislature twice introduced bills to ban the teaching of evolution, Huckabee presided over a school system that earned a "D" in science education and an "F" in teaching evolution. Only about a fifth of the science teachers in Arkansas taught evolution, though it was part of the school science education guidelines.
Yet Huckabee didn't intervene publicly in the Department of Education, and even critics cannot uncover a paper trail of active resistance to teaching evolution. In fact, toward the end of Huckabee's 10-year reign, the state science curriculum was updated to include use of the word "evolution" for the first time. "He's slippery," says Jason R. Wiles, an Arkansas-raised science educator who teaches biology at Syracuse University and manages McGill University's Evolution Education Research Center.
But Huckabee's obvious sympathies, and the intransigence of Fundamentalist school board officials, led Arkansas science educators to self-censor. Administrators cautioned science educators against using the "e-word" in their encounters with schools and students. At the Arkansas Museum of Discovery, the traditional state science museum, for example, museum officials removed an evolution exhibit amid a whispering campaign about the ire of conservative powers.
Did students really have to learn about evidence that the earth is 4.5 billion years ago? Nah. Why alienate the fundamentalists who controlled some of the science museum's funding?
Yet some science educators in the state showed real courage.
"They would have thrown me to the wolves if the chance came along but they didn't," says Bill Fulton, who headed the committee that rewrote Arkansas' science curriculum at the state Department of Education in 2005. "I was never directed to go in and throw this out or anything of that nature. I've always lived in fear that might happen, but it didn't."
As he put together the curriculum committee, Fulton was warned by his boss, who "lived in fear of certain ministers," not to put too many science teachers on it. To get around that, Fulton made sure to include several teachers who were "very religious but believed in sticking to science in science class." Fulton's boss wanted to strike all references to evolution, instead calling it "change over time," but Fulton finessed this by pointing out that anti-science people would see through the euphemistic language, he said.
"I did things that I shouldn't have in so far as wanting to keep my job," says Fulton, who retired last year after 39 years as an educator. "But I did them because I thought they were important. I'm 64, what the hell. What's the worst thing they can do, fire me?"
Chris Comer, who held the same position in the Texas schools, was not so lucky. The Texas Department of Education forced out Comer in November after she forwarded an email to colleagues about an upcoming speech by a pro-evolution philosopher. Her boss, Lizette Reynolds, whom George W. Bush had hired while governor of Texas, called her on the carpet and removed her. "I'll never get hired in Texas education again," she said.
Science educators in Arkansas face a dilemma, Fulton says. They want Arkansas children to get as much science as possible in order to compete in education and jobs. But if they refuse to back down to evolution opponents, they fear losing funding for entire science programs. At the same time, "they don't want to seem like country bumpkins who don't realize that evolution is important," he adds.
About a fifth of Arkansas teachers teach straight evolution, while another 30 percent teach "something along those lines," according to a survey by state education officials. The other 50 percent don't teach it, either because of their own weaknesses or community opposition. About 10 percent teach straight creationism.
Fulton is concerned about what the absence of evolutionary thinking means to the training of Arkansas kids as professionals. "I'm worried about doctors who don't understand evolution, because the evolution of germs is certainly a real thing. But most folks accept that. The thing that gets them is that we descend from primates."
The removal of Comer was deeply preoccupying to Fulton and other biology teachers, both because was a manifestly unjust, stupid act, and because Texas science textbooks are used by Arkansas and other states. "All Chris did was forward an email, which is exactly what my boss wouldn't have wanted me to do and exactly what I would have done," Fulton said. "It could have been me."
Plenty of Arkansas politicians endorse creationism. In 2001, conservative state Rep. Jim Holt introduced a bill that banned the imparting of "fraudulent or false information"—specifically, the age of the earth or the origins of life—in Arkansas schools, museums or other state-funded programs. It died in committee, but a few years later, Mark Martin introduced another bill, which was squashed for procedural reasons. Huckabee isn't on record about either bill. Nor did he comment on the ruckus over the anti-evolution stickers that the Beebe, Arkansas School Board removed from its science textbook in 2005 under threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"He doesn't want to come off as the yokel who supported these things," said Wiles. "He likes to be able to get the conservative and evangelical vote by supporting creationism as an issue of fairness, but doesn't want to appear too zealous."
BSCS concerned about Texas
February 15, 2008
In a letter (PDF, http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/bscs_letter.pdf) to the Texas Commissioner of Education and the members of the Texas state board of education dated February 13, 2008, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study expressed its opposition to actions in the state of Texas that "compromise the integrity of science and the quality of science education," citing in particular the forced resignation of Chris Comer from the Texas Education Agency and the Institute for Creation Research's bid for Texas certification for its graduate school. "Understanding the theory of evolution is essential for teaching the biological sciences, and there is a rich body of scientific evidence in support of evolutionary theory that every biology teacher must know well," the letter stated, adding, "it is pedagogically irresponsible to remain neutral on teaching the principles of evolutionary theory, which form the cornerstone of modern biology." BSCS closed by urging the commissioner and the board to "maintain the integrity of science as you fulfill your responsibility for supporting the high quality science education that your students deserve."
The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study is a nonprofit corporation that endeavors to improve all students' understanding of science and technology by developing exemplary curricular materials, supporting their widespread and effective use, providing professional development, and conducting research and evaluation studies. Founded in 1958, BSCS was largely responsible for reintroducing evolution into the high school biology curriculum, following a four-decade period after the Scopes trial in 1925 during which evolution virtually disappeared from high school biology textbooks. As Joseph D. McInerney, BSCS's executive director from 1985 to 1999, explained, "Our books put evolution back in the curriculum in the early 1960s, and we've been defending it ever since." A five-minute podcast about BSCS's role in reintroducing evolution into the high school biology curriculum, excerpted from a new documentary about BSCS, is available on the section of its website devoted to evolution, which is presently undergoing a welcome expansion.
Letter From the President
February 15, 2008
Dear NABT Member:
It is with great sadness that The National Association of Biology Teachers acknowledges the forced resignation of Texas Education Association Science Supervisor Chris Comer. TEA officials indicated that an email sent by Comer endorsed a speaker in support of evolution and that the Agency must remain neutral. However, the expectation for a Director of Science Curriculum at the state level is to advocate the consensus view of science and science educators. This situation is even more puzzling because the Texas science standards do indeed reflect that consensus. State education agencies are entrusted with guiding curriculum, instruction, and assessment strategies for all students and we recognize the political nature of the interaction between those responsible for setting policy and those responsible for its enforcement. This polarization, as played out in other states, has led to detracting attention from what is at stake: Assisting teachers in providing students with the highest quality science education. The NABT encourages the TEA leadership to protect its science staff from the political crossfire so that they can provide state leadership in science education and assist the science teachers of Texas.
As states address curricular standards, it is important that the science does not get lost in the rhetoric. Florida will be voting on new standards and Texas will be reviewing and revising their 1998 science standards. The Oklahoma legislature has had “teach the controversy” legislation introduced for the second year. As members of NABT, it is important to stay informed and involved both locally and at the state level.
Many news articles and blog entries about this story are available at http://www.wikio.com/news/Chris+Comer.
Wikipedia article about this story is now available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Comer.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2008 February 17