TEA Director of Science Forced to Resign

A Report of Texas Citizens for Science
by Steven Schafersman
November 29, 2007

Read the news articles and editorials here

Introduction

Texas Citizens for Science has known about the forced resignation of Texas Education Agency (TEA) Director of Science Chris Comer since November 6, but planned to keep this knowledge private until Chris's administrative leave was over. Chris was forced to agree to a public non-disclosure or no-comment policy regarding her termination from TEA. I can attest that Chris has said nothing publicly, although dozens of people and reporters knew about the forced resignation from the beginning from sources within the TEA. The Austin American-Statesman (read the news articles) got around this policy by using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and have the TEA give them the relevant documents to write their story. Several reporters have had this story since November 9, but held back in respect to Chris Comer's wishes.

Chris Comer has always been an advocate for science, including the integrity, accuracy, and reliability of science. For her entire employment history at TEA, she was asked almost monthly to write letters to parents complaining about the teaching of evolution in their child's science class. She always referred the parents to the TEKS--Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state science standards--which require evolution (although about half of the biology classes in Texas don't teach it). She also was asked many times to speak to "concerned" Creationist parents about evolution instruction in their local school district to which they disapproved. She always patiently defended the accuracy and reliability of evolutionary biology. In addition, she frequently forwarded information about upcoming science conferences and presentations to individuals and email lists. It was part of her mid-level management job.

The New TEA Policy of Neutrality Toward Creationism

TEA has a new policy, one of neutrality between biological evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. This new policy was put in place in September when Dr. Don McLeroy--an outspoken Creationist and activist for Intelligent Design Creationism and its marketing campaign--was appointed the new Chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE) in July and decided to start giving the TEA staff some tough love. By forwarding an email message that publicized a lecture in Austin by Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor of philosophy and Dover trial witness, that supported evolution and opposed the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism, Chris Comer ran afoul of the new policy and was asked to resign or be fired immediately. As we will see, this excuse to terminate Ms. Comer was trumped-up and illegitimate. The memo to her from the TEA contained several other criticisms, all of which were petty or insultingly insignificant. Amazingly, this memo is now available for the public to read thanks to the American-Statesman FOIA request (see below), and it reveals the lengths to which the top administrators of our state's public education agency will go to silence dissent from their new policy of not criticizing Creationism.

If you read closely the TEA Memo of 2007 November 5 which Chris Comer received, you will notice an anomaly. The 2007 February 23 Letter of Counseling to Chris--partly quoted in the Memo--was very broad and generalized, and did not mention a specific policy of neutrality to Intelligent Design Creationism, yet this was the Letter cited by author Monica Martinez as the justification for the forced resignation. The neutrality policy was not explicitly verbalized until months later, in September 2007 when Don McLeroy took over as Chair of the SBOE. At this time, TEA staff members had to listen to policy statements from top TEA administrators that all staff must not take a position on the evolution-creationism controversy and must remain neutral and unbiased. Susan Barnes, Associate Commissioner for Standards and Programs, made such a presentation to mid-level TEA staff and told them this. She also said, "Be careful of what you say, especially in science. We work for the State Board of Education, and whatever the company line is that they give, that's what we must follow." I was told this information and specific quote in September and I wrote it down verbatim since I was frankly astonished that a top TEA administrator would say such a thing. In a December 6 Austin American-Statesman news article, Chris Comer confirms this disturbing political suppression: She says, "We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it." The news story further mentions that Lizzette Reynolds, the former Bush Administration advisor who originally pushed for Comer's termination, was given management responsibility in September for the Curriculum Division where Ms. Comer worked, and we can assume that the new authority and new policy were related. Comer understandably maintains that "her ouster was political and that she felt persecuted for having supported the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms."

Chris Comer was accused in the Nov 5 Memo of forwarding an email announcement of a presentation on science in violation of the policy to "not communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency in any way that might compromise the transparency and/or integrity of the upcoming TEKS development and revision process." It is highly tendentious to interpret forwarding an email message from a group that "opposes teaching creationism in public education" to be a violation of this policy only because a staff member used her TEA email account, and also that this "implies endorsement" of the speaker and the speaker's position "on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral." This is a serious misinterpretation: by no means would simply forwarding an announcement of a science talk from a third party constitute TEA "endorsement" of evolution over Creationism or anything else. This was just the forwarding of an email announcement. But I doubt that Chris thought of such an interpretation when she forwarded the message. She had forwarded such messages hundreds of time during her career at TEA in order to keep many individuals involved with Texas science education informed about what was happening with science education in Texas. This was a responsibility of her job.

Of course, if the TEA actually did endorse a speaker who was going to criticize Creationism, that would actually increase the integrity of science education at the TEA and by extension of the forthcoming TEKS revision process. A state education agency with any integrity and self-respect should endorse science over pseudoscience! It is understandable that a state agency would want to avoid the perception of bias; however, supporting evolution isn't bias--it's good science, good pedagogy, and good education. Evolutionary biology is mainstream science; its presence has been accepted and uncontroversial within modern biology for over 130 years. Ironically, the act of supporting Creationism by forcing an administrator to resign on the pretext of forwarding a message does create the perception of bias within the agency--bias for a highly-politicized and authoritarian version of literalist Biblical religion. This is a very ugly type of bias for a state agency to seem to have.

The irony here is that Chris Comer lost her job for promoting the transparency and integrity of science education in Texas, something that would reflect well on the integrity of the upcoming science standards revision. She lost her job not because she did her job poorly, but because she was doing her job well--too well from the perspective of the religious-right and mean-spirited ideologues who control public education for the state, so they got rid of her with petty and trumped-up charges.

But when Chris forward the email message on Oct 26, this did violate the verbal, unwritten policy explained to TEA staff by Associate Commissioner Barnes in September, and this is the interpretation adopted by Monica Martinez who wrote the memo. It is not known if Ms.  Martinez realizes what she did, but by over-extending the formal, written policy in the February 23 Letter of Counseling quoted in the Memo to include neutrality to Creationism and avoidance of endorsing evolution over Creationism, she made the recent unwritten, verbal policy manifest in written form and revealed the true intentions of top TEA administrators. By no means is neutrality to Creationism explicit or even implicit in the written policy which Chris got in February. That's why TCS claims Chris Comer was forced to resign over an illegitimate, trumped-up charge of which she was not guilty: she was guilty of violating the unwritten anti-science policy, not the formal, written policy stated in the February 23 Letter. Of course, it goes without saying that for a state education agency to have a stated policy--written or unwritten--of neutrality to Creationism is absurd and bizarre, and probably illegal. National publicity of the existence of this policy will make the TEA the laughing-stock of the nation. State education agencies would normally be expected to support good science, not work against it by demanding neutrality to a pseudoscience such as Creationism.

In addition to the requirement that opposing Creationism is a "subject on which the agency must remain neutral," Ms. Martinez also claims that by forwarding the email announcement of the anti-Intelligent Design Creationism talk, Chris "compromises the agency's role in the TEKS revision process by creating the perception that TEA has a biased position on a subject directly related to the science education TEKS." Again, simply publicizing a presentation that discusses why ID Creationism is not good science and writing "FYI" above it in no way creates the perception that TEA has a biased position on a subject related to science curriculum standards. If Chris had stated something such as, "TEA supports all the conclusions of Professor Forrest's anti-ID Creationism presentation, that ID Creationism is bad science, because our state's current science standards support evolution," then that would have created the perception that TEA had a bias. Chris stated nothing, and even if she did, what would be wrong with promoting good science? Wouldn't a state education agency want that bias: to be known publicly to favor good science? Apparently not in Texas in this era of religious-right control of state government. It would be nice to think that forwarding an email message that announced a speaker was going to criticize Creationism would actually increases the integrity of science education at the TEA and by extension of the forthcoming TEKS revision process. But that interpretation is too much to hope for.

I think, in her memo to Chris, that Monica Martinez spilled the beans about the existence of the unwritten, verbal policy of neutrality to Creationism. Such a policy is unethical and shameful, of course, because it explicitly violates many official statements of the TEA, the Texas science standards (TEKS), and several statements by Governor Rick Perry about the importance and role of science in Texas, not to mention the treasured scientific attitude of openness and honesty shared by all of our country's scientists and science teachers. In fact, new Chair Don McLeroy promoted intelligent design and criticized evolution and mainstream science in a recorded presentation he gave in 2005 to his church, Grace Bible, in College Station. A transcript of McLeroy's anti-science presentation is even available. Why is the State Board of Education Chairman not punished for blatantly favoring Creationism while the Director of Science is punished for favoring science? Probably because the evolution/Creationism neutrality policy was not in effect in 2005. Nevertheless, something has been really rotten in Austin for several months at the TEA. The justification for what happened to Chris Comer is an official policy of ignorance, hypocrisy, and cronyism at the highest level, and every Texas citizen should be disgusted about its existence, want to oppose it, and want to remove those elected public officials who created it.

True Reason for the Forced Resignation

Thus, it is easy to recognize that Chris was forced to resign because someone wanted her out of the TEA--not because she violated a formal written policy given her, but because she did violate the preposterous and unethical verbal policy of neutrality to Creationism. This policy is probably not written anywhere, but I hope that another FOIA request will reveal its official existence. Reporters should interview Associate Commissioner Susan Barnes about her September address to TEA staff. She may still have her notes available (unless she has shredded them, which has been the official TEA policy since...September!). A reporter should read back to her what Monica Martinez wrote, and ask Associate Commissioner Barnes to explain why violating a policy concerning "a subject on which the agency must remain neutral"--not publicizing or seeming to "endorse" a group that "opposes teaching creationism"--is the same as a policy that says "you are not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency in any way that might compromise the transparency and/or integrity of the upcoming TEKS development and revision process." I, for one, can't see that these two policies are the same policy, but apparently Monica Martinez, Susan Barnes, and Lizzette Reynolds think they are.

The real reason Director of Science Chris Comer was forced to resign is because the top TEA administrators and some SBOE members wanted her out of the picture before the state science standards--the science TEKS--were reviewed, revised, and rewritten next year beginning in January 2008, and she would have some influence to make sure the standards were scientifically accurate and of high quality. Plans are underway by some SBOE members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirement to teach about evolutionary biology in the Biology TEKS and to require instead that biology instructors "Teach the Controversy" about the "weaknesses" of evolution, that is, teach the Creationist-inspired and -created bogus controversy about evolution that doesn't exist within legitimate science. They may even want specific bogus weaknesses required. There are, of course, no legitimate scientific weaknesses with biological evolution as the natural process is understood by scientists. At the level at which it is taught in high school, evolutionary biology has no weaknesses or problems. There is no scientific "controversy" about evolution at any level. At higher levels, there are incompletely-understood concepts and gaps in knowledge, but these are not weaknesses: these are areas that need more research and the fact that they exist stimulates research. The term "weakness" just is not used to refer to any major theory, such as evolution; instead, a specific hypothesis could be term to be "weak." Therefore, it is duplicitous to pretend that "weaknesses" and "controversy" about evolution exist that must be taught in high school biology classes.

The so-called "controversy" that the Creationists demand should be taught is a manufactured controversy, one created primarily by the Discovery Institute to trump up the notion that there are disagreements among scientists about evolution and these should be taught to high school students. The "teach the controversy" and "weaknesses of evolution" ploy is an attempt to disparage, diminish, and distort evolution so students will not have confidence in one of the most highly-corroborated explanations in science. Instead, the hope is that such students will learn about Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism in their church or Sunday School and accept that as the best explanation, since it will be presented as having no problems, weaknesses, or controversy compared to the disparaged "Theory of Evolution" students are exposed to in public schools, even though that is the conclusion of modern science. This insidious campaign has been tragically successful, and has had great effect in undermining modern science instruction in our country's public schools. Remember, even though the Creationists have not been successful in their goal to damage evolutionary science instruction--yet--the bogus controversy they have created has nevertheless intimidated thousands of science teachers to water-down and even avoid the topic. Thus, a majority of our nation's high school students never learn the scientific explanation for their own existence. This is religiously-inspired censorship

The Role of the Discovery Institute

The bogus "controversy" is an ingenious and mendacious marketing ploy invented by Intelligent Design Creationists of the Discovery Institute to weaken evolution instruction and allow the informal input of Creationism, without actually requiring that Creationism be presented (because to do so is against the law, since Creationists have lost several major Federal court cases when they tried to do so). The quoted statement in the Austin American-Statesman article from TEA spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe that there is "a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught" is a clear indication of the problem and deceit among TEA officials and SBOE members. This statement makes no sense within either a scientific or science education framework, but makes perfect sense in the context of the duplicitous "teach the controversy" and "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution marketing campaign of Intelligent Design Creationists. Some members of the SBOE and some top administrators of the TEA plan to attempt to use the Discovery Institute Creationist campaign to damage science education in Texas.

At least seven members of the fifteen-member Texas SBOE support the Discovery Institute's "teach the controversy" and teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution strategy. It is unknown how many top TEA administrators agree with this strategy. It is unknown, for example, how new Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott feels about the idea. If he accepts the principles of legitimate science, for example, he may subordinate his own beliefs about science and go along with it under the direction of Governor Rick Perry, a Religious-Right Creationist who publicly supports it and who appointed both Scott and State Board Chairman Don McLeroy. We must not forget that the damage to both science education and the career of a honest science educator is being done at the direction of the Governor, who was elected by 39% of Texas citizens who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Governor Perry has spoken several times about the importance of science education to the economic health of Texas, but his deeds tragically do not match his words, now seen to be hollow. The rumor is that Perry, who has endorsed Rudy Giuliani for President, wants a job in his cabinet, perhaps even Vice-President, since Perry thinks he can bring in the religious-right vote. Rudy would do well to see Gov. 39% for what he is--a hypocrite of the first order--and perhaps give Perry the job he deserves--Secretary of Education--thus keeping the Bush Administration spirit for administrative incompetence and pandering to the religious-right base alive.

As Director of Curriculum for Science, Chris Comer would have hands-on direction and influence--although with no direct writing authority--over the content of the revised science standards. Since she is a well-known advocate for accurate and reliable science, including evolutionary biology, she would be a problem within the TEA for plans of the SBOE members and TEA staff to damage and diminish evolution instruction in Texas public school biology classes. So they were happy to hurry her out of the door. The plan, once again, is not to eliminate evolution instruction or require instruction in ID Creationism, both of which would be illegal, but to distort and minimize evolution instruction by requiring that bogus "weaknesses" and Creationist-identified "controversies" of evolution be taught. This would have the effect of distorting evolution and making students think that evolutionary biology is not as reliable as scientist actually believe. This then would suggest to students that alternatives exist for the origins questions, such as Intelligent Design Creationism.

It remains to be seen to what extent the TEA and SBOE will formally push the idea in the biology standards that "alternatives to evolution" exist and should be presented. Since no scientific alternatives to evolution currently exist, and court decisions have stated that ID Creationism is religious, officially requiring that alternatives to evolution be presented would open the SBOE and TEA to a federal lawsuit. But considerable damage to science instruction could be accomplished by ideologically misguided public education officials short of this simply by requiring that "weaknesses" and "controversies" of evolution must be taught.

Conclusion

So the wrongful forced resignation of Chris Comer on trumped-up charges is just the first step in a program to politicize and damage science education in Texas. The story of Texas science standards--following similar Discovery Institute efforts to damage science standards in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Kansas, South Carolina, and Florida--has now begun and will be national news until the process is complete. Texas citizens--especially those who care about high-quality 21st Century science education--should be concerned about this event, and the prospect of the Discovery Institute acting in Texas as an agent provocateur to sabotage our state's science standards revision process to pervert the standards in our state. The prospect and events so far make a mockery of all the fine language from education officials and political leaders who claim to support high-quality 21st Century science education to prepare our students for success in the new global society, in which mastery of science and technology skills will be essential for achievement and financial well-being. Soon the popular science blogs that cover evolution and creationism (Panda's Thumb, Pharyngula, Austringer, TfK, etc.) will have this topic in the national science blogosphere. Now that the story has broken, many Texas and national newspapers will publish reports and editorials about the story (which will be reprinted below).

For decades, while the elected Texas State Board of Education indulged in its damaging antics of secret negotiations with publishers, intimidating textbook authors and publishers, censoring and rejecting textbooks because the books contained information that impugned their fundamentalist religious values, the professional Texas Education Agency just did their jobs and didn't get their hands dirty with SBOE-inspired, mean-spirited, and aggressive censorship, hypocrisy, and bullying. But now that has changed. During the past year and especially during the past three months, the TEA has become politicized and newly empowered, eager to advance Intelligent Design Creationism in Texas public education by using its power as a centralized, authoritarian state agency. The ultimate source of the new aggressive attitude is Governor Rick Perry, who has seen to it that the top officials at the agency and the SBOE were picked to mirror his religious and political views, and force the religious doctrine of ID Creationism into secular science education. The fact that ID Creationism has no scientific legitimacy is irrelevant, since in the postmodern world those with political and government power have the right to force their views and values on others. ID Creationists acknowledge that they have not yet achieved scientific acceptability; nevertheless, the state education system is now being required to acquiesce to ID's manufactured description of evolutionary biology as an incomplete, weak, and controversial explanation of nature. The TEA has joined the State Board of Education as a rogue state agency--an agency ready to resort to duplicitous and shameful tactics to advance their goals

Chris Comer has now honorably joined the ranks of official martyrs of science, much like Galileo and Nikolai Vavilov. But she will not be a victim, because there are too many scientists and science teachers in Texas to let that happen. They are outraged by Chris Comer's 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. These scientists and science teachers will act in the future, as will scientists and science teachers from all over the nation. This episode should serve as a warning to individuals who care about science, science education, and fair treatment of individuals who share those concerns. The authoritarian mindset of the Radical Religious Right is our greatest danger in Texas and must be opposed.

Texas Citizens for Science will redouble its efforts to ensure that the Texas biology standards are not censored or damaged in ways that distort accurate and reliable scientific knowledge and instruction. We will continue to safeguard the integrity of science in Texas.

Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
President, Texas Citizens for Science
6202 Driftwood Drive
Midland, TX 79707
432/352-2265
http://www.texscience.org


Texas Citizens for Science
Report revised after November 29: added material quoted from AA-S Dec 6 story, 2007 December 6