Abstract

Courts throughout the United States have consistently supported the teaching of evolution and have rejected the teaching of creationism in the science classes of public schools. Although knowledge of these court decisions can help teachers resist pressures to spurn evolution or to teach creationism, many teachers have a poor understanding of the legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism. Incorporating these court decisions into undergraduate courses, preservice training, and in-service workshops would educate and support teachers who want to teach evolution, while helping them avoid costly and embarrassing lawsuits.

On 22 July 1925, the New York Times used its front-page headlines to tell readers that although John Scopes had been found guilty of the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee, “the end of the trial does not end the battle on evolution” and the “evolution fight rages.” These headlines were prophetic, for the teaching of evolution remains controversial throughout the United States. Most Americans question evolution and want creationism to be included in biology courses (Moore 2002); powerful antievolution organizations such as Answers in Genesis use their multimillion- dollar budgets to undermine the teaching of evolution (Cole 2000); and educational and political leaders in many states try to undermine science education by weakening or eliminating the treatment of evolution in the curriculum (Moore 2002). For example, although the US Supreme Court established (with Edwards v. Aguillard) that the teaching of creationism in science classes of public schools is unlawful, Minnesota's recently deposed commissioner of education Cheri Yecke—a self-described creationist—wants “every local [school] district [to] have the freedom to teach creationism if that's what they choose” (NCSE 2003). Similarly, Georgia's Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox believes the word evolution is a “buzzword” that should be removed from Georgia's science-education standards so that science teachers can teach “all legitimate theories,” especially “intelligent design,” to “ensure that our kids are getting a quality science education” (MacDonald 2004). and in early 2004, state legislators introduced bills to protect science teachers who teach biblical creationism (in Alabama) and to require “the equal treatment of science instruction regarding evolution and intelligent design” (in Missouri). Alabama's legislation was praised by legislators “because it allows a teacher to bring forward the biblical creation story of humankind” (Connolly 2004). If the Missouri bill had passed, science teachers who refused to give equal time to “intelligent design” could have been fired (Missouri Standard Science Act 2004). The list goes on and on.

Teachers' responses to the many challenges that often accompany the teaching of evolution are important and have often resulted in lawsuits. For example, lawsuits have arisen when teachers have taught or have been instructed to teach evolution (e.g., Wright v. Houston Independent School District); when teachers have taught or have been instructed to teach creationism (Edwards v. Aguillard, McLean v. Arkansas, Hellend v. South Bend Community School Corporation, and Webster v. New Lenox School District #122); when teachers have refused to teach evolution (Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District); and when a variety of other situations involving the teaching of evolution have arisen (e.g., Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, LeVake v. Independent School District #656, Webster v. New Lenox School District #122,Moore 2002, Moore and Miksch 2003). In some instances lawsuits have been filed when educators followed the law, and in other instances when educators have defied the law. Some of these cases have also arisen from ignorance of the law; as one teacher who was involved in such a lawsuit told me, “I didn't know that I was doing anything wrong.”

In a previous article I discussed the most common questions about legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools (Moore and Miksch 2003). For the present study, I surveyed high school biology teachers about their understanding of these issues. I wanted to answer several questions. For example, which legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution do teachers understand? Which ones do they not understand? How are teachers' understandings of these legal issues correlated with the teaching of evolution and creationism in Minnesota's biology classrooms?

The survey

Survey questions used in this study (table 1) were based on a previous study that discussed the most common questions about legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution (Moore and Miksch 2003). To avoid the low return rates that have characterized several previous evolution-related surveys (e.g., 29 percent in Ohio; see Zimmerman 1987), I administered the anonymous survey shown in table 1 to Minnesota high school biology teachers who attended the meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November 2003 and to those at the Tenth Annual Biology–Life Sciences Teachers Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, in December 2003. Teachers not knowing the answer to a question were instructed to leave the answer blank. A total of 103 teachers (84 percent of those who were given a survey) participated in the survey. Evidence suggesting that the data reported here regarding Minnesota teachers are representative for other states is presented elsewhere (Moore 2002, 2004c).

The outcome

Teachers' responses to the survey questions are shown in table 1. The numbers in the table are percentages of respondents who answered each survey question correctly. At least 91 percent of respondents answered each question. All of the responses listed in table 1 are from teachers in public schools. Where appropriate, relevant text from the cited court decision is provided in a footnote. Additional information about each decision, the court making the decision, and the jurisdictions of those courts is presented elsewhere (Moore and Miksch 2003).

Twenty-nine percent of the teachers wrote unsolicited comments on the surveys. Approximately 20 percent of these comments were similar to this one: “This survey brought up questions that I need to get answers to.” Another 20 percent of the comments expressed frustration with evolution education (e.g., “It's too bad we still have science teachers who reject evolution”; “Parents pressure me, and it's just not worth it to teach evolution”). Approximately 60 percent of the comments were pro-creationism: “I'm a creationist and I plan my schedule so that I run out of time and don't have to cover evolution”; “I talk a lot about the holes in evolution; students need to know this information more than [that] they came from monkeys”; “I present evolution and creationism and let students make up their own minds”; “I refuse to teach evolution, but I talk about creationism whenever I can”; and “Why do we insist on promoting tolerance and respect for diversity and thinking for one's self and remain intolerant of creationism?”

Discussion

Most high school biology teachers in Minnesota's public schools have a good understanding of many of the legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism. For example, a large majority (more than 75 percent) of the teachers know the following facts: These results are encouraging, for they suggest that most teachers understand the legal basis for resisting pressures to teach creationism, to ignore evolution because of students' religious sensitivities, and to forgo field trips to state-supported museums that promote evolution. Biology teachers in Minnesota (Kraemer 1995) and elsewhere (Zimmerman 1987, Moore 2002) are often pressured to avoid evolution or to teach creationism in their classes. Teachers feel these pressures (Randak 2001), and an understanding of court decisions can be a powerful ally for those who want to resist these pressures effectively. Some biology teachers have used their understanding of these court decisions to help keep creationism out of science classrooms (Moore 2004a, 2004b).

  • They are not required to give equal time to creationism if they teach evolution.

  • They do not have to modify their teaching of evolution to appease students who claim that evolution offends and is incompatible with their religious views.

  • The government can use tax money to promote the teaching of evolution but cannot use tax money to promote creationism, creationism-based books, or creationism-based exhibits.

  • The First Amendment does not entitle a science teacher to teach creationism.

  • A school can force a teacher to teach evolution and to stop teaching creationism.

However, table 1 also documents some concerns. For example, surprisingly large percentages of biology teachers believe that they may give equal time to creationism if they teach evolution. If these teachers happen to be creationists (and many biology teachers are creationists; see Kraemer 1995, Moore 2001, 2002, 2004c), they would presumably be more likely to teach creationism than would teachers who know that it is unlawful to teach creationism, regardless of its popularity among local citizens, students, school officials, and politicians. Indeed, all of the teachers in this survey who indicated that they include creationism in their courses also indicated the following:

  • They believe that they may give equal time to creationism if they teach evolution.

  • They believe that they may teach the alleged “evidence against evolution.” (When Faribault, Minnesota, biology teacher Rodney LeVake did this, he was reassigned. He lost his subsequent lawsuit when courts ruled that he could not teach his own curriculum, and “evidence against evolution” was not in the approved curriculum of Faribault High School; see Moore 2004b.)

  • They believe that they can be required by school officials to read aloud a statement that their teaching of evolution is not meant to dissuade students from accepting the biblical version of creation.

  • They do not know that courts have evaluated the scientific and educational merits of creation science.

  • They believe that it is still a crime to teach evolution in some parts of the United States. (In fact, all of the laws banning the teaching of human evolution were overturned by 1970.)

  • They have a poor understanding of the history of evolution education in the United States. (For example, the Scopes trial did not strike down any laws, and John Scopes was convicted at his trial.)

A thorough understanding of the history of evolution education can be valuable to teachers; the basic creationist themes, and the justifications for teaching creationism and weakening the teaching of evolution, have remained largely unchanged for decades (Moore 2002). If anything, the data reported in table 1 may overestimate Minnesota teachers' understanding of legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools. For example, these data were provided by teachers attending meetings of science-education organizations, and these teachers are more likely to accept evolution and its central role in biology than are nonmembers of such organizations, who are more likely to emphasize creationism in their classes (Weld and McNew 1999).

The misunderstandings reported in this study (table 1) are consistent with other reports. In another recent study, I found that only 38 percent of high school biology courses in Minnesota emphasize evolution, whereas 20 percent emphasize creationism and 23 percent emphasize both evolution and creationism (Moore 2004c). Kraemer (1995) found that 40 percent of biology teachers in Minnesota spend little or no time teaching evolution, while only 15 percent include creationism in their classes. Only 28 percent of the teachers in Kraemer's sample believe that creationism has a scientific basis; 20 percent are pressured not to teach evolution, and only about one-third are adequately prepared to teach it.

Taken together, these results indicate that many public-school teachers are misinformed about legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution. These misunderstandings influence science education, because teachers' understanding of (and personal views about) a subject affect their teaching (Carlesen 1991). For example, although only 2 percent of Minnesota's public school teachers believe that they must give equal time to creationism, 27 percent believe that they may give equal time to creationism (table 1). These beliefs correlate with the finding that approximately 20 percent of Minnesota's biology teachers do emphasize creationism in their biology courses (Kraemer 1995, Moore 2004c). As Don Aguillard has noted, “Creationism is alive and well among biology teachers” (Moore 2002).

Resources for addressing the problem

Biology teachers often encounter pressure to teach creationism or to avoid teaching evolution, or both (Zimmerman 1987, Kraemer 1995, Randak 2001). Teachers who want to resist these pressures are supported by a variety of resources, the most powerful of which are court decisions. Indeed, courts have consistently supported the teaching of evolution and rejected the teaching of creationism in science classes of public schools (Moore 2002). Teachers would presumably be more likely to teach evolution (and not teach creationism) if discussions of these court decisions were incorporated into more biology courses, teacher-training programs, and in-service workshops. Other resources to help teachers resist creationist pressure include position statements of professional scientific societies, state education standards, and improved training for future teachers.

Position statements.

A variety of professional scientific societies have emphasized that students should have a thorough understanding of evolution. For example, the National Academy of Sciences (1999) urges that “only evolution should be taught in science classes because it is the only scientific explanation for why the universe is the way it is today.” Teachers pressured by creationists to teach creationism or to avoid evolution in the classroom can cite these position statements when defending their teaching of evolution.

State educational standards.

Virtually all states have science-education standards. In many states, these standards treat evolution effectively and require teachers to emphasize evolution in their biology classrooms; teachers can cite these standards when defending their teaching of evolution. However, some states have science-education standards that ignore evolution or treat evolution poorly (Moore 2001, Lerner 2000). Moreover, the presence of high standards for teaching evolution is often unrelated to the quality of evolution-related instruction. For example, Indiana has some of the best evolution-education standards in the nation, but 43 percent of its biology teachers avoid or “briefly mention” evolution, and at least 20 percent reject or are undecided about the scientific validity of evolution (Rutledge and Warden 2000, Rutledge and Mitchell 2002). These and similar data from a variety of other states (Moore 2002) indicate that state standards for evolution are largely irrelevant to the teaching of evolution in biology classrooms of public schools.

Better training for future biology teachers.

The teaching of evolution in high schools would presumably be improved by requiring future biology teachers to take more courses that emphasize evolution and the nature of science (Chuang 2003). For example, teachers' acceptance of evolution and their allocation of class time to evolution correlate positively with teachers' academic background: Teachers who have a better understanding of evolution and the nature of science allocate more time to evolution and do a better job of teaching it (Rutledge and Mitchell 2002). However, most future teachers do not take courses that focus on evolution (Rutledge and Warden 2000, Rutledge and Mitchell 2002). In Louisiana, for example, many of today's high school biology teachers don't recall hearing the word evolution in their college biology courses, apparently because many biology professors do not teach evolution (Moore 2002). Moreover, some studies have questioned whether such courses have a significant impact, because most students' beliefs about evolution and creationism are ingrained long before their formal science education begins. This is why Sinclair and Pendarvis (1998) concluded that “students' misconceptions remained well ingrained even after a thorough coverage of the evidences supporting evolution.” Similarly, Lawson and Worsnop (1992) concluded that “the strength of religious commitment contributes negatively toward an initial belief in evolution and to a shift toward evolution during instruction. In other words, highly religious students are more likely to express a belief in special creation and are less likely to give it up during instruction,” and instruction has almost no effect on evolution-related beliefs (Bishop and anderson 1990).

Surprisingly high percentages of biology teachers teach creationism, do not teach evolution, or teach evolution poorly, sometimes because the teachers themselves are creationists. In addition, many teachers have a poor understanding of a number of legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism. The result is that “over a quarter—and perhaps as many as half—of the nation's high school students get educations shaped by creationist influence—in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the nation's scientific, educational, intellectual, and media establishments” (Eve and Harrold 1991). Biologists could help remedy this problem by placing a greater emphasis on evolution in the undergraduate and graduate curricula, by teaching students about some of the legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism (e.g., why we do not give equal time to creationism), and by becoming stronger advocates for teaching evolution in public schools.

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Table 1.

Results of an examination of Minnesota high school biology teachers' understanding of the legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools.

Table 1.

Results of an examination of Minnesota high school biology teachers' understanding of the legal issues associated with the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools.

Table 1.

(continued)

Table 1.

(continued)

Author notes

1
Randy Moore (email: RMoore@umn.edu) is a professor at the University of Minnesota, 128 Pleasant Street, SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455.

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