Almost a century after the famed Scopes Monkey Trial, battles over teaching evolution versus creationism in US public schools persist – but they have shifted to individual classrooms where teachers have a vast influence over whether evolution is present, a new study finds. In the courtroom, advocates for creationist thinking, or its re-packaged equivalent “intelligent design”, have lost nearly every major case in the last 40 years. While this has undoubtedly helped set a high scientific standard for state curricula, the study finds that a majority of public high school teachers are either uncomfortable with teaching evolution or doubtful of its accuracy.
“The official state content standards actually have very little impact on the way teachers teach in the classroom,” says Eric Plutzer, a political scientist from Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who co-authored the paper, which appears 27 January in Science. The major factors affecting what teachers taught were their own personal values and beliefs as well as the values and culture of their community, he adds.
Plutzer and his co-author, Michael Berkman, also of Pennsylvania State University, used a nationally representative sample of 926 public biology instructors and found that less than a third of teachers consistently crafted their lesson plans around evolution. At the same time, about 13% of teachers spent an hour or more of class time presenting creationism “in a positive light”.
In the most conservative school districts, nearly 40% of teachers do not personally accept human evolution (compared to 11% in the least conservative districts). But the majority of US teachers, approximately 60%, were not advocates of either evolutionary biology or nonscientific alternatives.
These “cautious 60 percent” generally teach a watered down version of evolution and often disassociate themselves from the content, says Plutzer. Many were not well trained in basic evolutionary biology and did not feel themselves equipped to answer controversial questions from students, parents, or school board members, he says.
Some of these teachers avoided teaching the more controversial macroevolution, which describes new species arising from old ones, while still describing microevolution, which can explain how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance. Others taught evolution in order that their students could pass standardized tests, though they did not believe in it unequivocally. Finally, a large number of this group exposed students to all positions in the hopes that they could make up their own minds.
Since evolution is the fundamental concept unifying biology, it is surprising how many high school biology teachers are unaccepting or uneasy with it, says William Wallace, the Washington D.C. representative of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “It’s like a math teacher not believing in algebra,” he says. Better instruction during a prospective biology teacher’s college training could help mitigate this fact, he says, a position the researchers advocate for as well.
In addition, most biology teachers are not trained at universities with faculty engaged in cutting-edge biology research, says Plutzer. Scientists could provide outreach to these non-research universities in order to give new teachers a sounder footing in evolutionary theory, he says.
“Once teachers are in the classroom, they can get set in their ways,” he says. “Instructional support needs to start sooner.”
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