Florida science teachers’ jobs are in jeopardy if they dare challenge biological evolution in the public school classroom, claimed state senator Ronda Storms when she filed her Academic Freedom bill in 2008.
The bill says that “in many instances educators have experienced or feared discipline, discrimination, or other adverse consequences as a result of presenting the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.”
The problem with this claim was that no legislator who supported the bills in either the Florida House or Senate could offer any proof of such widespread discrimination. Even the senate staff’s own analysis of the bill stated as much.
According to the Department of Education, there has never been a case in Florida where a public school teacher or public school student has claimed that they have been discriminated against based on their science teaching or science course work.
We now have a way to refute claims that those teachers with anti-evolution views are being discriminated against. Even more significantly, we have some evidence that the opposite is true: teachers who support evolution instruction are the ones who face harassment and fear of unemployment. An important study “Florida Teachers’ Attitudes about Teaching Evolution” was published in The American Biology Teacher February 2010 issue. Samantha Fowler, an assistant professor of biology in the Department of Natural Sciences at Clayton State University, Georgia, and Gerry Meisels, Director of the Coalition for Science Literacy, University of South Florida, were interested in learning how Florida’s new state science standards – prominently featuring evolution as a Big Idea – were being received at the classroom level. The prior version of the science standards had not even mentioned the word evolution, and so the dramatic change in 2008 [For all the gritty details about the science standards revision process go here.] from no mention by name to Big Idea was sure to grab teachers’ attention. But to what extent?
Fowler and Meisels set three goals for their study:
Are Florida teachers really facing discrimination as claimed by the Academic Freedom bills’ supporters?
How comfortable are Florida teachers overall with teaching evolution?
How comfortable are Florida elementary school teachers with teaching basic evolutionary concepts?
Fowler and Meisels sent a carefully constructed and reviewed survey to teachers using contacts at the Building a Presence in Science program of the National Science Teachers Association. They received 353 useable responses. Roughly a quarter of them came from elementary school teachers, another quarter from middle school teachers, and about half from high school teachers. Suburban schools made up the bulk of responses at 66% with urban schools coming in at 21% and rural schools at 14%.
It was found that 74% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they are comfortable with evolution being in the new science standards, and 20% said they are not comfortable. “Moreover, only 62% agree that they will use the new Florida science standards to justify teaching evolution,” Fowler and Meisels said. They did some number crunching and determined that as many as 532,000 Florida students who take classes where they are supposed to learn about evolution in some form have teachers who are not comfortable with evolution. Unfortunately, we don’t know what is going on in those classrooms. Are they skipping evolution? Are they teaching inaccurate information? Digging through the statistics offers some clues. “Only 72% of the teachers agreed that evolution is a central organizing principle of biology, and 17% felt that one can understand biology without learning about evolution,” Fowler and Meisels said. My guess is that there are plenty of teachers across the state who are using the old technique of just not being able to get to that chapter on evolution because they ran out of time in the course.
The subject of evolution inevitably crosses paths with religious beliefs, and Fowler and Meisels made sure to include it in their study. Only two-thirds of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “Believing in God means rejecting evolution.” Additionally, 17% admitted to not believing that the earth is at least 4 billion years old. Fowler and Meisels didn’t mention in their text one statistic that stood out to me in their tables. They broke down all respondents into two groups: those who are comfortable with evolution and those who aren’t. Then the two groups’ answers to a list of questions are compared. Only 0.4% of those who are comfortable felt that creationists are more moral than noncreationists. On the other hand, 19% of those uncomfortable with evolution agreed that creationists are more moral. That’s not a statement on whether certain teachers have the professional knowledge they need to do their jobs but rather a statement on personal values that shakes me to my core. These are real people in our schools who feel morally superior to their fellow teachers. What can result from such an attitude? We’re going to get a taste of that later in this study.
One statistic that does address professional knowledge is whether respondents felt they understand evolution well enough to teach it. The difference here is striking, with 94% of those who are comfortable with evolution having that understanding while only 51% of those uncomfortable with evolution did. When the numbers are further broken down by grade level taught, it can be seen that teachers at the elementary school level are the ones with the least knowledge and confidence when it comes to evolution. Only 69% on the elementary level felt they understood evolution well enough to teach it, compared with 88% in middle schools and 95% in high schools. Two other lines in the table stood out to me when it comes to elementary school teachers:
— Agree that the Earth is at least 4 billion years old: elementary 61%, middle 85%, high 95%.
— Feel that those who believe in God do not accept evolution: elementary 27%, middle 22%, high 5%.
Fowler and Meisels said, “Now that evolution has become a Big Idea in Florida’s science standards beginning at the elementary level, helping these teachers become more comfortable with and knowledgeable about evolution is increasingly important.”
Finally, we arrive at the paper’s analysis of whether discrimination against teachers who don’t accept evolution is a real problem. The structured survey questions actually didn’t specify whether any criticism faced by teachers was for or against evolution, but were instead generic queries into any type of censure when it comes to evolution. The results indicate that teachers tend to take much more heat from parents and students than from fellow teachers or administrators. However, Fowler and Meisels included a section in their questionnaires soliciting teachers to write comments about their personal experiences facing criticism. Overall, there was an even mix of responses from both the pro-evolution and anti-evolution sides when relating experiences about fellow teachers. But relations with school administrators were quite different. Teachers who do include evolution in the classroom wrote about many experiences with hostile school administrators. “Conversely, no comments were made about teachers being forced to teach evolution when they did not wish to do so,” Fowler and Meisels said. This strikingly lopsided response led Fowler and Meisels to the preliminary conclusion that arguments on behalf of the Academic Freedom bills had no grounding in fact. Comments they received included:
“A former principal, who held strong religious beliefs, called me in to chastise me for mentioning ‘adaptations’ among birds … as was mentioned in our county environmental ed. workbook. The principal made it well known that I was to stop teaching this because it was ‘well known’ that God made the birds the way they were … and that they did not adapt as I had taught. ‘Your uncle may be a monkey,’ said the principal, ‘but mine was not.’”
“I had a screen saver which said ‘evolution happens’ scrolling across an image of the T-rex Sue and was told to remove it by my principal as it offended the religious sensibilities of a student. I was then told to ‘tread lightly’ when I approached the topic of evolution in class … In the end I was not rehired at the district.”
What lessons can be taken from this important and informative study? First of all, yet more study is needed since there are still a few uncertainties. Fowler and Meisels point out that there could very well be many more teachers who have some level of discomfort with evolution out there than this study has revealed due to the survey’s nonrandom sampling method. But the solution to several issues this study highlights is more initial education and ongoing training for teachers. Those who lack confidence in a subject are likely to pass along that fuzzy knowledge to their students, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Better science and evolution education is even more vital for elementary school teachers, because there is a lot at stake here! Take a look at the recent study “Eyeballs in the Fridge” that found many current working scientists first fell in love with science very young. Also check out another study done in California about the dismal state of science education in elementary schools there.
Teachers’ knowledge and enthusiasm can have a profound impact on students, especially the youngest kids. A teacher’s negative attitude toward evolution can turn students off to the subject, and even to science overall! As Fowler and Meisels state: “Teachers’ discomfort with evolution may adversely affect students’ learning through insufficient time spent on the topic and general verbal and nonverbal cues given by the teacher. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly explore the reasons for teachers’ discomfort so that remedies can be developed.”
(My sincere thanks to the folks at the National Center for Science Education for letting me know this study was out there!)