Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Taking the 19th Century Out of Education

The excellent Lauri Lebo has an equally excellent article, entitled “Texas Textbook Massacre: Deceitful Propaganda Campaign Or Tempest in a Teapot?” at Religion Dispatches.

While Ms. Lebo gives several reasons to believe that the deprecations of the Texas State Board of Education may not be the disaster that all rational observers of that bureaucratic car wreck fear, even for kids in Texas, she concludes that it was not just a tempest in a teapot.

First, the good news:

~ Lemons can make lemonade:

Ken Miller has been through the Texas Board of Education’s textbook review process before. Three times in fact.

So, the Brown University biology professor, who co-wrote the popular high-school textbook Biology with Joe Levine, said he’s not terribly worried about going through it again. Actually, the new science standards written last year present him with an invitation to delve into the issue of evolution and the fossil record more thoroughly.

~ Publishers may not (all) be lily-livered money grubbers ... or they may just realize that they can lose more by caving in:

Pearson publishes Miller’s Biology. CEO Marjorie Scardino, Miller said, has assured the authors that she would rather be known as the publisher who sold no books in Texas, rather than the one who compromised scientific integrity and failed to stand on principle.

David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas—Austin who co-wrote the textbooks Life: The Science of Biology and Molecular Systemics said no reputable publisher or writer would kowtow to the board’s standards.

“It’s hard to imagine any publishers taking this seriously,” said Hillis, who testified before the education board last year regarding the science standards. “Are they really going to remove Thomas Jefferson from a discussion of the Enlightenment? And are they really going to substitute ‘free enterprise’ for capitalism? That’s ridiculous. They aren’t even synonyms.

“Publishers have reputations to maintain and this is so far off the mainstream of what is taught. They’re not going to add pseudoscience to the books. They’re not going to eliminate key historical figures.”

For the most part, publishers of high school textbooks are reluctant to discuss the Texas controversy, even though it’s acknowledged that they have been following it closely.

~ Push comes to shove, the damage can be limited to the poor kids in Texas:

While Ken Miller acknowledges that publishers are capable of producing different state editions, if they had their druthers, it’s more cost effective to only having to make one version, just with minor tweaks to accommodate state standards.

“Indeed it’s possible to produce a special edition for just Texas, but the reality is that almost all publishers would prefer the same core textbooks,” he said. ...

Sinauer Associates is a small publishing house that publishes college-level science textbooks, some of which are used in high school advanced placement classes. Sinauer, along with W.H. Freeman jointly published Hillis’ Science of Biology and Molecular Systemics. President Andrew Sinauer said his company would never consider inserting anti-evolution language into a textbook to make a sale to creationists.

“We simply wouldn’t do it and our authors wouldn’t tolerate it,” he said.

However, he said that the smaller college textbook market isn’t subject to the same kinds of pressures as the high school publishing houses for which state and regional standards have long required specific editions. So, a company might customize 8,000 copies for Texas, but still sell educationally legitimate copies to the rest of the country.

~ The Board that will be around to measure textbooks against the standards might be quite different:

Interestingly, the person who led efforts to rewrite the standards won’t be around next year to pick the textbooks. McLeroy, the board’s former chairman and the most vocal conservative on the board, lost his primary race last month. ...

Three of McLeroy’s fellow conservatives lost their races as well. Randy Rives and Joan Muenzler, who were backed by groups such as WallBuilders and the Texas Pastor Council, also lost their primary races. In addition, Austin attorney Brian Russell, whom board member Cynthia Dunbar recruited to run for her seat, lost his race to a moderate Republican. Dunbar, who is retiring, is a dominionist and has said public education is evil. Another conservative, Ken Mercer, is facing a serious challenge from a pro-education candidate in the fall election.

~ The bad news:

Even though Hillis is less worried about the board’s impact on textbooks, it doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned about what it could do to students’ education.

Under the standards, the board could require use of “supplemental material” as a way to sneak in creationist and intelligent design documents, like the Discovery Institute’s Signature of the Cell, or books that rewrite history from a distorted and dubious Christian perspective, like David Barton’s America’s Godly Heritage.

Other states have tried the supplemental material language, so far unsuccessfully. “But they keep trying,” Hillis said. ...

So, if the Texas textbook controversy were to end up having little impact on textbooks either across the country or even in Texas, was it all just a tempest in a teapot?

The answer, Hillis says, is no.

Unfortunately, young inexperienced teachers in small districts will look to the curriculum standards for guidance. And while teaching creationism is illegal, someone would have to be willing to challenge it.

“Clearly this is part of an effort to generate a culture war,” Hillis said.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, points out that Texas in the next 10 years could become like Kansas; in response to Kansas’ board of education’s decision in the late 90s to eliminate evolution from its standards, voters elected a pro-science board. In the next election, voters elected a creationist board and then back to a pro-science board. “It became like educational schizophrenia,” Quinn said, “where teachers didn’t know what to teach from year to year.”

Hope and danger. Sounds a lot like life.

Lauri Lebo is a gem.

Mike from Ottawa


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