Alabama’s Fractured Evolution

So…will kids in Alabama learn about evolution? Depends on who you ask. The state just published its new science standards. If you listen to NPR or read the update from the National Center for Science Education, then the new standards are unabashedly pro-evolution. But if you read the Christian Post, then the new standards offer students a choice. This is more than a question of headlines. It helps us see the tricky nature of teaching evolution and other controversial subjects.

Po-tay-to...

Po-tay-toe…

All parties concerned seem to agree that the new standards require more evolution. And they agree that the new standards will move students away from repeating rote facts. The goal of the new standards will be to allow students to get their hands dirty in the evidence itself. As the NCSE describes, [the new standards no longer seem available online], students will soon be expected to

“[a]nalyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection” and to “[a]nalyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution” (p. 48).

For pro-evolution folks [like me], this means kids in Alabama will learn more evolution. As Alabama science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR,

“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face,” Reardon says of his students. “I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”

To Reardon, the message of the new standards is clear: His students will be learning the truths of evolution and climate change. But for the editors at the Christian Post, the new standards mean something very different. The Christian Post reported that students would “Decide If Evolution Is Theory or Fact.” Decide. Allowing students to wade into the evidence themselves does not necessarily mean that they will conclude that evolution happened.

NPR wondered why these new evolution-friendly standards passed with so little “pushback.” Why have conservative evangelicals in Alabama seemed so willing to support these new standards? Perhaps the reason is more obvious than it seems. While teachers like Ryan Reardon plan to push students to see the truths of evolution, perhaps other teachers plan to push students to see for themselves the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued, state science standards are not the best predictor of the ways evolution is actually taught.

Alabama teachers like Ryan Reardon will likely guide their students toward a full understanding of evolutionary theory. But other teachers in the state will likely guide students differently. By helping students “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” many science teachers in the state will likely continue to teach a mix of religious ideas in with their state-approved science curriculum.

...po-tah-toe.

…po-tah-toe.

Certainly, readers of publications such as the Christian Post might not see the new standards as an undiluted victory for evolution. If students are allowed to “decide” if evolution is a fact or “just a theory,” creationists will be able to claim a victory.

Are the new standards better? For those of us who want to see more and better evolution education, they certainly seem to be. But we need to be cautious about our expectations. These contradictory headlines show that teachers and schools will implement the new standards in contradictory ways.