Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Is Evolution Arkansas's Hidden Curriculum?

As I was working on a proposal for a project at the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montréal, I received an e-mail from an old friend back in Arkansas, where I was raised, whom I had known since high school. She was concerned about a problem her father was having at work. "Bob" is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that services several Arkansas public school districts. My friend did not know the details of Bob's problem, only that it had to do with evolution. This was enough to arouse my interest, so I invited Bob to tell me about what was going on.

He responded with an e-mail describing the scenario. Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the "e-word" with the kids. They are permitted to use the word "adaptation" but only to refer to a current characteristic of organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term "natural selection". Bob fears, and I agree with him, that not being able to use evolutionary terms and ideas to answer his students' questions will lead to reinforcement of their misconceptions.

But Bob's personal issue is more specific, and the prohibition more insidious. In his words, "I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these Ordovician rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old." As a person with a geology background, Bob found this restriction a bit hard to justify, especially since the new Arkansas educational benchmarks for 5th grade include introduction of the concept of the 4.5-billion–year age of the earth. Bob's facility is supposed to be meeting or exceeding those benchmarks.

The explanation that had been given to Bob by his supervisors was that their science facility is in a delicate position and must avoid irritating religionists who may have their fingers on the purse strings of various school districts. Apparently his supervisors feared that teachers or parents might be offended if Bob taught their children about the age of rocks and that it would result in another school district pulling out of their program. He closed his explanatory message with these lines:

So my situation here is tenuous. I am under censure for mentioning numbers ... I find that my "fire" for this place is fading if we're going to dissemble about such a basic factor of modern science. I mean ... the Scopes trial was how long ago now??? I thought we had fought this battle ... and still it goes on.

I immediately referred Bob to the people at the NCSE. He wrote to them explaining the situation, and they responded with excellent advice and support. Bob was able to use their suggestions along with some of the position statements found in the NCSE's Voices for Evolution in defense of his continued push to teach the science he felt he was obligated to present to his students, but his supervisors remained firm in their policy of steering clear of specifically mentioning evolution or "deep time" chronology.

I was going to be in Arkansas in December anyway, so I decided to investigate Bob's issue in person. He was happy for the support, but even more excited to show me around the facility. Bob is infectiously enthusiastic about nature and science education. He is just the kind of person we want to see working with students in this type of setting. He had arranged for me to meet with the directors of the facility, but he wanted to give me a guided tour of the place first.

Self-censorship in defense of science?

I would like to describe the grounds of the facility in more detail, but I must honor the request of all parties involved to not be identified. It was, however, a beautiful setting, and the students, 5th graders that day, seemed more engaged in their learning than most I had ever seen. To be sure, the facility does a fantastic job of teaching science, but I was there to find out about what it was not teaching. Bob and I toured the grounds for quite some time, including a hike to a new cave he had recently discovered nearby, and when we returned I was shown to my interview with the program director and executive director.

Both of the directors welcomed me warmly and were very forthcoming in their answers to my questions. They were, however, quite firm in their insistence that they and their facility be kept strictly anonymous if I was to write this story up. We talked for over an hour about the site's mission, their classes, and Bob's situation specifically. Both directors agreed that "in a perfect world" they could, and would, teach evolution and deep time. However, back in the real world, they defended their stance on the prohibition of the "e-word", reasoning that it would take too long to teach the concept of evolution effectively (especially if they had to defuse any objections) and expressing concern for the well-being of their facility. Their program depends upon public support and continued patronage of the region's school districts, which they felt could be threatened by any political blowback from an unwanted evolutionary controversy.

With regard to Bob's geologic time scale issue, the program director likened it to a game of Russian roulette. He admitted that probably very few students would have a real problem with a discussion about time on the order of millions of years, but that it might only take one child's parents to cause major problems. He spun a scenario of a student's returning home with stories beginning with "Millions of years ago ..." that could set a fundamentalist parent on a veritable witch hunt, first gathering support of like-minded parents and then showing up at school-board meetings until the district pulled out of the science program to avoid conflict. He added that this might cause a ripple effect on other districts following suit, leading to the demise of the program.

Essentially, they are not allowing Bob to teach a certain set of scientific data in order to protect their ability to provide students the good science curriculum they do teach. The directors are not alone in their opinion that discussions of deep time and the "e-word" could be detrimental to the program's existence. They have polled teachers in the districts they serve and have heard from them more than enough times that teaching evolution would be "political suicide".

Bob's last communication indicated that he had signed up with NCSE and was leaning towards the "grin and bear it" option, which, given his position and the position of the institution, may be the best option. I was a bit disheartened by the situation, but still impressed with all the good that is going on at Bob's facility. I was also curious about the climate regarding evolution in other educational facilities in the state, so, I decided to ask some questions where I could.

The first place I happened to find, purely by accident, was a privately run science museum for kids. As with Bob's facility, the museum requested not to be referred to by name. I was only there for a short time, but I'm not quite sure what to make of what happened there. I looked around the museum and found a few biological exhibits, but nothing dealing with evolution. I introduced myself to one of the museum's employees as a science educator (I am indeed a science educator) and asked her if they had any exhibits on evolution. She said that they used to at one time, but that several parents — some of whom home-schooled their children; some of whom are associated with Christian schools — had been offended by the exhibit and complained. They had said either that they would not be back until it was removed or that they would not be using that part of the museum if they returned. "It was right over there," she said, pointing to an area that was being used at that time for a kind of holiday display.

Because I had happened upon the place by accident, I had not made room in my schedule for a longer exploratory visit. I did call the museum at a later date to find out more about the removal of the evolution exhibit. After calling several times and leaving a few messages, I finally reached someone who explained that the exhibit had not been removed due to complaints, although people had in fact objected to the display. Rather, it had been taken down to make room for their merger with another science education institution. I am not speculating here, only reporting information that I was given, but when I asked when the newly partnered institution planned on moving in, I was told that the grant for the new space had not yet been written. It could be quite some time.

Later that evening, I had a visit with the coordinator of gifted and talented (GT) education at one of Arkansas's larger public school districts. As before, she has requested that she and her school system be kept anonymous, so I will call her "Susan". Susan told me about a situation she had been trying to decide how to deal with. She had overheard a teacher explaining the "balanced treatment" given to creationism in her classroom. This was not just any classroom, but an Advanced Placement Biology classroom. This was important to Susan, not only because of the subject and level of the class, but also because it fell under her supervision as part of the GT program. Was she obliged to do something about this? She knew quite well that the "balanced treatment" being taught had been found by a federal court to violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause — perhaps there is no greater irony than that two of the most significant cases decided by federal courts against teaching creationism were Epperson v Arkansas and McLean v Arkansas Board of Education. She is quite knowledgeable, and her husband is a lawyer who has written about the Edwards v Aguillard evolution case. She also knew that this was unsound pedagogy, but dealing with the issue is not easy in Arkansas.

Susan sincerely wanted to do something about it, but in the end, she had decided to let it go. Her reasoning was that this particular teacher is probably in her final year of service. To Susan, making an issue out of this just was not worth the strife it would have caused in the school and in the community when it would soon be taken care via retirement.

As the discussion progressed that evening, I learned that omission was the method of dealing with evolution in another of Arkansas's largest, most quickly growing, and wealthiest school districts — an omission that is apparently strongly suggested by the administration. I decided to check on this, but made little progress, receiving the cold shoulder from the administration and the science department at that school. However, I spoke with a person who works for a private science education facility that does contract work for this district: "Helen" — she, like the other people I had visited, requested that she and her employers not be identified. I asked Helen about her experiences with the district's teachers. Her story was that in preparation for teaching the students from that district, she had asked some of the teachers how they approached the state benchmarks for those items dealing with evolution. She said, "Oh, I later got in trouble for even asking," but went on to describe their answers. Most teachers said that they did not know enough about evolution to teach it themselves, but one of them, after looking around to make sure they were safely out of anyone's earshot, explained that the teachers are told by school administrators that it would be "good for their careers" not to mention such topics in their classes.

Inadequate science education

How often does this kind of thing happen? How many teachers are deleting the most fundamental principle of the biological sciences from their classes due to school and community pressure or due to lack of knowledge? How many are disregarding Supreme Court decisions and state curriculum guidelines? These are good questions, and I have been given relevant data from a person currently working in Arkansas. I was introduced to this person, who has clearly expressed his wishes to be kept anonymous (are you noticing a pattern here?), through the NCSE. I will call this science educator "Randy". When I began looking into Arkansas's evolution education situation, the NCSE sent me Randy's contact information.

Randy runs professional development science education workshops for public school teachers. He's been doing it for a while now, and he has been taking information on the teachers in his workshops via a survey. He had a bit of data that he was not sure what do with while maintaining his anonymity, but he shared it with me. He later posted the same results on an e-mail list-serve for people interested in evolution education in Arkansas, but this is the way it was reported to me.

According to his survey, about 20% are trying to teach evolution and think they are doing a good job; 10% are teaching creationism, even though during the workshop he discusses the legally shaky ground on which they stand. Another 20% attempt to teach something but feel they just do not understand evolution. The remaining 50% avoid it because of community pressure. On the list-serve Randy reported that the latter 50% do not cover evolution because they felt intimidated, saw no need to teach it, or might lose their jobs.

Apparently, by their own description of their classroom practices, 80% of these teachers are not adequately teaching evolutionary science. Remember that these are just the teachers who are in a professional development workshop in science education! What is more disturbing is what Randy went on to say about the aftermath of these workshops. "After one of my workshops at an [state] education cooperative, it was asked that I not come back because I spent too much time on evolution. One of the teachers sent a letter to the governor stating that I was mandating that teachers had to teach evolution, and that I have to be an atheist, and would he do something."

Of course the dichotomy of "you're either an anti-evolutionist or you're an atheist" is a false one. Many scientists who understand and accept evolution are also quite religious, and many people of faith also understand and accept evolution. But here is a public school teacher appealing to the governor to "do something" about this guy teaching us to teach evolution. Given that evolutionary science is prescribed in the state curriculum guidelines, and given that two of the most important legal cases regarding evolution education originated in Arkansas and Edwards v Aguillard originated in Louisiana directly to the south (all of these cases resulted in support of evolution education and restriction of creationist teachings in public schools), how exactly would we expect the governor to respond? I am not sure how or even whether Governor Mike Huckabee responded to this letter, but I have seen him respond to concerned Arkansas high-school students regarding evolution in the schools on television.

The Arkansas Educational Television Network produces a program called "Arkansans Ask" on which the state's citizens confront the governor about various issues affecting the region. I've seen two episodes on which students have expressed their frustration about the lack of evolution education in their public schools. These students obviously care about their science education, and for two years running Huckabee has responded to them by advocating that creationism be taught in their schools. Here is an excerpt from one of these broadcasts, from July 2004:
Student: Many schools in Arkansas are failing to teach students about evolution according to the educational standards of our state. Since it is against these standards to teach creationism, how would you go about helping our state educate students more sufficiently for this?
Huckabee: Are you saying some students are not getting exposure to the various theories of creation?
Student (stunned): No, of evol ... well, of evolution specifically. It's a biological study that should be educated [taught], but is generally not.
Moderator: Schools are dodging Darwinism? Is that what you ... ?
Student: Yes.
Huckabee: I'm not familiar that they're dodging it. Maybe they are. But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that's why it's called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I'd be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that's held by people. But it's not the only view that's held. And any time you teach one thing as that it's the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.
Governor Huckabee's answer has several problems and is laced with some very important misconceptions about science. Perhaps the most insidious problem with his response is that it plays on one of the most basic of American values: Huckabee appeals to our sense of democracy and free expression. But several court decisions have concluded that fairness and free expression are not violated when public school teachers are required to teach the approved curriculum. These decisions recognized that teaching creationism is little more than thinly veiled religious advocacy and violates the Establishment Clause.

Furthermore, Huckabee claimed not to be aware of the omission of evolution from Arkansan classrooms. From my limited visit, it is clear that this omission is widespread and no secret; but it is even harder to understand the governor's apparent ignorance about the situation in July 2004, when another student called in with similar concerns almost exactly one year earlier on the July 2003 broadcast of "Arkansans Ask":
Student: Goal 2.04 of the Biology Benchmark Goals published by the Arkansas Department of Education in May of 2002 indicates that students should examine the development of the theory of biological evolution. Yet many students in Arkansas that I have met ... have not been exposed to this idea. What do you believe is the appropriate role of the state in mandating the curriculum of a given course?
Huckabee: I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism ... .
The governor goes on for a bit and finishes his sentiment, but the moderator keeps the conversation going:
Moderator (to student): You've encountered a number of students who have not received evolutionary biology?
Student: Yes, I've found that quite a few people's high schools simply prefer to ignore the topic. I think that they're a bit afraid of the controversy.
Huckabee: I think it's something kids ought to be exposed to. I do not necessarily buy into the traditional Darwinian theory, personally. But that does not mean that I'm afraid that somebody might find out what it is ...

Sisyphean Challenges

How are teachers like "Bob", administrators like "Susan", and teacher trainers like "Randy" supposed to ensure proper science education regarding evolution in accordance with state standards and within the bounds of case law and the Constitution if politicians like Huckabee consistently support and advocate the teaching of non-science and pseudoscience that flies in the face of sound pedagogy and the First Amendment's Establishment Clause?

It is quite telling that none of the people I spoke with were willing to be identified or to allow me to reveal their respective institutions. In the case of "Bob" and his facility's directors, they were concerned about criticism from both sides of the issue. They did not want to lose students by offending fundamentalists or lose credibility in the eyes of the scientific community for omitting evolution. "Susan" has been trying to avoid a rift in her district, so identifying her school is out of the question. "Randy" believes that much of the good that he does is at least partly because of his "behind- the-scenes" activity and that he "may do the cause more good by not standing out."

Some people might assume that the evolution education problems of Arkansas and its governor end at its border. In fact they do not, but I think that we seldom realize the wider influence our local politicians might have. For instance, the Educational Commission of the States is an important and powerful organization that shapes educational policy in all 50 states. Forty state governors have served as the chair of the ECS, and the current chair is — you guessed it — Governor Huckabee of Arkansas.

Because anti-evolutionists have been quite successful in placing members of their ranks and sympathizers in local legislatures and school boards, it is imperative that we point out the danger that these people pose to adequate science education. Although each school, each museum, or each science center may seem to be an isolated case, answering to — and, perhaps trying to keep peace with — its local constituency, the larger view shows that evolution is being squeezed out of education systematically and broadly. Anti-evolutionists have been successful by keeping the struggle focused on the local level and obscuring the larger agenda, but the educational fallout is widespread ignorance of the tools and methods of the sciences for generations to come. The scientific literacy of our future leaders may very well depend on it.

[Update: May 1, 2008. The pseudonymous "Randy" is Bill Fulton, formerly the K-12 Science Curriculum Specialist for the Arkansas Department of Education. Bill retired after 36 years of service.]

By Jason Wiles
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.