Evolution in Pennsylvania


In a wide-ranging article, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 28, 2013) discussed "the ill-kept secret about public school biology classrooms nationwide — that evolution often isn't taught robustly, if at all." In Pennsylvania as around the nation, "[f]aith-based belief in creationism and intelligent design continues to be discussed and even openly taught in public school classrooms, despite state curriculum standards."

In a poll of Pennsylvania's science teachers conducted by the paper in early 2013, 89.5% of respondents said that they believed in the theory of evolution, 13.3% in intelligent design, and 19.1% in creationism; 4.76% were not sure or expressed a different view. (Respondents were allowed to chose more than one option.) There were 105 respondents; further details of how the poll was conducted were not provided.

Michael Berkman of Pennsylvania State University, who with Eric Plutzer and Julianna Pacheco conducted a rigorous national study of high school biology teachers on the topic of evolution in 2007, told the Post-Gazette that between 17 and 21 percent of teachers introduce creationism into the classroom, but added that the most alarming finding was the prevalence of teachers who "throw doubt [on] and downplay evolution" without introducing creationism.

G. Kip Bollinger, who retired as scientific education consultant for the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2004, observed that "Many school districts shy away from the controversy and many teachers don't want to be the center of the controversy ... So it's not surprising that evolution is not given its due as an important theory of science. ... I would receive letters written by congregations around the state decrying that evolution was included in the state's science education standards."

David Lampe, a professor of biology at Duquesne University, regularly polls his first-year biology students about their high school experience with learning evolution before his class begins. "His results indicate that a quarter to a third of freshmen claim to have had no instruction in evolution, with another third saying that only two class days or fewer were devoted to the topic. Only a third received three days or more of instruction on the topic."

Yet there are efforts underway to introduce a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that "would allow teachers to teach alternative theories of evolution and climate change and other controversial topics, without facing sanctions." As NCSE previously reported, these efforts follow on the heels of a series of presentations from young-earth and "intelligent design" creationists in a Murrysville, Pennsylvania, church. No such bill has yet been introduced, however.

At the end of the presentations, the Post-Gazette noted, "a teacher in the audience submitted a written question asking ... how a teacher can introduce creationism into the classroom without facing sanctions." The answer, from the chief counsel from the Pennsylvania Family Institute, "which is spearheading the campaign for a Pennsylvania academic freedom bill," was "There is a lot that a teacher can get away with in the classroom if you do it wisely and gently."

NCSE's Joshua Rosenau described the bill as "a permission slip for teachers already teaching creationism to say that they are just encouraging critical thinking," and Duquesne's David Lampe challenged the "academic freedom" slogan directly, explaining, "It's not freedom to say anything you want in the classroom. In the classroom, you are obligated to teach scientific facts and methods. It's not a forum for teachers to go off and talk about whatever they want to."

Later, the Post-Gazette offered its editorial view, writing (April 30, 2013), "A science teacher who doesn't accept evolution is like a math teacher who denies calculus," and adding, "The ones who suffer from this breach in the wall of separation between church and state are the nation's children. The urgent effort to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education are undone every time a teacher banishes scientific facts from a classroom."

The last antievolution legislation in Pennsylvania was House Bill 1007. If enacted, the bill would have allowed school boards to add "intelligent design" to any curriculum containing evolution and allowed teachers to use, subject to the approval of their board, "supporting evidence deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of intelligent design." The bill received a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Basic Education in June 2005, but proceeded no further.

Updated on April 30, 2013, by the addition of the penultimate paragraph.