Facing Challenges in the Classroom: Alyson Miller

We asked applicants for the NCSE Grand Canyon Teacher Scholarship to explain, in 500 words, how they’ve addressed challenges to the teaching of evolution, climate change, and related issues. Here is part of scholarship winner Alyson Miller’s explanation of her fight to keep evolution in classrooms in her Nashua, New Hampshire, high school. Miller and Scott Hatfield will receive an all-expenses-paid trip down the Grand Canyon, thanks to generous donations by NCSE supporters.

Alyson Miller186:11 Duties of State Board of Education IX-c. Require school districts to adopt a policy allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable. Such policy shall include a provision requiring the parent or legal guardian to notify the school principal or designee in writing of the specific material to which they object and a provision requiring an alternative agreed upon by the school district and the parent, at the parent’s expense, sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area. The name of the parent or legal guardian and any specific reasons disclosed to school officials for the objection to the material shall not be public information and shall be excluded from access under RSA 91-A.

I’m trying to get that 2011 law repealed. This year, a parent tried to use it to prevent her child from learning about evolution in my biology class. The science department head teacher shrugged his shoulders and said, “Teach it from the ‘It’s only a theory’ point of view.” The principal didn’t understand why I had a problem with the request, so I summarized Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board (2005) and explained that the opt-out law required that the student learn an alternative theory to evolution, and that—legally—there ain’t one.

No one seemed to care one way or another about this matter, and there was some talk about transferring the student to a class with a teacher who was more amenable to working with the parent, but inertia being what it is (or maybe it was the crazy-lady expression on my face), nothing happened. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to the attempts to “wedge” the teaching of supernatural causation into science classes, but I was not going to let this one rest.

I won a seat on the AFT Teacher-Leader grant designed to help teachers make policy changes. Through it, I met with Nashua School Board members, New Hampshire Board of Education members, and two state representatives about changing or repealing the state law. These policy makers asked me to (1) gather data on how the opt-out policy has been used since it went into effect, and (2) collect notes from the state legislature that may help clarify the goals and limitations of the law. We may not repeal the law this year, but I’ll keep working at it.

I will be collecting data and educating teachers and administrators at a local level. I’ve been privately approached by social studies, anthropology, and science teachers hungry for easy-to-digest knowledge on the legalities of teaching creationism/evolution. For them, I’m developing presentations that will help them understand the definition of science, the legal issues and history of creationism/evolution, and the patriotic nature of the U.S. Constitution that celebrates the equality of all religions (and non-religions) by teaching none of them in science classes.

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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