Textbook Battle in Texas

The Texas State Board of Education has nominated several well-known creationists to review high school biology textbooks. Our friends at the amazing and indefatigable Texas Freedom Network have written with alarm about this developing situation. The state board, after hearing from their reviewers, will vote this November to adopt certain science textbooks for Texas’ vast market. Such texts must meet the problematic standards the SBOE adopted in the contentious 2009 hearings, and “could be in the state’s public school science classrooms for nearly a decade.”  (That high school science texts are so woefully out of date is a problem I’ll address in a later post.)


TFN notes:

Among the six creationist reviewers are some of the nation’s leading opponents of teaching students that evolution is established, mainstream science and is overwhelmingly supported by well over a century of research …


… That relatively small overall number of reviewers could give creationists even stronger influence over textbook content. In fact, publishers are making changes to their textbooks based on objections they hear from the review panelists. And that’s happening essentially behind closed doors because the public isn’t able to monitor discussions among the review panelists themselves or between panelists and publishers.

Efforts to illuminate these unforthcoming proceedings have not yielded results; TFN reports that “no documents or correspondence have yet been turned over to TFN in response to our open records requests.”

We do not yet know how much textbook conflict will occur this fall. But given the long history of contentious textbook adoptions in Texas (just google “Gablers”), there is the potential for a spectacle. Much depends on how literally board members interpret the 2009 science standards.

For example, Biology standard (7)(G) states that students shall “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” One way normal textbooks could address this is simply writing that the cell is complex (one wonders, though, complex compared to what?), and that evolution is responsible for this complexity. Some members of the SBOE won’t be very satisfied with such an answer, and might use this as a pretense to vote against a textbook.

Two of the text reviewers are fellows of the pro-intelligent design (ID) Discovery Institute. One of the major claims of ID is that some biologic systems are “too complex” to have arisen solely through natural processes such as evolution; hence, there must have been a “designer.” But who gets to decide how complex is “too complex”? By what standards? Can evolution influence some biologic systems, but not others, and where would such a demarcation exist? It is in this zone of ambiguity that potential fights around standards such as (7)(G) might occur.

It is hardly likely that any responsible science textbook will simply reprint Discovery Institute ideas about the alleged inadequacy of evolution to account for the complexity of the cell. We can hope that a majority of the SBOE will exercise reasonableness and accept science texts that convey the best scientific information available.

And if the SBOE does not exercise reasonableness, the Texas legislature already has. Senate Bill 6 (2011) changed the game for textbooks in Texas. Whereas previously the SBOE had remarkable power over textbook selection and purchasing, now this power has shifted to local districts, who are no longer limited to the SBOE-approved list. If the SBOE rejects texts, local districts can still purchase the books they want.

All this is rare good news from one of the combative fronts in the struggle for quality science education.

p.s., If you want to know more about the politics of science education in Texas, Netflix is streaming Scott Thurman’s excellent documentary The Revisionaries.


Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.