Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Michigan’s Impending ID Lawsuit

The Thomas More Law Center, the same legal group defending the school board in Dover, PA, is threatening to file a lawsuit against the Gull Lake Public Schools for telling two junior high science teachers that they could no longer teach creationism in their classrooms. Michigan Citizens for Science, an organization whose board I sit on, has been involved with this case for several months behind the scenes, since being notified of what was being taught there by a parent whose child was in the class. That parent is a biologist and was shocked when his daughter brought home not only pro-ID material, but young earth creationist material as well, including classroom material claiming that the Grand Canyon had formed in a single year as a result of Noah’s flood. The parent contacted us and we made contact with the Gull Lake administration, the school board and the teachers. We worked to resolve the situation without the bounds of the law and responsible curriculum standards, even holding an in-service day with the teachers to show them the lack of scientific credibility in the material they were using.

At one point, an agreement was reached within the school district. They appointed a 7-member committee internally to review the situation and reach a decision. That committee included the two teachers who were using the material, the principals of both the junior high and high school, the superintendent and two other science teachers. They all agreed that the committee would review the situation, hold a vote, and then all 7 of them would back the decision of the committee regardless of how it went. That vote was 5-2 against using the creationist materials in the science classes, with the two teachers obviously being the only dissenting votes. But the teachers decided not to honor their agreement and are now threatening a lawsuit.

The fact that the lawsuit will be coming from the teachers instead of from the ACLU or Americans United is an important distinction between this case and the Dover case. It changes the legal claims entirely because the plaintiffs must challenge the constitutionality of the policy. In Dover, the plaintiffs, being the ACLU on behalf of local parents, are claiming that ID is an essentially religious idea and therefore to teach it violates the establishment clause. But in Gull Lake, the teachers must claim that their constitutional rights are somehow violated by not being allowed to teach what they want to teach, and that is a much tougher case to make. The letter that the TMLC wrote to the Gull Lake school board hints at the legal argument they will attempt to make, which is that not allowing the teachers to use creationist material violates their academic freedom. This is an argument that has consistently lost in court.

Also ironic is that the TMLC makes a point of arguing that ID is not creationism, yet the teachers in this case used a mixture of ID and traditional young earth creationist material. This will be fun to watch the ID crowd deal with, as they are loathe to have their ideas associated in any way with “creation science”, despite the fact that all of their arguments originated in creationist material. But here we have ID and YEC material mixing together, even while their attorneys attempt to claim they have nothing to do with each other. Stay tuned for much, much more on this one.

Comments

  1. #1 Ginger Yellow
    April 21, 2005

    Did the teachers agree in writing to abide by the vote? If so I can’t see how they have even a semblance of a case.

  2. #2 Dc
    April 21, 2005

    What the hell is wrong with our country?

    Those teachers should be removed A. for not abiding by the agreement & B. for being incompetent science teachers.

    How did they ever come to be Biology teachers?

    Any background on their degrees Ed?

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    April 21, 2005

    Did the teachers agree in writing to abide by the vote? If so I can’t see how they have even a semblance of a case.

    As far as I know, there was no written agreement on that, just a verbal one. The school board was trying really hard to have it resolved internally and thought the committee would be able to do that.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    April 21, 2005

    DC-

    I don’t know what their background is. I suspect they likely had teaching degrees, perhaps with a minor in science, but that is just a guess.

  5. #5 Treban
    April 21, 2005

    When, pray tell, did primary school teachers come to have more “academic freedom” than the school system and local tax base decided they should have. The few primary teachers I know seem to have relatively strict controls placed on curicculum and in some situations on opinions they choose to express.

  6. #6 Ed Darrell
    April 21, 2005

    The courts in Michigan certainly have the ability to toss out frivolous suits. If a suit is filed, why would a rational judge not dismiss with prejudice?

  7. #7 Andrew Reeves
    April 22, 2005

    This is an argument that has consistently lost in court.

    Don’t you mean that black robed communist satanic tyrants have continuously been persecuting the Christian faith?

  8. #8 raj
    April 22, 2005

    But in Gull Lake, the teachers must claim that their constitutional rights are somehow violated by not being allowed to teach what they want to teach, and that is a much tougher case to make.

    But they are not “allowed to teach what they want to teach. Not when they are in a K-12 classroom. When they are in a K-12 classroom, they are agents of the school board–which, in turn, is an agent of the state–and as such they teach what the school board wants them to teach.

    There’s no academic freedom involved in a K-12 classroom.

    If they want to teach ID or creationism or whatever outside of the K-12 classroom, they can feel free to do so.

  9. #9 David Barkey
    April 22, 2005

    raj is not quite right. There is a limited form of academic freedom in k-12 classrooms. My contract contains a clause protecting my freedom to choose methods and supplemental materials (subject to board policies) and to plan my course within the approved curriculum. In practice I have considerable leeway. Of course, as Ed points out, I cannot do anything the state is barred from doing and I must work toward goals set by my district.

  10. #10 Bill Ware
    April 22, 2005

    raj,

    Your comment is exactly to the point. Teachers who contract for the job agree to teach no more or no less than what the school board tells them.

    I wouldn’t mind teachers expressing their personal views with students in informal settings, where the students could argue or walk away if they wanted. Presenting these views to the captive audience in the clssroom is not acceptable. BW

  11. #11 spyder
    April 22, 2005

    It is amazing how this thread has sparked interest over at Panda’s Thumb.

    I don’t know where David teaches; he suggests he has considerable leeway in terms of classroom presentation of the curriculum. Part and parcel of the ESEA/NCLB legislation is the proposition that less and less leeway will be available as more and more curricula, adopted by governing boards, are filled with standards focussed materials. Those contract provisions that provide some degree of ‘academic freedom” are subject to rulings from various labor relations precedents, and, more recently, to various bargaining tactics employed by Districts to marginalize greater freedom and dissent.

    CA has a lovely set of EdCode provisions regarding what is barred from teaching. These are added to regularly through legislative actions, usually instigated by a new assemblyman or state senator who was elected by a specific constituency to put those sanctions in place. ESEA/NCLB has not made public education better, and in the long run is detrimental to the performance of university and college students future generations.

  12. #12 David Barkey
    April 22, 2005

    I also agree with raj’s post and was only offering a minor caveat. For what it is worth, the contract language on academic freedom is old boiler plate inserted without debate in each new round of negotiations. How well it would really stand up if ever put to the test I couldn’t say. Obviously state standards and board policies can be construed to reduce that freedom to a very small sphere.
    On the other hand, there is a large region of practical freedom that paradoxically may even be enlarged for some of us by the recent attention to standards and accountability. For example, the high school where I teach fell just short of Adequate Yearly Progess last year. If this continues long enough we could face a state takeover and change in administrative personel. AYP is based on a test administered in the sophomore year. How much time and energy will the administration put into oversight and support of my junior year classes? If I don’t make waves and if my AP students continue to get good scores I can do pretty much as I please.
    My observation of other buildings in the system, and of other districts, suggests that school officials pay attention mainly to goals and outcomes on assessments, making little effort to prescribe daily practice. In my building, at least, teachers assume a great deal of freedom and bristle at fairly innocuous, even plainly beneficial, efforts to standardize elements of instruction and content.
    All of this is off topic except that it reminds us that there are many avenues for questionable material to work its way into schools and highlights the need for constant vigilence.

    Und raj soll sein Aufenhalt in Deutschland geniessen.

  13. #13 Jason Spaceman
    April 23, 2005

    Ed got mentioned in yesterday’s Moonie Times:

    Ed Brayton of the Michigan Citizens for Science, which opposes teaching ID and has worked to resolve the dispute for several months, said at one point a committee formed by the school — which included the two teachers — voted 5-2 that ID should not be taught.

  14. #14 raj
    April 23, 2005

    David: ich bedanke mich.

    I agree with your caveat to my post, but would just want to point out that the “academic freedom” that you’re referring to is–or appears to be–far different than the “academic freedom” that, for example, a tenured professor at university would have. The “academic freedom” that you might enjoy is a reflection of the fact that a K-12 school board obviously can’t dictate a priori every word that you say or every piece of teaching material that you use. It just isn’t possible. But the school board can limit what you say in class when a controversy erupts, and they can limit what teaching material you use. That’s the point of the case Ed has mentioned out of California. And, if you were to go beyond the bounds set by the school board, they would be fully within their rights to fire you.

    Question: when I was in high school in 1963-67, we took standardized tests several years in a row (they were called something like Iowa Standard–this was an Ohio HS) to evaluate how well we were progressing. The tests weren’t administered just in the sophomore year–they were actually administered several years in a row. And the results weren’t used to evaluate the efficacy of the teachers–they were administered to try to determine how well we students were progressing. We had standardized testing in the 1960s, so what is the reason for the resistance to it now? Is the resistance because the results of testing nowadays are often used to grade–or denigrate–the teachers? I really do believe that’s the case.

    BTW, I hope your AP students continue doing well. AP got me out of a year at university. And the AP math test I took in 1967 was by far the most difficult–and most interesting–test I’ve ever taken. Even more difficult–and more interesting–than the bar exam.

  15. #15 David Barkey
    April 24, 2005

    I’ve stolen a moment to answer raj’s question about the controversy over testing in Ohio. First of all, many, probably most, schools continue to use the CAT, the Terra Nova, and similar tests to get information on individual students. The trouble comes with the statewide tests intorduced to track school performance. Many complaints concern the design, administration, scoring and interpretation of the tests, but the big issue is that they represent a two pronged threat to local control. As I said before, schools that consistently do not measure up become sugject to state takeover., cutting out local authorities and presumably costing many administrators their jobs. Even districts that make the cut find that they must dhere more closely to state standards in their scope and sequence, something that was previously effectivly optional.
    There is a strong suspicion (an article of faith in many quarters) that the state tests are intended to prove public education inadequate and pave the way for a massive voucheer program. that is the controversy in a nutscheel, without going into the merits.
    Let me go back to academic freedom for a moment. Raj laid out one limit: school authorities cannot specify a priori all that will happen in the classroom. My experience is near the other limit. When I began teachin our world history course i was given a one paragraph description and told in so many words that i could teach anything I could wanted that met the description and was consistent withthe state standards. no one has ever asked me to justify any of my content. In foact only recently has my school tried to assure that sections of the same course have comon calendars and at least some common assessments. Veterans recount with horror past examples of this administrative tyranny. It reminds me of the reaction of the colonists to the first exercise British authority after years of de facto autonomy. Between these two limits there is a great range of freedom, or perhaps we should call it academic anarchy. This freedom from direct control allows teachers to use their creativity and their individual talents, and to respond to unexpected terachable moments, but it also leaves the door open to a lot of rubbish.
    One last point about teaching controversial subjects. One of the goals in social studies is to prepare students for civic responsibility. Since my own views are well-known it the school (among other things I advise the GLSEN chapter) and students sometimes ask me about public issues, I frequently say things in class that are politcally suspect in my city (where a recent letter to the paper lumped MSNBC with the rest of the leftist media). I get away with this because I model civil and respectful disagreement and because the students know that I take them and their views seriously whether I agree or not. It is true that teachers are forbidden to proselytize, and it is here that I see a breakdown because teachers with the right views would find community support if they crossed the line where I would not.
    I dashed this off in a hurry, so I hope it doesn’t sow more questions than it answers.

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