The Ecological Society of America has just published an article that surveys the state of science teaching in the US. Some of the results are somewhat reassuring — the majority of our college-bound high school students are at least getting exposed to evolution to some degree — but they’re also getting taught creationism to an unfortunate degree. Here’s the abstract to give you the gist of the story.
How frequently and in what manner are evolution, creationism, and intelligent design taught in public high
schools? Here, I analyze the answer to this question, as given by nearly 600 students from major public universities nationwide in a survey conducted during the spring of 2006. Although almost all recent public high-school graduate respondents reported receiving evolution instruction, only about three-quarters perceived that
evolution was taught as a “credible scientific theory”. Creationism and intelligent design were reportedly presented almost one-third and one-fifth of the time, respectively, though respondents recalled that both concepts
were presented as lacking scientific credibility much more often than not. The survey results are presented in
composite form and also disaggregated with respect to the strength of evolution-related state standards, red
state-blue state divisions, and the regional location of states within the country.
You can also hear the author discussing the methodology and results in a podcast, which I think is a wonderful idea. (Maybe every paper should be accompanied by a 15 minute podcast in which the author explains the work to a general audience…).
Here’s the good news/bad news data.
The good news: look at that, 92% are getting taught about evolution to varying degrees. I also think it’s good news that 26% say they’re getting “in depth” instruction, although, of course, this is self-reported by students who probably don’t know how much depth there is. At least this tells me that a solid majority of teachers are trying, and are not silenced by pressure from the public.
The bad news: 30% are getting taught about creationism, and 20% are learning about intelligent design. That’s a waste of time and resources, and it’s an indicator that the urgings of creationists for a false “fairness” might be having some effect.
Now, of course, maybe they’re learning about creationism in high school because the teacher is slamming it as bogus nonsense, as I do in my university classes. There’s a little good news there, too: over 70% of the time, evolution is taught as credible theory, but as for creationism…
Additionally, when intelligent design is taught, it is
perceived to be presented as a credible scientific theory at
a rate higher (34%) than that for creationism (18%).
This confirms one of the few narrow points of agreement
between intelligent design’s proponents and critics: intelligent design is intended to look more “like science” and
less “like religion” — and to these recent public high-school graduates, it does.
So we can say that the majority of the time creationism is taught, it is disparaged to some degree and is not taught as a credible scientific theory. That’s reassuring. Of course, we could take a glass-half-empty view and note that in those cases where ID is taught, it’s taught as a credible theory an appalling third of the time, and it’s also a successful strategy for boosting the reputation of creationism.
The situation isn’t quite as bad as I feared, although there is a significant minority that are getting taught creationism uncritically in the public schools. What I’m missing is a couple of things. This is information taken from a select population of college bound students, and those students are more likely to have had exposure to science, and are also more likely to be attentive. I’d like to know what impressions other students have of their science instruction.
This is also a collection of exactly that, student impressions. I’d like to see a complement to this study that surveys actual curricula and faculty attitudes. I know how tuned out students can be, so I can’t say that I entirely trust student reports.
Bowman KL (2008) The evolution battles in high-school science classes: who is teaching what? Front Ecol Environ 6(2):69-74.