Science Teachers Balk at Dover Decision

In the aftermath of the decision by the Dover School Board in Pennsylvania to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design in their science classrooms, there is quite a little fight brewing between the school board and the teachers. The York Daily Record has been following this story very closely and their latest update shows the internal battles. The science teachers are properly wondering what the heck they're supposed to be teaching, since there really is no model or theory of intelligent design to be referred to. Quoting the head of the science department, Bertha Spahr:

Spahr said a problem could occur after the statement is read to the students. Once this topic is introduced, Miller said, she wonders how many questions will be asked as a result.

“I’m trained to teach to state standards,” Miller said. “(‘Intelligent design’) is currently not listed in those standards.”

Miller said she hopes it will be enough to read the statement or refer students to the “Pandas” book. But she realizes that students have the right to discuss curriculum items in class.

“This is all new and something we are not prepared for,” she said. “I worry that something I say could cause me to end up in some sort of litigation.”

Spahr said the science teachers feel like they’re in a battle that can’t be won.

“The Supreme Court has said it’s unconstitutional to teach creation in the classroom,” she said. “So we either risk violating a school board directive or risk breaking the law. What are we to do?”

She brings up a very interesting issue. What exactly are teachers supposed to teach? Let's say they read this disclaimer and the kids start asking them questions about intelligent design. How is a teacher supposed to answer those questions? Can they say that ID is a religiously motivated pseudo-theory that doesn't actually explain anything? Can they say that ID is really just one long argument from personal incredulity? Can they say that all ID really consists of are attacks on evolution and that they have no actual model of the natural history of the earth to compare to it? Can they say that ID is simply a God of the Gaps argument of the type "Not x, therefore y", where any facet that they deem as not being explainable by evolution is automatically considered as evidence that God did it? All of those statements would be true. But if they say them, do they open themselves up to lawsuits? More importantly, do they open themselves up to attacks from the school board?

The school board, particularly member William Buckingham, has shown quite a measure of vindictiveness already that would indicate that if you dare to disagree with him, he's going to come down hard on you. As this latest article details, that's how it all started:

In August, Spahr said, board member and curriculum committee head William Buckingham said that if the intelligent design book Of Pandas and People, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, was not placed in the classroom as a reference book, the biology department would not get its sorely needed new biology books.

That month, amid public outcry from people saying that religion did not belong in the classroom, the board voted to use the book, Biology, which Buckingham said was "laced with Darwinism." On Oct. 4, with the consent of the science department, Nilsen authorized 50 donated copies of "Of Pandas and People" to be made available in the classroom.

Spahr called it a compromise and thought the issue would end.

But at the Oct. 18 meeting, the board revisited the intelligent design issue and this time voted to add it to the ninth-grade biology curriculum.

So not only are the teachers caught between the school board and the Supreme Court, they're caught between the school board and their duty as science teachers to tell the truth and teach accurate science. So how are they handling it? Well for now, they're doing what they're told, but they are refusing to cooperate with the school board in drawing up anything new:

Last month, assistant supt. Michael Baksa said he would work with the science department to help it prepare what it could and could not say in response to questions that may turn out to be religious in nature.

But Spahr said her department will not offer its assistance. To do so, she said, implies it supports intelligent design in the classroom.

"We will not be insubordinate," she said. "If the administration or board comes up with pre-written responses to questions, we will read them. But we will not help prepare them."

On Thursday, Bill Miller, a spokesman for the teachers’ union, the Dover Area Education Association, also said the teachers would not help in this area.

The teachers seem to understand that there is inevitably going to be legal action coming here and they want to make very clear that the decision to teach ID is coming from the school board and the administration, not from them, so as to avoid being the fall guys. As Miller noted in a previous article:

"We still have no direction from the administration on how to handle student questions about intelligent design," Miller said.

The word, "direction," is critical to the union because Miller said teachers will not answer intelligent design questions without specific guidance on how to do so from the board and administrators.

Last month, Michael Baksa, assistant superintendent, said the administration will eventually sit down with the teachers and decide how questions relating to intelligent design will be handled.

But Miller said the union wants nothing to do with that.

"If we have any directional discussions with the administration on how to answer these questions, it implies that we are cooperating on the issue," Miller said. "And that sets us up to be a sort of shield (if there is any future litigation). If given a direction by the administration, we will not be insubordinate. But they must be the ones to say how we answer the students in this area."

That is unless the union feels the direction puts them in violation of any laws.

"If that becomes our feeling, we may have to take action," he said. "Maybe it's legal action, maybe it isn't, but we will have to do something."

As I noted in a previous post on this subject, the disclaimer that the school board has mandated be read by the science teachers is incredibly incoherent and confused. It's literally full of contradictions and falsehoods. The teachers are simply refusing to be a willing party to what boils down to academic fraud, mandating the teaching of something that doesn't really exist. There simply is nothing to teach beyond, "Some people think evolution doesn't explain everything, so they default to "God" wherever they feel justified in doing so." And that isn't science, it's nonsense masquerading as science.

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The teachers and others who are interested should file a suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Off the top of my head, I see several grounds for doing so:

1. The First and Fourteenth Amendments;

2. Any substantially similar state constitutional provision(s);

3. If, and to the extent, that state educational standards have the force of law, the school board is compelling teachers to violate state law by teaching to something other than state science standards. If those standards do not have the force of law, they are a clear expression of public policy, and the school board's actions compel violation of public policy.

4. Breach of contract. To the extent that the teacher's contract requires that the teachers teach to state standards, the school board's action requires the teachers to breach that contract.

There may be, and likely are, other statutory or common law claims available here. This is about a 30 second analysis. Frankly, I'm confident that the lawsuit is ready to be filed. I'd love to be involved in representing the plaintiffs on this one. In the end, even if the school district "wins" its constituents lose, because it will cost 6 figures to defend.

According to the other local paper (York Dispatch: reporting December 2, "Thompson [chief counsel of the fundy-friendly law firm that has offered free legal aid] said a court case would really be about the legitimacy of intelligent design as a scientific theory." I thought Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals was a step taken to prevent junk science in the courtroom. Do they expect to get someone like Phillip Johnson to argue the scientific merits of ID? And regarding the free legal aid, I'll wager a stack Of Pandas that that firm will not be offering any legal aid to teachers who do not present ID favorably. Bored member Buckingham questioned the faith and patriotism of some of the outspoken opponents to the new curriculum; if I were a teacher, I would not feel comforted by any offers made by the Thomas More Law Center.

mark, I don't think you understand what the Thomas More Law Center is offering. They're offering to defend the school district and their decision to include ID in the science curriculum, they're not offering to defend teachers in a suit against the school district.

Perhaps the teachers should consider it a "teachable moment" as they explain to their students why the school board's decision flies in the face of science and sanity. Could be fun.

There will, of course, be complaints.

The issue in the court case, when it comes, will I think NOT be the scientific validity [politely so called] of "Intelligent Design." It will be the right of a publically elected schoolboard to determine what the people of a district want to have taught in their schools and what they do not want to have taught in their schools. Certainly the ID and schoolboard side of the case will frame the issue that way and, I am willing to bet, that is how much, if not most, of the public will see the issue as well. "Inherit The Wind" notwithstanding, that -- the right of the state to decide what will be taught in its schools --- was the legal issue before the court in Dayton, TN.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 05 Dec 2004 #permalink

Pandas and People, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics

I love how "Thought" and "Ethics" are considered to be distinct entities. I guess thought, like pandas, is hairier.

In seventh grade, the teacher confiscated a note which had been handed to the red headed girl two rows in front of me. The girl innocently asked the teacher what the word c--t meant, it was a word on the note that she wasn't familiar with.

The teacher replied that this was a question which she should have her parents answer for her and that was the end of that.

So... If a student asks the teacher about ID, she could say, "That's a question you should ask your parents about," and that would be the end of that.

So... If a student asks the teacher about ID, she could say, "That's a question you should ask your parents about," and that would be the end of that.

I can't agree that it's that simple. The school board has mandated the teaching of ID in some form, but explaining the meaning of expletives is not mandated teaching.

No, the school board has decided to wrestle in the mud with the hogs, and one can't do that without, first, getting very dirty and second, realizing, after a very short period of time, that the hogs actually enjoy it.

The awkward questions that might come up are, of course, "Who is this Designer? Was the Designer drunk when He created the platypus? Why did it take the Designer billions of years to design a salamander? How did the Designer go from blueprint to working model?"

The teachers worry that if they provide any answer, it may bring on a lawsuit, whether they identify the Designer as the "God of Abraham" or "Baal" or "Moe Howard." And if an individual teacher gets in legal trouble, quite right, the Thomas More Law Center is not likely going to provide any aid.