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SBOE approves new evolution standard

Shockingly, it doesn’t suck.

The Texas State Board of Education tentatively voted to remove language in high school biology standards that would have required students to challenge evolutionary science.

Currently, the curriculum requires students to “evaluate” scientific explanations for the origins of DNA and the complexity of certain cells, which some have argued could open the door to teaching creationism. Wednesday’s vote, preceded by a lengthy and contentious debate, would change how science teachers approach such topics in the classroom.

The word “evaluate” could require another two weeks of lesson time for teachers who are already on tight schedules to cover material for the state’s standardized tests, said Ron Wetherington, a Southern Methodist University professor on the 10-member committee of teachers and scientists that the board appointed in July to help streamline science standards.

The committee wrote a letter last week requesting narrower language to replace the word “evaluate,” arguing it would save valuable instruction time without creating significant instructional problems.

On Wednesday, board member Keven Ellis proposed two amendments that reflected this feedback and eliminated the word “evaluate” from biology standards — replacing it with language requiring students to “examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA” and “compare and contrast scientific explanations” for the complexity of certain cells.

The word “examine” reflected a compromise between those on both sides of the debate who tussled between using the words “identify” and “evaluate.”

Both amendments passed unanimously. A final vote on the issue will occur Friday.

Even Republican board member Barbara Cargill, who previously championed the effort to keep the controversial language in the curriculum, was on board.

It was a necessary change, according to Wetherington.

“‘Evaluate’ means you rank these scientific explanations in terms of how adequate they are, how complete they are, how many problems exist with them, what the evidence for each of the alternatives are. It takes a long time to do compared to just describing them,” he said.

Students would not have the sufficient knowledge to go so deep, Wetherington said, explaining that they would have to know higher-level chemistry.

He does not consider creationism a relevant concern since schools are “forbidden by law from even talking about it in the classroom.”

See here for the background, and these two Trib articles for the preliminaries to the vote, which will be finalized today. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to say that the SBOE had a meeting to discuss biology standards and they managed to do it without showing its rear end to the rest of the world. The Texas Freedom Network calls for Wednesday’s vote to receive final approval today, and if it’s cool with them then it’s cool with me. Kudos, y’all.

Some things never evolve

The SBOE, for instance.

The Texas State Board of Education on Wednesday voted preliminarily for science standards that would keep in language that some say opens the door to creationism.

The votes came a day after the board heard from scientists begging them to remove the language. Board members are set to hold a second public hearing and take final votes on the changes to the science standards in April.

The process began in July, when the board convened a teacher committee that recommended the deletion of several high school science standards, including four controversial biology standards they said would be too complex for students to understand. In their recommendation for deleting a clause requiring students examine explanations on the “sudden appearance” of organism groups in the fossil record, they included the note, “Not enough time for students to master concept. Cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students.”

Republican board member Barbara Cargill led the charge Wednesday to keep three of those four standards in some form — arguing that they would actually help students better understand the science and keep teachers away from creationist ideas.

[…]

At Tuesday’s public hearing, former Texas science teacher Joni Ashbrook told the board that specific language is included in creationist arguments that a supernatural agent explains a burst of new forms in the fossil record.

But Cargill said her addition allows students to fully comprehend the ebbs and flows in the number of organism forms over time. “Something obviously happened in the environment, and they’re gone and the fossil record flatlines and we don’t see them anymore,” she said.

I did not follow this closely, so let me point you to the Texas Freedom Network, which is as always on top of it. If you’re looking for a place to channel some excess activist energy in between calls to Cruz and Cornyn’s offices, contacting your SBOE member and asking them to support the change to this language would be helpful. If you want to bone up on creationist talking points and the scientific responses to them, the delightfully old school Talk Origins FAQ secion is a good resource. The Chron has more.

Teaching creationism in Texas

Zack Kopplin reports on some unconstitutional behavior by a national charter school operator that has several campuses in Texas.

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Charter schools may be run independently, but they are still public schools, and through an open records request, I was able to obtain a set of Responsive Ed’s biology “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that Responsive Ed students must complete to pass biology. These workbooks both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.

A favorite creationist claim is that there is “uncertainty” in the fossil record, and Responsive Ed does not disappoint. The workbook cites the “lack of a single source for all the rock layers as an argument against evolution.”

I asked Ken Miller, a co-author of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook published by Pearson and one of the most widely used science textbooks on the market today, to respond to claims about the fossil record and other inaccuracies in the Responsive Ed curriculum. (It’s worth noting that creationists on the Texas State Board of Education recently tried, and failed, to block the approval of Miller’s textbook because it teaches evolution.)

“Of course there is no ‘single source’ for all rock layers,” Miller told me over email. “However, the pioneers of the geological sciences observed that the sequence of distinctive rock layers in one place (southern England, for example) could be correlated with identical layers in other places, and eventually merged into a single system of stratigraphy. All of this was established well before Darwin’s work on evolution.”

[…]

Responsive Ed’s butchering of evolution isn’t the only part of its science curriculum that deserves an F; it also misinforms students about vaccines and mauls the scientific method.

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

On the scientific method, Responsive Ed confuses scientific theories and laws. It argues that theories are weaker than laws and that there is a natural progression from theories into laws, all of which is incorrect.

The Responsive Ed curriculum undermines Texas schoolchildren’s future in any possible career in science.

There’s a lot more, so go read it all, or at least go read the Observer’s summary. Remember, your tax dollars are being used to help pay these guys’ bills. Will the Legislature do anything about it? Maybe, but if Dan Patrick gets elected Lt. Governor, I wouldn’t count on his taking any action. TFN Insider has more.

Standing up for science

Sure hope it did some good.

A past Texas State Board of Education chairman and outspoken creationist urged his former colleagues on Tuesday to approve high school biology textbooks he said would “strike a final blow to the teaching of evolution.”

Appearing at a board hearing on new instructional materials, Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist who lost his seat on the SBOE in the 2010 Republican primary, told board members that the science textbooks currently under consideration contained many “hidden gems just waiting to be mined by inquisitive students” that proved there was no evidence for evolution.

McLeroy’s testimony diverged from other witnesses skeptical of evolution, who criticized the proposed textbooks for inadequate coverage of alternatives to the scientific theory and asked the board not to approve them until publishers made changes.

[…]

The 15-member SBOE won’t vote on the 14 science textbooks currently under consideration until November. Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said the board would also discuss revising the state’s textbook approval process, which science education advocates have criticized for allegedly lacking transparency and including unqualified reviewers.

Cargill herself has drawn accusations of improper involvement in the review process from the Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors religious influence in public schools, after reports that she encouraged creationists on the panels. Cargill said she only attended the meetings to thank volunteers for their work reviewing the texts.

State panels have been reviewing sample instructional materials since April. The panels, which are assembled by SBOE members, have included several prominent creationists and evolution skeptics, as well as others without a background in education or science. Their preliminary proposed changes obtained by the Texas Freedom Network pushed for the inclusion of more arguments critical of evolution.

[…]

Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, three SBOE members — Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville; Marisa Perez, D-San Antonio; and Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso — expressed their disappointment with the process at a rally organized by the Texas Freedom Network. They said that publishers were being pressured into including non-science based arguments against evolution and called for only “content-relevant educators” to be included on review panels.

Cargill said during the hearing that she had asked publishers to voluntarily disclose for public review any changes they made to textbooks prior to their adoption. She also emphasized that any reports made by review teams were preliminary — and that in November, the board would take up suggestions about how to improve the process.

“I’m very appreciative of the reviewers themselves,” she said. “But we’ve got some work to do.”

Just as Rick Perry works to keep Texas sick, so does Don McLeroy work to keep Texas ignorant. TFN Insider liveblogged the hearing, and also provided some extra background. What happens from here I don’t know, but as always it would be a good idea to stay engaged, and to keep an eye on the November hearing. Finally, kudos to new SBOE members Cortez, Perez, and Dominguez for their involvement. Perez and Dominguez gave us some moments of uncertainty last year, but so far they’ve exceeded my expectations on the board. Eileen Smith and the Stand Up for Science Tumblr have more.

SBOE getting set to review biology textbooks

TFN Insider sounds the alarm.

We already knew that creationists on the State Board of Education had nominated anti-evolution ideologues to sit on teams reviewing proposed new high school biology textbooks in Texas. We now have seen the actual reviews from those ideologues — and they’re every bit as alarming as we warned they would be.

Many of the reviews offer recitations of the same pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo anti-evolution activists — like the folks at the Discovery Institute in Seattle — have been promoting for decades. Never mind, of course, that each one of those arguments has been debunked by scientists (repeatedly). No, they are insisting that Texas dumb down the science education of millions of kids with such nonsense.

Even more astonishing is a demand that “creation science based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption.” Some of the reviewers are clearly oblivious to the fact that teaching religious arguments in a science classroom is blatantly unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has made that abundantly clear.

Tuesday, September 17, is the first public hearing on the proposed new biology textbooks. Those textbooks could be used in classrooms for a decade. Come to TFN’s Stand Up for Science rally at noon on Tuesday in Austin and help us send a message to the anti-science fanatics on the State Board of Education: Stop putting personal agendas ahead of the education of Texas students and ensure that public schools provide a science education that prepares students to succeed in college and the jobs of the 21st century.

See this NCSE press release for more. We’ve been through this sort of review before, and it’s always a bizarre experience. You never know just what kind of crazy is about to be let out of the box. BOR and Bad Astronomy have more.

Zack Kopplin

Remember the name Zack Kopplin.

Zack Kopplin

Rice University sophomore Zack Kopplin says he has been called the Antichrist, a godless liberal and, bizarrely, the cause of Hurricane Katrina.

Kopplin, 19, has gained notoriety for championing the fight against his home state of Louisiana’s 2008 law that made it easier for teachers to introduce creationist textbooks into classrooms.

“It’s incredible that a young man is prepared to stand up for the truth,” said Sir Harold Walter Kroto, a British chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry and is a professor at Florida State University. He helped Kopplin connect with the 78 Nobel laureates who backed an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the law in 2011.

At a time when conventional wisdom has it that teenagers are disinterested in public policy, Kopplin is anything but apathetic and seems to relish a fight. The student activist has faced off against Louisiana state lawmakers and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, and has appeared on national news networks leading the charge against the of use religion in public school classrooms.

“Science has nothing to do with religion; they operate on different planes,” contended Kopplin.

Now Kopplin, a history major who is taking a full course load this semester, is preparing to fight state Sen. Dan Patrick’s effort to allow school vouchers in Texas. Patrick, R-Houston, is a strong supporter of school vouchers, which would allow tax money to flow to private and religious schools.

IO9 had a nice feature story on Kopplin and his fight against creationism in Louisiana a little while ago that you ought to read as well. He also has a blog that exhaustively documents creationist voucher schools around the country. This is why public funds should be for public schools and private schools should pay for themselves. He’s got his work cut out for him, but speaking as someone who wasn’t doing anything nearly that productive as a college sophomore, I’m deeply impressed with what he’s done already. Give ’em hell, Zack.

Texas Freedom Network’s guide to the SBOE elections

The Texas Freedom Network has put out a useful little voter’s guide to the 2012 State Board of Education elections, which covers a range of topics from creationism and climate change to bullying and SBOE procedures. You might look at the answers that the candidates who responded submitted and think “Hey, cool, everyone is basically sane and rational”, but look again. Only one Republican incumbent (Thomas Ratliff) and one Republican running for an open seat (Laurie Turner, running for the seat currently held by Democrat Mary Helen Berlanga), submitted answers. Seven Republican incumbents, and three Republican candidates for Republican-held open seats, did not. Donna Bahorich, who is running for Terri Leo’s seat in SBOE6 and who is opposed by Traci Jensen, did not submit answers. Bahorich doesn’t much like talking to audiences that don’t already agree with her so no surprise here. Of course, for a number of these issues we already know where the Republican incumbents stand as their records are quite clear and they’re generally not shy about saying what they believe, but you wouldn’t know it from this. Anyway, take a look and see if your SBOE candidates gave answers. If they didn’t, you probably have a pretty good idea why not.

Perry gives another middle finger to public education

It’s a twofer, actually. Here’s one.

Gov. Rick Perry named Michael Williams the new commissioner of the Texas Education Agency Monday.

A fixture of Texas Republican politics — and a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas — Williams resigned from the Texas Railroad Commission in 2011 after serving more than a decade on the regulatory body that oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry.

His appointment comes at a trying time for the agency, which lost a third of its workforce after budget cuts last year. Amid anxiety from parents, educators and administrators — and backlash from lawmakers — over its transition to a rigorous new assessment and accountability system, the state is facing six lawsuits over the way it funds public schools. More than half of Texas public schools failed to meet yearly benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act, but the state remains one of the handful that have yet to seek a waiver from the requirements from the federal government. The agency will also begin the Sunset Review process in October.

Williams, who began his career as an assistant district attorney in Midland, has recently been known as a political candidate. After showing early interest in replacing Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, he campaigned for the congressional district now held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Williams lost the Republican primary to Wes Riddle and fellow onetime U.S. Senate candidate Roger Williams, who ultimately prevailed in a runoff.

When then-Gov. George W. Bush named Williams to the commission in 1999, he became the first African-American to hold a statewide elected position. The Midland native’s career in GOP politics began during the Ronald Reagan administration, when he served as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Education, a legal position that is his only official previous experience in the realm of education policy.

So Williams has no education experience, but he is severely conservative and he needed a job, so Perry was there to lend him a hand. I guess just because one hates government doesn’t mean one wants to leave it and find a job in that private free-enterprise system we’ve all heard about. Williams is also a proponent of vouchers, but I’m sure he’ll put aside his long-held political beliefs and do his very best to help make public schools the best they can be. What else would we expect from a Rick Perry appointee, after all?

And here’s two:

Perry simultaneously named Lizzette Reynolds, a veteran of the agency who is currently a deputy commissioner, as Williams’ second in command. Reynolds attracted controversy in 2007 when she allegedly pushed to fire the agency’s then-science director Chris Comer for forwarding an email critical of intelligent design in violation of an internal neutrality policy. After Comer was forced to resign, the agency drew national scrutiny that included an editorial in The New York Times.

Forrest Wilder digs up some news from the time on this contretemps, and I blogged about it here, here, here, and here. Being a teacher or other employee of the public schools who supports Rick Perry is like being a chicken who supports Colonel Sanders. EoW and BOR have more, and a statement from Rep. Jessica Farrar is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Grading Texas science classes

We get a C.

Texas public school science courses “pay lip service” to critical content and largely ignore evolution in the middle grades, according to a national education foundation study that gives the state of Texas an overall “C” for science education.

The average grade for Texas science curriculum standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a national report card Tuesday represents a step up from the “F” issued for Texas two years ago by the National Center for Science Education.

Texas science curriculum standards are “just too vague,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a senior director at Fordham. “They cover a lot of the essential content, but they don’t do it in a way that can actually guide curriculum or guide instruction in the classroom or can guide assessment development.”

It’s also better than the D we got in Social Studies from the Fordham Institute. You can see the Texas report here and a full list of state reports plus their other materials related to this here.

The report offers a mixed review on how Texas teaches evolution. The evolution portion of the new Texas science curriculum standards provoked considerable controversy before the State Board of Education adopted them in 2009.

“In spite of the Texas Board of Education’s erratic approach to evolution, the state’s current high school biology standards handle the subject straightforwardly,” the report says

[…]

“As a science teacher, I am pleased that our standards received a score of 5 out of 7 for content and rigor,” said board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands. “We look forward to continuing to work with Texas teachers to bring the best instruction to the classroom with our excellent science standards.”

Former board member Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, lost his chairmanship, in part, because Senate Democrats believed he injected his strong religious beliefs into the curriculum development and blocked his nomination three years ago.

McLeroy said he was pleased the report described the high school evolution teaching as “exemplary.”

“The report confirms what I have always insisted: that the creationists inserted real scientific rigor into the teaching of evolution,” McLeroy said.

McLeroy is as dishonest as ever. Here’s what the report said about Texas and the teaching of evolution:

Evolution is all but ignored from Kindergarten through fifth grade, save a sentence in the earth and space science section that asks students to “identify fossils as evidence of past living organisms” (grade 5).

The middle school standards are marginally better, but still problematic. For example, seventh graders should learn that:

Populations and species demonstrate variation and inherit many of their unique traits through gradual processes over many generations. (grade 7)

Unfortunately, this is simply wrong. Traits are inherited directly at each generation; there’s nothing gradual about it. Students are then asked to explain variation within a population or species by examining external features that enhance survival. Such examinations will yield no explanation of variation.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the middle school standards, however, is their coverage of evolution. For instance, the seventh-grade standards mention the Galapagos finches, giving the impression that the Darwinian paradigm is being presented. Unfortunately, it is not. Instead, the example of the finch Geospiza fortis apparently refers to studies by Peter and Rosemary Grant on beak size in this species, made widely known by Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Beak of the Finch. Creationists often distort these important findings to argue that Darwinian macroevolution does not occur—instead, microevolution does. In addition, the word “evolution” is never used in any of the middle school standards, and the term “natural selection” is never explained.

In spite of the Texas Board of Education’s erratic approach to evolution, the state’s current high school biology standards handle the subject straightforwardly. There are no concessions to “controversies” or “alternative theories.” In fact, the high school biology course is exemplary in its choice and presentation of topics, including its thorough consideration of biological evolution. Even so, the term “natural selection” appears just three times, as does the word “evolution” and its variants. It is hard to see how Texas students will be able to handle this course, given the insufficient foundations offered prior to high school.

In other words, it’s pretty clear they think McLeroy and his bunch were the problem, not the solution. The more voters that see it that way as well, the better. One Democrat running for the SBOE had some sharp words for his putative colleagues.

Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science and a longtime critic of the board’s conservatives, said the Fordham analysis overlooked some glaring problems with Texas’ standards.

He pointed to a separate examination from the National Center for Science Education that found Texas’ standards contain “creationist jargon” and “reflect political and religious agendas, rather than good pedagogy and strong science.”

“Without the State Board-mandated political, anti-scientific changes, Texas would have received an A or perhaps B grade from the Fordham reviewers,” said Schafersman, who is running as a Democrat for an open West Texas seat on the board.

If Schafersman’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he’s been one of the indefatigable SBOE meeting livebloggers of late. He’d be a great addition to the Board, but he’s running in a bright red district, so I can’t say I’m holding out any hope. Texas Politics has a link to Schafersman’s full response. TFN Insider has more.

SBOE manages to not screw up science supplements

Baby steps.

The quietude of yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting came to a screeching halt during today’s final vote over supplemental science materials.

After a unanimous preliminary vote on Thursday, the board appeared split over alleged errors in how evolution was addressed in a high school biology submission from Holt McDougal.

A board-appointed reviewer had identified the errors but the publisher maintained that the points at issue were not wrong. It was up to the board to referee the dispute and the mood turned testy.

In the end, the board members chose to punt the contentious issue to Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

“My goal would be to try to find some common ground,” Scott said.

Then the board unanimously approved the online science materials that will supplement existing textbooks.

That may not sound like much, but it was enough to get both the NCSE and the Texas Freedom Network to put out victory statements. Sometimes, not going backwards counts as going forward. What a difference having a couple fewer wingnuts can make. The Trib, Burka, and TFN Insider have more.

Day One at the SBOE

Here’s your TFN Insider coverage of today’s SBOE science hearings. In Part I of the hearings, we find that the SBOE may not be such a major factor in school curriculum any more:

10:20  – Board members are quizzing the commissioner about how the new rules governing the purchase of instructional materials — changes codified in Senate Bill 6, passed during the legislative session and signed by the governor earlier this week — will play out in school districts. Commissioner Scott rightly notes that the law represents a sea-change in the way the schools purchase materials.Note: TFN is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive analysis of this new law and its likely effects on the state board’s role in vetting and approving classroom materials. We plan to publish that analysis in the coming weeks. TFN communications director Dan Quinn previewed our conclusions in a story in today’s USA Today: “It has the great potential to diminish the influence of the State Board of Education.”

And we find that maybe, just maybe, the winds have shifted a bit:

11:20 – Interesting news out of the SBOE Committee on Instruction meeting earlier this morning. That five-member committee has long been dominated by far-right members, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as chair. Clayton and Farney, though conservative, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction. Cargill immediately nominated fellow far-right conservative Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate. Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings, so the committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Berlanga will be present. Since there is no love lost between Berlanga and the far-right bloc, it seems likely that she will vote for Farney at the September meeting. Could this be a coup, signaling a return to common sense on this critical committee?

We can only hope. In Part II we find that all those annoying pro-science testifiers are making Ken Mercer and David Bradley cry, and in Part I of the debate, we find there’s nothing to be alarmed about just yet. Which counts as good news with the SBOE. Here’s Steven Schafersman‘s coverage; Josh Rosenau has weighed in on Twitter but not yet on his blog. All the Twitter action is on the #SBOE hashtag if you’re into that sort of thing.

Finally, an object lesson in not being able to do more with less:

With one-third fewer people, the Texas Education Agency just can’t do everything it used to do.

State Board of Education members were were told on multiple occasions this morning that a lack of time and staffers had prevented the agency from doing some of the prep work that it would have done previously, such as creating a briefing book on new legislation.

Citing similar constraints, agency staffers said they had yet to produce rules for the implementation of Senate Bill 6, which fundamentally changes how school districts can use state dollars to buy instructional materials and technology. It was passed during the special session last month.

School districts, for example, are waiting to learn how much they will get under the new system to cover the cost of textbooks, hardware, software and other expenses associated with disseminating lessons to students.

Sometimes, when you fire a bunch of people, stuff just doesn’t get done. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

UPDATE: So far, so good. On to tomorrow.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

Time to get it on again with the SBOE

From an email from the National Center for Science Education:

The Texas Board of Education is at it again, this time aiming to insert creationism into high school biology classes via textbook “supplements” (such as those from International Databases, LLC). The other goal: to force mainstream publishers to rewrite their supplements to de-emphasize or undermine evolution education.

We’re talking heated debate among board members, contentious testimony from the public, followed by an equally contentious Board vote the next day.

The science textbook supplement finalists: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/tea/RSSM_CommissionerFinalRecommendations1.pdf

The details:

THURSDAY, JULY 21
Public testimony before the Board of Education, followed by Board debate.

When: 10 a.m. Four hours of testimony. 2 minutes per person.

Where:
Room 1-104, First Floor
William B. Travis Building
1701 North Congress
Austin, Texas

Agenda (for “Committee of the Full Board”): http://www.texasadmin.com/agenda.php?confid=TEA_FB072111&dir=tea

Agenda item: “4. Public Hearing Regarding Instructional Materials Submitted for Adoption by the State Board of Education Under The Request for Supplemental Science Materials”

Live video feed:

http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3876
http://www.texasadmin.com/tea.shtml

***Note: Texas Freedom Network will hold a press conference before the hearing (before 10 a.m.), in the Texas Education Agency building. Speaking: TFN President Kathy Miller, Josh Rosenau from NCSE, Prof. Ron Wetherington from Southern Methodist University, and more.

FRIDAY, JULY 22
The board votes on the biology science supplements

When: 9 a.m.

Where:
Room 1-104, First Floor
William B. Travis Building
1701 North Congress
Austin, Texas

Agenda (for “General meeting”: http://www.texasadmin.com/agenda.php?confid=TEA_GM072211&dir=tea

Live video feed:

http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3876
http://www.texasadmin.com/tea.shtml

See here, here, and here for some background, and this Chron story for more. TFN Insider will be liveblogging the proceedings, and I’ll try to keep an eye on things as they go, too. Hair Balls and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: More ways to follow the action:

What’s happening minute by minute? There are two live feeds worth checking out, starting tomorrow at 10a.m.

NCSE’s Josh Rosenau will be covering the event live via Twitter (http://twitter.com/ncse) in the morning. After lunch, he’ll switch to his blog, http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/.

Steven Schafersman from Texas Citizens for Science will likewise be blogging live from the Texas board of education meeting tomorrow, starting at 10 a.m. Go to: https://www.texasobserver.org/authors/stevenschafersman.

Another SBOE primary fight to watch

I’ve mentioned before that the GOP primary for SBOE District 5 is worth watching, but I didn’t know much about it at that time. This Statesman article helps to fill in the blanks.

The brouhaha over the teaching of evolution in the science curriculum caught the attention of some in the San Antonio business community, said Carri Baker Wells, chairwoman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

There was a concern that decisions were being made based on ideology rather than sound science, and that affects how prepared Texas students are to compete, said Wells, adding that the chamber does not endorse candidates.

Among [challenger Tim] Tuggey’s givers are some of San Antonio’s biggest names in business, including Red McCombs, the auto magnate; Bartell Zachry, chairman of the construction conglomerate Zachry Group Inc. and former chairman of the Governor’s Business Council; and Charles Butt, president and chief executive officer of H.E. Butt Grocery Co.

“I think that our State Board of Education is somewhere between inept and dysfunctional,” said McCombs, namesake of the University of Texas business school. “The kids are entitled to more than what they’re getting.”

McCombs cites the state’s high dropout rate, in particular, as an indication that the system is broken, and he says [incumbent Ken] Mercer is a part of that system.

“He has had his turn at bat, and I’m ready to put in a new player,” McCombs said.

Obviously, I would prefer to have a Democrat in this seat, but if we can’t have that I’ll be happy with a Republican that won’t be there to do the bidding of the religious right. This race ought to be an interesting test to see which faction within the GOP is stronger.

Chris Comer appeals lawsuit dismissal

I had lost track of Chris Comer, the former director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, who resigned under pressure for sending out email regarding a lecture that debunked “intelligent design” since she filed a wrongful termination lawsuit over this. The NCSE brings an update on her status.

Chris Comer, whose lawsuit challenging the Texas Education Agency’s policy of requiring neutrality about evolution and creationism was dismissed on March 31, 2009, is now appealing the decision. Formerly the director of science at the TEA, Comer was forced to resign in November 2007 after she forwarded a note announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest in Austin; according to a memorandum recommending her dismissal, “the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism.”

In June 2008, Comer filed suit in federal court in the Western District of Texas, arguing that the policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “By professing ‘neutrality,’ the Agency credits creationism as a valid scientific theory.” The judge ruled (PDF, p. 18) otherwise, however, writing, “As a matter of law, the Agency’s neutrality policy, if it advances religion at all, only does so incidentally. Further, a reasonable observer of the neutrality policy would not believe the Agency endorses religion through the policy.”

In her appellate brief, submitted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Comer asked (PDF, p. 39) the court to “review the record de novo and reverse and vacate the district court’s decision. Specifically, it should grant Comer’s motion for summary judgment, and vacate the grant of summary judgment for defendants, as well as the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint. At a minimum, this Court should vacate the grant of summary judgment to defendants, plus the order dismissing the complaint, and remand for further proceedings.”

A brief video about the Comer case is available on NCSE’s YouTube channel.

I’ll try to do a better job keeping an eye on this. I wish her well with the appeal.

Perry appoints Lowe chair of SBOE

The good news is, he didn’t pick Cynthia Dunbar. The bad news is, it’s not clear how much better new State Board of Education Chair Gail Lowe will be.

Lowe, co-publisher of the Lampasas Dispatch Record, was first elected to the board in 2002 after serving on the Lampasas school board.

Perry’s pick avoids the controversy that would have followed if he had selected one of the members whose names have been floated as likely candidates, including Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richardson.

Lowe consistently votes with the conservative wing of the 15-member board but she has typically been a quiet presence.

That makes her sound somewhat like Barbara Cargill, about whom The Contrarian recently wrote. About Lowe, The Contrarian says:

My impression of Lowe — from watching hours of State Board proceedings last year (an experience from which I’m still recovering) — is that she’s not the savviest operator in the group. She’ll likely be a quieter public presence as chair than [Don] McLeroy.

The open question is whether she’ll be more effective at passing a socially conservative agenda.

That may make this a very savvy move by Perry, if it turns out Lowe is effective in getting wingnuttery passed but manages to avoid becoming an easy target by being low key. So far, some potential critics are staying reserved.

Richard Kouri, public affairs director for the Texas State Teachers Association, said Lowe’s selection is no surprise.

“She’s certainly somebody who’d been on the short list of names that had been circulated … pretty much comes from that same sort of conservative block.”

Kouri said his organization will closely watch next week’s meeting. They’ll look for clues as to whether Lowe will be able to calm the politicized rifts that have characterized the board in recent years. Debates over language arts and science curriculum have been especially contentious and a revision of social studies objectives is already heating up similarly.

“Given the split on that board, we would like to see a chair that I guess is more the arbitrator, more the person who is going to create a level and fair environment for the discourse to happen, not basically be the kind of chair that says, ‘This is what I believe, now eight or nine of you line up behind me,” Kouri said.

Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association in Fort Worth, agreed that change is needed.

“I sincerely hope they start taking more realistic positions instead of political positions because they’ve made themselves irrelevant in the minds of many educators, including me,” he said.

Others, like the Texas Freedom Network and Hal at Half Empty, are unimpressed. Here’s TFN:

In 2004 Ms. Lowe opposed requiring that publishers obey curriculum standards and put medically accurate information about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention in new high school health textbooks.

In 2007 Ms. Lowe voted to throw out nearly three years of work by teacher writing teams on new language arts standards. Over the strenuous objections of teachers and curriculum specialists, Lowe instead voted for a standards document that the board’s far-right bloc patched together overnight and slipped under hotel doors the morning of the final vote.

In 2003 and 2009 Ms. Lowe supported dumbing down the state’s public school science curriculum by voting to include unscientific, creationist criticisms of evolution in science textbooks and curriculum standards.

Going back to that Star-Telegram article, Lowe makes herself sound like a mixed bag.

Lowe, who is also a Republican conservative, thinks she was selected by Perry because she is the type of person who writes headlines instead of making them.

“I’m a little bit more of a background person than others,” she said. “I’m not upfront. I choose my words carefully and don’t speak an awful lot.”

She said she is honored by the appointment and will do her best.

“There are a number of our members I think would have made excellent leaders,” she said, “but I’m probably freeing up others who are more vocal, to continue to do what they do.”

“I think Cynthia (Dunbar) would’ve done a good job as chair, but she’s such an outspoken person that I think she would’ve been a lightning rod,” Lowe said. “I’m sure I will get that kind of scrutiny, too. I’m not naive.”

Lowe’s youngest child is still in public school, and she has served as a Lampasas school trustee and classroom volunteer before being elected to the SBOE seven years ago.

“My emphasis has always been on academic achievement and that’s what I will continue to pursue,” Lowe said.

At least she has a kid in public school, which is a clear distinction from the Dunbars of the world, who are working to kill public schools. If she really does focus on academic achievement, and stays away from the divisive stuff that’s been the SBOE’s hallmark lately, she’ll at least be a step up from McLeroy. On the other hand, if she really did think Dunbar would have made a good Chair but for her outspokenness, that’s worrisome. We’ll just have to see how it goes. What I do know is that getting some of the clowns off of the Board remains a top priority, and that means getting Dunbar and McLeroy unelected next year. The less crazy the Board is as a whole, the less it matters how kooky the Chair is.

Dunbar in line to chair SBOE

The crazy never stops.

Critics who engineered the recent ouster of State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, in part because of his strong religious beliefs, could end up with someone even more outspoken in her faith.

Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, who advocated more Christianity in the public square last year with the publication of her book, One Nation Under God, is among those that Gov. Rick Perry is considering to lead the State Board of Education, some of her colleagues say.

Critics are gasping and allies are cheering over speculation that Dunbar, a lawyer, could win a promotion to the leadership spot.

“It would certainly cause angst among the same members of the pagan left that rejected Don McLeroy because he was a man of faith,” said David Bradley, R-Beaumont, one of the seven socially conservative members on the 15-person board.

Perry’s office declined to comment until “a final decision is made.”

No one can say we didn’t see this coming. It’s always about Rick Perry’s primary campaign, and board member Bradley’s comment sums up what the most important issue for the conservative movement is these days: Pissing off liberals. Who cares about anything else if it makes the “pagan left” unhappy? Well, some of us think that elevating Dunbar in this fashion will ultimately make it easier to beat her at the ballot box next year. So go right ahead, I say. Keep reminding everyone what a freak show the SBOE is, and how out of the mainstream the Republican Party that enables it is. We’ll be happy to have that conversation with the voters next year. Vince, EoW, and the Texas Freedom Network have more.

Weekend link dump for May 3

It was the flu pandemic, and it swept the whole world wide…

And yes, I remember the 1976 swine flu vaccination debacle.

If only there had been Twitter in 1918.

Doesn’t anybody read “The Masque of the Red Death” any more?

By the way, this swine flu outbreak serves as another reason why studying evolution matters. Someone should tell Don McLeroy.

Oh, and via Yglesias, how sweet it is that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine made sure we didn’t waste any money on pandemic flu preparations in the Recovery Act. Which she’s not so proud of any more. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York got in the act, too. For shame.

Here’s one sure way to get swine flu. Well, maybe.

OK, enough swine flu. How about some nude German hikers?

The Top 10 Sitcom Cameos Made By Other Sitcom Characters. Beware – your head may explode. Via Tubular.

Meet the teabaggers.

100 days in, eight years ago.

A feminist perspective on the first 100 days.

So, how about that Arlen Specter? Will RINO hunting cease to be fashionable among his former brethren? Or will the Freedom Tent save them?

Toby Keith acknowledges that he can hold a grudge. For some odd reason, this was considered newsworthy.

It may be possible to be stupider than Michelle Bachmann, but I don’t think it’s possible to be stupider than her and also be able to breathe unassisted.

Michael Steele: The First 100 Days.

Of course, by some measures, Obama’s first 100 days were an abysmal failure.

Happy 90th birthday, Pete!

Congrats to Texas Monthly for the 2009 National Magazine Award for General Excellence!

TCOT fail.

You know, maybe I should start reading those software license agreements a bit more closely.

So how’s that Hispanic outreach going, Republicans?

Win some, lose some for science

That’s the basic conclusion to draw after the three-day circus that was the now-concluded SBOE hearings in Austin. TFN Insider sums it up:

TFN President Kathy Miller: Texas State Board of Education Adopts Flawed Science Standards

The word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.

Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.

We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don’t agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy.

What’s truly unfortunate is that we now have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted. Perhaps the Texas legislature can do something to prevent that.

As before, TFN’s liveblogging was an invaluable resource for anyone who wanted to know just what the heck they were doing up there. Friday’s installations are here and here, with a video preview of what it was all about here. Other liveblogs: Thoughts from Kansas and Evo.Sphere, while once again Martha covered things on Twitter. She also has an article reprinted from QR that goes into the reasons why this is such a circus. The Observer has a wrapup piece as well. Finally, as evidence for the Evan Smith thesis about the close tie between the SBOE’s baloney and Texas’ bad image elsewhere, I submit this. The good news, in a sense, is that at least we’re not the only ones. And we have two years, and an election, in which to get it right for the next time.

Strengths and weaknesses fails

That’s the good news.

San Antonio’s Ken Mercer, part of the board’s seven-member social conservative bloc, tried to put the much-debated “strengths and weaknesses” language back into the state’s science standards that guide the content of textbooks and curriculum. Mercer’s amendment to a final draft of the science standards would have required science teachers to discuss the so-called weaknesses of evolutionary theory in their science classes.

A few minutes ago, Mercer’s amendment failed by one vote (the tally was 7-7).

Corpus Christi’s Mary Helen Berlanga missed this morning’s vote, though she isn’t one of the board’s social conservatives and would be expected to vote against the strengths weaknesses language.

The board will take a final vote on the science standards tomorrow.

Unless one of the other members has a last-minute change of heart, it appears the strengths and weaknesses language won’t be included in the new science standards. That would be a huge victory for the pro-evolution side.

That’s very good news, as it avoids Texas becoming a national laughingstock for the time being. This sort of thing never truly goes away, of course, so we can never let up. Unelecting some of the troglodtyes on the Board would make the job a lot easier. One such possible target is Democrat Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who is at best wishy-washy on a lot of science issues, and who might be easier to take out in a primary than any of the Republicans in a general election. Keep an eye on him.

The bad news is that some other petty little odious amendments did make it through. I haven’t followed this closely enough to tell you about it, but there are plenty of others who have, so for more information than you could possibly need, here’s where to go:

TFN‘s exhaustive liveblogs – one, two, three, four.

Vince’s liveblog from today.

Thoughts from Kansas, another busy liveblogger. Too many posts to recount – try their creationism archives for an overview.

Martha on Twitter – you might also search for the #txsboe hashtag. Martha also testified before the committee.

On balance, I’d call it a good week for science, though between this and the stem cell skulduggery, I wouldn’t say it was good by that much.

UPDATE: The TFN summarizes:

OK, we’ve had a little time to digest all that went on today at the Texas State Board of Education. Without going through each of the many amendments that passed, here’s essentially what happened. This morning the board slammed the door on bringing creationism into classrooms through phony “weaknesses” arguments. But then board members turned around and threw open all the windows to pseudoscientific nonsense attacking core concepts like common descent and natural selection.

The amendments approved today are very problematic, regardless of the important victory over “strengths and weaknesses.” We anticipate that all 15 board members will be participating tomorrow, however, including a pro-science member who was absent today. So there is still time to reverse course.

Tomorrow, with the final vote, the board has a serious decision to make: is the science education of the next generation of Texas schoolchildren going to be based on fact-based, 21st-century science or on the personal beliefs of board members promoting phony arguments and pseudoscience?

You can still weigh in by sending e-mails to board members at sboeteks@tea.state.tx.us. Texas Education Agency staff will distribute e-mails to board members.

Like I said, it could have been a lot worse. But it could still be a lot better.

UPDATE: Dave Mann thinks the picture is bleaker.

The seven social conservatives on the 15-member board mostly got their way this afternoon. They passed a series of minor amendments that, with a slight word change here and there, diluted the state’s science standards and the teaching of evolutionary theory. Critics say these proposals open loopholes in the standards for the teaching of unscientific theories espoused by religious conservatives. (The same approach was tried, quite successfully, at the board’s meeting in January.)

[…]

The change in fortunes occurred largely because of Rick Agosto of San Antonio, who voted against the social conservatives in the morning and mostly with them in the afternoon. Agosto is viewed as the key swing vote on the board. He voted against the “strengths and weaknesses” language in January and again this morning, despite fierce lobbying from religious groups in his district.

Agosto wasn’t alone. Several other pro-evolution board members voted with the social conservatives’ this afternoon.

The board will take its final vote on the science standards, which will set content of classes and textbooks for years to come, tomorrow. The board can add in or take out language up until final passage.

So one last fight is likely tomorrow.

Remember the name Rick Agosto. The fight next year has to be in March as well.

The “strengths and weaknesses” showdown

Back in January, the State Board of Education somewhat surprisingly voted to remove anti-science “strengths and weaknesses” language from the curriculum. That was only a preliminary vote, however, and today is the day that the hearings begin for the final vote. The Texas Freedom Network gives a preview.

After more than a year of work and often bitter debate, the State Board of Education is set this week to decide what the next generation of Texas students will learn in their public school science classrooms. Media outlets across the country (including the New York Times here and here, the Wall Street Journal today and even FOX News) have focused attention on the important battle over what the state’s new science curriculum standards should require schools to teach about evolution.

Beginning with the public hearing at noon on Wednesday, we will be live-blogging the debate for three days. So you will be able to keep up with the action here. A preliminary vote is scheduled for Thursday, with a final vote coming Friday.

[…]

What students should learn about evolution isn’t really debated in much of the rest of the developed world. In Texas — and, in fact, much of the United States — it still is. And because the huge Texas market is so important to publishers, what this state requires students to learn is likely to be taught in textbooks used by students across the country.

And just to set the scene a little further, here’s what Don McLeroy, the dentist in charge of the SBOE, has been up to in his official capacity as SBOE Chair.

Scientists are “atheists.” Parents who want to teach their children about evolution are “monsters.” Pastors who support sound science are “morons.”

Is that the sort of message Chairman Don McLeroy and his cohorts on the State Board of Education have in mind for Texas science classrooms if they succeed in their campaign to shoehorn “weaknesses” of evolution back into the science curriculum standards? That’s certainly the message of a new book McLeroy is now endorsing.

It gets better. The book’s author, in a series of essays published on his blog, “presents evidence that Barack Obama is directly linked to Satanic teachings through his close association with Oprah Winfrey”. Lord only knows what he thinks about Dr. Phil.

Oh, and it turns out that in addition to everything else, Don McLeroy is a plagiarist. Isn’t that, like, a sin or something? I mean, what will we tell the children? Thanks to Lisa Falkenberg for the catch.

Go click the TFN links to get the details on that – you can even get to a full copy of the book, if you really want to. In any event, this should give you some idea of what to expect. As Evan Smith noted awhile back, get ready for Texas’ image around the world to take another body blow.

“Strengths and weaknesses” rears its head again

I know we thought that the current round of anti-evolutionism was in remission once the effort to change the science textbooks by the State Board of Education fell short. Sadly, these things never truly go away, and where the SBOE failed State Rep. Wayne Christian will try again with HB4224, which would put the bogus “strengths and weaknesses” language into state law. This probably won’t go anywhere, but it’s never a bad idea to be vigilant. Vince has more.

The dentist in charge

The Statesman has a profile of Don McLeroy, the young-earth creationist who is also the chair of the State Board of Education and who is currently leading the fight to cripple science education in Texas. I’m not going to get into the details of this story – Hal and TFN Insider do all the heavy lifting, if you’re interested – but I will pass along Greg’s observation that McLeroy didn’t score a particularly impressive electoral victory in 2006, and will be on the ballot again in 2010. That’s the good news; the bad news is that McLeroy’s district is made up of 28 mostly small, mostly rural counties – suburban Collin County was about 30% of the vote there in 06 – and therefore isn’t likely to be all that friendly to a Dem in 2010, no matter how much more attention McLeroy’s harmful antics attract. Still, this is a fight that will need to be fought, so I hope he will draw an opponent at least as strong as his fellow traveller Cynthia Dunbar has done.

Evolution in action

A common refrain I hear from scientists when another political controversy over the teaching of evolution arises is that they need to do a better job of explaining what they do and why it matters. Well, when the scientists get serious about that, I suggest they give the Chron’s Eric Berger a call, because as his Sunday page one story shows, he knows how to talk about evolution in a way that will feel important and relevant to anyone whose mind isn’t set against it. You can give him an “attaboy” here if you’re so inclined. Regardless, read the story, and share it with whoever you know that needs to read it. Muse has more.

Chron coverage of yesterday’s SBOE actions

Here’s the Chron story about yesterday’s happenings at the State Board of Education, in which the good news was that the anti-science “strengths and weaknesses” language had been removed from the curriculum, and the bad news was that a subsequent attempt to back-door similar nonsense made it in for now.

The “strengths and weaknesses” standard has been a staple in the curriculum for about 20 years.

On Friday, however, the board looked again at the issue and decided students should have to evaluate a variety of fossil types and assess the arguments against universal common descent, which serves as a main principle of evolution — that all organisms have a common ancestor.

The board’s effort to undermine “universal common descent” in public schools will make the state’s science standards “an object of ridicule,” said Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

“It’s really unscientific. It promotes creationism. It says that students will be required to learn arguments against common descent or ancestral connections,” Schafersman said. “The only alternative to common descent is creationism in their minds.”

Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March. New science curriculum standards will influence new science textbooks for the state’s 4.7 million public school children beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

One board member who pushed for the change said that fossil records create scientific evidence against universal common descent — and students should be allowed to study the possibility.

“There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions,” said Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, a former science teacher.

[…]

They are asking students to explain something that does not exist, said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner.

“This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert,” Hillis said.

Yeah. I mean, you wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t use the Internet setting standards for broadband, would you? The “fossil gap” argument is an old, longdiscredited one that keeps getting trotted out anyway. As Daniel Davies posited in The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA – Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101, good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. Not that this would stop the zealots on the SBOE.

The good news is that there should be time between now and March to get the same votes as before to reject this absurdity. That’s the hope, anyway. Martha has more. I’ve also got some testimony by 2008 candidate for SBOE Laura Ewing beneath the fold. We wouldn’t be going through this nonsense if Ewing had been elected, as there would then have been a clear majority for maintaining scientific standards, but sadly that was not to be. All the more reason to make sure we take out Cynthia Dunbar next year, that’s for sure. Click on for her account.

(more…)

Update on yesterday’s evolution happenings

In the comments to yesterday’s post about the vote taken by the State Board of Education that stripped out “strengths and weaknesses” language about evolution, Martha noted that there was another vote on this to be taken today. I haven’t seen any newspaper coverage of that, but according to TFN insider and Thoughts from Kansas, both of which did extensive liveblogging of the hearings yesterday, today’s vote went the same way as yesterday’s. There’s still a final vote to be taken in March, and as reported by both Martha and TFN there was some other anti-evolution language slipped in the back door as an amendment to the Earth Science TEKS, but overall things are looking better for science education in Texas than they were before. Keep your fingers crossed.

UPDATE: I missed Martha’s blogging on this – see here and especially here for more.

Evolution remains legal in Texas

Whew! That was a close one.

In a major defeat for evolution critics, a sharply divided State Board of Education voted Thursday to follow the advice of a panel of science educators and drop a long-time requirement that “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution be taught in high school science classes.

Under the science curriculum standards tentatively adopted by the board, biology teachers and biology textbooks would no longer have to cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of Charles Darwin’s theory on how humans evolved.

Opponents of the strengths and weaknesses requirement had warned that it would eventually open the door to teaching of creationism – the biblical explanation of the origin of humans – in science classes, while board members backing the rule insisted that was not their intention.

The seven Republican board members supporting the rule have been aligned with social conservative groups that in the past have tried to publicize alleged flaws in Darwin’s theory that humans evolved from lower life forms.

The key vote Thursday was on an amendment to the proposed curriculum standards that would have restored the “weaknesses” rule. It was defeated on a 7-7 vote, with four Democrats and three Republicans voting no. Another Democrat was absent.

“We’re not talking about faith. We’re not talking about religion,” said board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, who opposed the amendment. “We’re talking about science. We need to stay with our experts and respect what they have requested us to do.”

If you’ll pardon the expression, amen to that. Just so we’re clear, since it’s painfully obvious that the twits on the SBOE are not, this is what we’re technically arguing over. It’s very easy to get bogged down in nonsense in these debates, since the anti-evolution side is extremely prone to pushing things that have nothing to do with evolution as biologists understand it.

As seemingly silly as much of this is, this little squabble on the Board had potentially far-reaching consequences, as Julie Pippert noted. It would have been both ironic and deeply tragic if a handful of zealots in Austin had managed to dumb down science education across the country at a time when the country has new leadership that embraces science. Thankfully, we managed to dodge that bullet, for now.

On a related note, Evan Smith contends that the SBOE and its ridiculous antics are the biggest contributor to Texas’ negative image in other parts of the world. I left a comment there saying that I think our fascination with the death penalty does us more harm than these clowns do, but they’re certainly a factor. What do you think?

You there! Stop evolving this minute!

Someone once said that no one’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session. I’d extend that observation to note that no one’s intelligence or education is safe when the SBOE is in session. For those who want the gory details of today’s farce hearings, I’ll point you to the Texas Freedom Network’s exhaustive liveblogging of the proceedings:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Vince has some background as well. You have to admire their fortitude – as Elise Hu said, “SBOE meetings really sap the life out of me.”

What all this comes down to is whether or not Texas will acquire a reputation for being hostile to science and research, and thus an unattractive place for high-tech companies to locate. Not really what you want to happen, especially in tough economic times, is it? If it does, you can thank the loony fringe of the Texas GOP for it.

UPDATE: Hair Balls is also on this – one, two, three.