The latest chapter in a long-running debate over how evolution should be taught in public schools opened Jan. 21 as the Texas State Board of Education ramped up its review of the state’s science standards. Experts say the state’s actions could have significant implications for schools nationwide, because Texas is one of the country’s largest purchasers of textbooks–and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.

Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution will be taught in Texas schools made their case before the state’s education board Jan. 21.

Dozens of people, including a six-member expert review panel, lined up to testify as the board considers new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks.

The crowd–as well as the review panel–was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory.

Instead, a panel of science experts recommended that students use critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.

Critics say the use of the word "weaknesses" has been used to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution and instead promote the Biblical version of creationism, or intelligent design.

"In science education, ‘weaknesses’ has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism," said Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network. "If it weren’t, we wouldn’t see this crusade by some of the board members and outside pressure groups to keep this single word in the science standards."

"These weaknesses that they bring forward are decades old, and they have been refuted many, many times over," Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, told the New York Times after testifying. "It’s an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom in an attempt to get students to reject evolution."

Critics of dropping the "weaknesses" mandate blame "left-wing ideology" for trying to stifle free speech. The review panel, which was appointed by the education board, has suggested putting similar language back in.

"The board is being asked to choose between free and open scientific inquiry and censorship," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. "That’s an easy choice."

Last year, legislation permitting criticism of Darwinism in schools was introduced in Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Michigan, and Louisiana, according to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports teaching students about the criticism of evolution.

A tentative vote in Texas is expected later this week, but the board is not expected to make a final decision on the curriculum proposal until March.

Much of the Jan. 21 testimony focused on the scientific evidence of evolution.

"I hope you understand now that there are good reasons to think that, yes, evolution has weaknesses that reasonable people can see, that, yes, those weaknesses do really influence the theory," said Ralph Seelke, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who served on the review panel.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, said the proposal to drop the inclusion of the term "weaknesses" is a "superior critical thinking standard."

"Abandoning the inaccurate ‘strengths and weaknesses’ language does not encourage the singling out of evolution for special treatment," Scott said.

In the past, conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes they need to change the standards. This year, both sides say, the final vote is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Links:

Texas State Board of Education

Texas Freedom Network

Science Teachers Association of Texas

Free Market Foundation

Discovery Institute

National Center for Science Education

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