After years of controversy the Texas State Board of Education last week gave the final seal of approval for science curriculum standards that, through the substitution of some key words, allows students to learn high school biology without being required to challenge evolution.
Of course, this is just another turn in the very long debate over evolution versus creationism, the controversy that goes back to the Scopes Monkey trial. In Texas the issue really heated up in 1984 when the first statewide curriculum standards were created. The first standards required that biology students be given an opportunity to study evolution.
That irked creationists, so later in the 1980s the SBOE approved a standard requiring students to study the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories. That may sound harmless enough on the outside, but it was used by creationists to go after any textbooks that did not include creationist explanations for the creation of life.
From there the disagreement simmered until 2009 when the SBOE culture wars were truly going. Evolution supporters succeeded in yanking the "strengths and weaknesses" requirement from state standards, but at the urging of creationists the board added a new requirement that students examine "all scientific evidence," a move calculated to force textbooks and teachers to delve into creationist stances on science.
But now, the requirement to consider "all sides" of scientific evidence has been dropped, with little to no opposition from even the most conservative members of the board.
Over the months leading up to this decision, dozens of people showed up urging them to drop any mention of requiring students to "evaluate" evolution while others called and sent emails urging board members to keep that crucial word, "evaluate." (Both sides were focused on the word because it's been used so well as a backdoor to force the teaching of creationism and put it on equal footing with evolution as an explanation for the origin of life.)
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The final vote came Friday, just two days after board member Keven Ellis proposed two amendments that reflected this feedback and eliminated the word “evaluate” from biology standards. Instead, Ellis called to replace the word with language that requires to students to "examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA" and to "compare and contrast scientific explanations" for the complexity of certain cells.
Utimately the board went with a compromise, the one presented by Ellis. Even Barbara Cargill, the Woodlands board member who has been ardently in favor of promoting creationism, came out in support of this solution since it allows students to make up their own minds.
A tentative vote on Wednesday passed without a dissenting vote from the board members followed by the vote 14-0 vote on Friday to dump the language added into the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills science standards earlier this year. Geraldine Miller, a Republican board member from Dallas, abstained.
Starting in the 2018-2019 school year, Texas students will no longer be required to evaluate evolution and creationism. Now they're just going to have to compare and contrast. That may not seem like much, but crazily enough the decision represents real progress.