Every ten years the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), a group of elected officials with little experience as educators, revises a section of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS; pronounced “teeks”). TEKS are lists of topics, concepts, and skills that must be covered in each subject area in all Texas classrooms and all Texas education materials. Their importance extends beyond the borders of Texas because the textbook writers make two textbooks for each subject–one for California and one for Texas–and the rest of the country generally adopts these and the standards from one of those two states.
The science TEKS were last revised in 2009, and will be revised again in 2019. In 2016, the Texas Education Agency gathered a panel of seven science educators plus two evolution skeptics to first “streamline” the standards. Many teachers complain that it is too hard to teach all of the current standards in the class time they are given, so the goals of this streamlining process were to reduce and simplify the standards before their full revision.
The streamlining committee identified and recommended for removal seven standards that are confusing, overly complicated, not appropriate for the grade level, or too time-consuming (recommendations). Four of these were inserted by the SBOE during the 2009 TEKS revision without the review of scientists or teachers. They are associated with teaching evolutionary biology and contain buzzwords used by the creationist and intelligent design community: “all sides of scientific evidence,” “sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record,” “complexity of the cell,” and “self-replicating life”. Although the streamlining committee did not explicitly mention that these standards compromise the teaching of evolution by introducing creationist ideas, expert science educators suggest that this is the case (see this analysis published by the Texas Freedom Network, TFN).
It is important to note that while forcing teachers to teach creationism in public classrooms is unconstitutional because it endorses a particular religious viewpoint and violates the first amendment, teaching about creationism in public classrooms is not. Therefore, having creationist language in the standards opens the door to teachers who wish to teach creationism. That is why members of the Austin Science Advocates testified during the recent public hearing on January 31 in support of the recommendations made by the streamlining committee to remove these problematic standards (Texas Standard, Texas Tribune).
The SBOE took a preliminary vote on the streamlining committee’s proposed amendments on February 1. Against the recommendations of the committee, the SBOE voted to keep three of the four problematic standards that were slated to be removed (video). While they removed the phrasing “all sides of scientific evidence” (3A), they amended the proposed changes to include “evaluate scientific explanations for [cell] complexity” (previously 7G but now included as part of 4A), “evaluate scientific explanations for the origins of DNA” (previously 9D, now added to 6A), and “examine scientific explanations of abrupt appearance and stasis in the fossil record” (7B). Although the general subjects of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell complexity (now 4A) and the origins of DNA (now 6A) may not be problematic, the passing of amendments incorporating the phrase “evaluate scientific explanations for” by SBOE member Barbara Cargill (R-Woodlands) may compromise how these concepts are taught. Similarly, Barbara Cargill stated during the Feb. 1 meeting that her reasoning to retain the phrase “origins of DNA” was to teach students about the different explanations for the “origin of life”, a phrase commonly used by intelligent design proponents (see Part 4 of the TFN analysis).
A second public hearing and the final vote on the streamlined standards will take place during the SBOE meeting in April.
Julia York, Rebecca Tarvin, Katie Lyons, and Emma Dietrich contributed to this post.
Biology TEKS (Section 112.34)
Slate review of who volunteered to be on the streamlining committee
Texas Tribune review of proposed changes
Texas Freedom Network analysis of the four problematic standards
Video of SBOE January 31 public hearing
Video of SBOE February 1 meeting discussing the proposed changes (see Part 2, Item 3)
Texas Tribune – more about the Texas SBOE