Dover Dividends: Five Years Later, AU Challenge To ‘Intelligent Design’ Helps Education Evolve

The main problem with evolution instruction in public schools is not so much the overt teaching of creationism, it’s the poor job many schools do teaching evolution.

On Dec. 20, 2005, a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down an ill-conceived plan to teach “intelligent design” in the public schools of the town of Dover.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania joined forces to litigate that issue in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. It was a great win that reaffirmed the importance of church-state separation in public education.

And here’s some more good news: Five years later the case is still paying dividends.

Education Week reported Nov. 17 that in several states, public school officials are feeling emboldened by the Kitzmiller ruling and are ramping up instruction about evolution. The controversy, the story says, made many science educators realize that they need to play offense.

The result has been a spate of new curriculum materials, teacher training and activism on behalf of evolution instruction.

“What it has done is made it clearer to the scientific community that they have to come out and make a stand,” said E. Margaret Evans, assistant research scientist in education at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. “They can’t wait in the wings and hope it all blows over.”

In Massachusetts, a group of researchers at Boston College has created new curriculum materials that combine computer modeling, hands-on activities and classroom readings – all designed to give students a better grasp of natural selection.

Education Week reports that the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences and other groups have “increased research investment on identifying essential concepts for teaching evolution.” In addition, they have joined forces to create an Evolution Education Researcher Centre at Harvard, McGill and Chapman universities.

The groups also recognize the teacher training is key and are focusing on that issue.

Heavy hitters like this, along with AU’s friends at the National Center for Science Education, are bound to make a difference.

I’ve always believed that the main problem with evolution instruction in public schools is not so much the overt teaching of creationism (although that happens), it’s the poor job many schools do teaching evolution. Thanks to pressure from fundamentalist religious groups, some schools relegate evolution – considered the central organizing principle of biology and other sciences – to a single unit or refuse to even mention the “e-word,” using instead vague terms like “change over time.”

A few years ago, I debated Charmaine Yoest, then with the Family Research Council, on CNN’s “AC 360°” with Anderson Cooper. During the debate, I challenged Yoest to tell me what she believes children should be taught about the age of the Earth. She refused to answer. This is the “science” the Religious Right would have America’s children taught in public schools!

And therein lies our silver bullet. Most parents want their children to do well in school and go on to college. Unless they attend Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University, young people who have been taught discredited creationist concepts in high school will be at sea when they take introductory biology. Scientists are increasingly pitching this argument to parents: If you want your kids to do well in college, make sure they are taught evolution in secondary schools. It’s long overdue.

I know we still have a long way to go on this issue. Louisiana, Texas and other states continue to flirt with creationism, and the Religious Right is still applying pressure on local school districts all over the country.

But the Education Week story (which is, unfortunately, behind a subscriber wall) provides much cause for optimism. The more the scientific community realizes that the fight against creationism is a political one – and the more they speak out and produce strong curriculum materials for our public schools – the better off our children will be.

If the Kitzmiller ruling helped sparked this evolution renaissance in public schools, AU and its supporters have reason to be proud.

P.S.: U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, who wrote the opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover, recently offered some reflections on the case at an AU event in Washington. Watch it here.