Science Test: Will America Protect Our Kids’ Education From Religious Right Reactionaries?

Thirteen percent of high school biology teachers say they favor teaching creationism or 'intelligent design.'

If you watched President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week, you might have noticed an emphasis on science.

The president noted that countries like China and India are racing to challenge the United States in the global economy. These nations have made changes to their educational systems, he said, noting “[T]hey started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.”

Later, Obama pointed out, “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.” He even put in a plug for school science fairs.

It’s good to see this issue getting the attention it deserves. And the president’s pro-science call to arms came at just the right time.

About the same time as the State of the Union, the federal government issued a report showing that two-thirds of American fourth-graders did not show proficiency in science in 2009. Furthermore, 70 percent of eighth-graders and 79 percent of students in grade 12 also fell short of science proficiency on a standardized test.

This is a sad state of affairs, and it must be addressed if our nation is to remain economically competitive in the days to come.

One thing that won’t help is continuing to ignore the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although Religious Right-style fundamentalists hate evolution, it remains the central organizing principle of biology. We ignore it at our peril.

Yet that’s exactly what many of our public schools are doing. A recent report by two scholars at Penn State University found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers said they consistently teach evolution.

More alarmingly, 13 percent said they favor teaching creationism or “intelligent design.” The rest fall into a mushy middle. Many may favor a robust teaching of evolution but are afraid to do, knowing it will spark controversy.

“These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally,” wrote Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, the authors of the report.

In central Pennsylvania, a retired chemistry and physics teacher named Tom Ritter is suing the Blue Mountain School District in Orwigsburg, claiming that instruction about evolution is unscientific and advances atheism.

It’s a foolish lawsuit and will undoubtedly fail. (Ritter also wants to abolish public education entirely.) People have tried this gambit before, and it has gone nowhere in the courts.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the courts can only take us so far. I’m thankful for brave federal judges like John E. Jones who struck down intelligent design in Dover, Pa., in 2005, but we have a lot more work to do if we want to preserve the separation of church and state by keeping religion out of science classrooms.

We can start by redoubling our efforts to oppose Religious Right activists who seek to replace modern science with their interpretation of the Bible.

The president is right. Some of the best jobs of the future will require an understanding of science and technology. The Religious Right wants to deny our children opportunities by stunting their science education.

Every American who cares about the future of this country must stand up to that.