TN Legislature May Force Schools to Teach Science “Controversies”

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The Tennessee House of Representatives is debating a bill on Wednesday that would push teachers to frame evolution, global warming, and other science topics as controversial in their classrooms, creating the impression that their validity is open for debate.

The measure, introduced earlier this month, requires state and local education systems to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” so that teachers can “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” An identical bill has also been offered in the state Senate.

“The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the bill states. Further, the state will not prohibit any teacher from “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

It’s not clear what the efforts to “assist” teachers in framing science as controversial would mean; it would probably depend largely on the school district. But the second part of the bill would make it entirely permissible for educators to teach whatever they want to kids about these subjects as long as they frame it as “science” and somehow relevant to the “controversy.” And the bill doesn’t limit this to just the “controversies” it lists explicitly. The intent of course is clear—compelling teachers to include creationist or climate-change denying materials alongside of actual scientific lessons.

As Julia Whitty wrote here last month, the most recent national survey of high school biology teachers found that only 28 percent consistently teach evolutionary biology. A full 13 percent already explicitly include creationism or intelligent design in their classes. The majority—60 percent—are cautious about even broaching the subject. As a result, nearly three-quarters of American students are in classrooms where information about evolution is “absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation.” The fear of controversy is enough to scare them away from the topic already.

It’s the cautious group of teachers that the kind of state-level law proposed in Tennessee would most affect, said Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a group that defends the teaching of evolution in the classroom. “For those folks, they’re looking for a way out,” said Rosenau. “They don’t want to advocate for anything and they don’t want to be seen as taking sides.” And as a result, students don’t learn even the basics about evolution in many public schools.

Five other state legislatures have presented anti-evolution bills already this year. A bill in New Mexico was tabled earlier this month and another in Oklahoma failed in committee on Tuesday. The Missouri House also has an anti-evolution bill on the table this session. Right now, the only state with this kind of law on the books is Louisiana, which passed a similar measure couched as “academic freedom” in 2008. And as I reported last year, global warming deniers and creationists have been joining forces more often in recent years to force schools to “teach the controversy” on these subjects.

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