Outside Voices: National Center for Science Education Executive Director Ann Reid
ASHG: The teaching of evolution has a long history and is deeply rooted in America’s decentralized educational system, with most activity taking place in local school boards and state governing bodies. Can you give us an overview of the current landscape and the role NCSE plays?
Reid: Controversies over the teaching of evolution do indeed have a long history and America’s decentralized educational system exacerbates and prolongs the problem. Legally, the situation has evolved (you’ll pardon the expression) from overt efforts to have evolution banned from the classroom, through efforts to give creationism (or its descendants, creation science and intelligent design) equal or at least protected status. Each of these tactics has eventually failed, with the courts consistently holding that all of these creationism-derived explanations of the diversity and natural history of life are fundamentally religious in nature–indeed, reflective of a particular religion’s beliefs–and therefore their teaching represents a violation of the separation of church and state.
Despite the clarity of the overarching legal situation, challenges continue to arise as new strategies are tried in an attempt to circumvent established precedent. In 2019 alone, bills have been introduced in eight states with the aim of compromising the teaching of evolution. Efforts to dilute the treatment of evolution when state science standards come up for review are also not uncommon. Each year, NCSE organizes opposition to around a dozen such efforts, catalyzing the assembly of coalitions, facilitating communication, and informing the public and the press about the issues.
Direct challenges, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. Teaching evolution is challenging in communities where distrust of or even hostility to the topic is widespread, even if the topic is included in science standards and textbooks. When surveyed, about six in ten U.S. public high school biology teachers report that they hedge or compromise their coverage of evolution, presumably out of a mixture of inadequate content training and fear of community hostility. NCSE works directly with teachers to give them the skills and confidence they need to cover the topic accurately.
ASHG: What do you think makes teaching evolution different and uniquely challenging, compared to teaching other fundamental genetics concepts such as mitosis or genomic diversity?
Reid: The question has an existential answer and a practical one. Existentially, unlike mitosis or genomic diversity, which are perceived to be just like all the other uncontroversial scientific concepts found in textbooks, evolution is widely perceived to be a belief system, not an evidence-based explanation of the natural world. No one’s core values are felt to be in conflict with mitosis. By contrast, many people equate evolution with atheism and believe that a core tenet of evolution is that there is no God.
Practically speaking, teaching evolution is difficult when training in the topic has been minimal or absent in many parts of the country for decades. Biology teachers are increasingly required to major or minor in biology in college and most state science standards (including the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted in about two dozen states) now include evolution. Explicit training in how to teach a topic that is perceived to be controversial, however, is rare. Overcoming years of inadequate preparation is a major challenge.
By the way, NCSE also works to support the accurate teaching of climate change, another topic that has become caught up in identity, leading to conflict over its teaching. While opposition to the topic is primarily political rather than religious, teachers face a similar challenges with fear of conflict and inadequate content training.
ASHG: What beliefs or misconceptions do teachers tend to run into when teaching evolution, and how is your organization approaching those unique topics?
Reid: By far the most problematic misconception that teachers encounter is the idea that accepting evolution requires rejecting one’s religious beliefs. If students think that they must choose between their religious identity and a topic in science class, science is very likely to lose. There is considerable evidence that ensuring students have a sound understanding of the nature of science–What constitutes a valid scientific question? How is evidence collected and evaluated?– before discussing evolution is extremely effective in overcoming this particular misconception.
There are a number of other very widespread misconceptions about evolution that pervade our culture and often interact with the religiously-based misconceptions in interesting and complicated ways. For example, the idea that evolution is driven by “need” is pervasive–for example, you are much more likely to hear or read a statement along the lines of: “polar bears became white because they needed to be camouflaged” than: “in a snowy environment, white polar bears are more likely to survive, so over time the gene variants that result in white fur become more common in the population.” OK, I admit, it’s longer and more complicated, but the former explanation plays right into the idea that evolution has somehow been “directed” to result in the diversity we see in nature.
ASHG: What notable success stories you are seeing in communities? What challenges do you see ahead?
Reid: At the macro level, as I mentioned above, evolution is increasingly likely to be included in state science standards, and biology teachers are more likely to have studied the field in college. Those are encouraging signs. On the other hand, in many states, public school funding has been declining for years resulting in lower teacher salaries, more students per class, and less funding for supplies. While the need to provide students with authentic experiences of science –to learn science as science is practiced, which is demonstrably more effective–has never been greater, the resources for it have perhaps never been more scarce.
At the micro level – at NCSE, we are working to train and provide resources to teachers who are already confidently and accurately teaching evolution in communities where resistance is high. Our goal is for these NCSE Teacher Ambassadors to train their local colleagues in a set of lessons that are grounded in evidence-based pedagogical practices, provide students with opportunities to engage directly with evidence, and effectively address students’ most common misconceptions. Furthermore, because the lessons allow students to construct their own understanding of how evolution works, they avoid the head-on conflict that many teachers fear they will encounter. We are currently field-testing this set of five misconception-based evolution lessons and will soon make them freely available on our website.
ASHG: What are some of the most effective ways ASHG members could take action individually, getting involved with their local education systems?
Reid: Integrating scientists directly into classrooms is surprisingly difficult; while it is definitely beneficial for students to interact with scientists, the pressure on teachers to cover a mountain of material in a limited number of class periods can make it tough to schedule. It also tends to be pretty hit or miss. I admit, I did a lot of classroom visits and field trips when my own children were in school, but that involvement ended when they graduated. It may not be quite as direct, but getting involved in your local school system by running for the school board, attending school board meetings, or writing op-eds for your local paper on the importance of science education can have a big impact (how about co-writing one with a local science teacher?). Most of us have no idea who is on our local school board, whether our district has someone dedicated to supporting and training local science teachers, or even where the funding for our local schools comes from. Becoming informed and involved will have a dramatic impact. Should you run into any problematic practices, please call us. NCSE is always available to help.
One of the NCSE programs that I am most excited about is our new Science Ambassador program. Graduate students are provided with partial funding for one year and given in-depth training in informal science outreach so that they can bring evolution and climate change-focused science activities to their local communities. This program is a win-win-win: community members get opportunities to experience high quality science, graduate students learn how to present science effectively to all audiences, thereby helping to break down barriers between academic science and surrounding communities, and local teachers recognize that there are community members who have their backs when it comes to topics that are controversial in their communities. I would encourage ASHG members–especially those located in communities where evolution (or climate change) may be contentious–with graduate students who might be interested in participating in a future cohort to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.