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"Don't Take Away Tennessee Students' Competitive Edge"

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March 30, 2012

Just this week, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would allow public school teachers to teach creationism in addition to evolution in science classes. Gov. Bill Haslam now has less than 10 days to sign or veto the bill.

By Wesley H. Roberts, M. Ed., Tennessee biology teacher

I have been involved in evolution education for about 25 years. I am in the classroom every day and I currently teach at Hume Fogg Academic Magnet School, Tennessee’s top-performing high school.

Let’s admit that opposition to evolution education is part of our rich cultural history in Tennessee, including the Butler Act of 1925 (which brought on the Scopes Monkey Trial). This newest bill would give legal cover to public school teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs on the origin of life as pseudo-science. A teacher, bolstered and protected by this bill, may decide to stray from the curriculum for the advancement his or her own personal belief system since it is “controversial” to the accepted science theories. This bill presents science as a democratic process in which anyone’s opinion — no matter how nonscientifically based — counts. And science is NOT this way. Science is a process that deals only with reason, logic, and proof.

However attractive it may sound to have discussions of nonscientific ideas in our science classrooms, it is not the souls of our students that are at stake here. What is at stake is how they will perform on standardized tests in which they will be compared to other students across the state, the nation, and the world.

I have been a reader of national Advanced Placement exams for the last seven years. I can most assuredly state that there has not been, nor will there ever be, a question on an AP exams that asks the student to discuss a controversy in nonscientific terms. No question has stated, “Compare the merits of Intelligent Design to the scientific principles in the theory of evolution”. There has not been a prompt directing students to explain their knowledge of creation myths from other traditions. Indeed, AP science exams do NOT ask students for their opinions or to explain controversies. They ask students to demonstrate their knowledge of scientific principles, including evolution.

How much of students’ coursework involves evolution? Since it is considered by most biologists, including the ones who write the AP tests, to be the organizing principle of modern biology, the answer is nearly 100 percent. But if you just look at the stated curriculum for AP biology, the answer is greater than 10 percent. And the state’s own Science Framework for Biology I mandates over 14 percent of the curriculum specifically focus on evolution.

The legislators responsible should explain to parents who have paid a hefty price for their child to take the AP exam that, in their attempts to protect students by inviting nonscience into the curriculum, time in science class was wasted on topics that are not part of the stated curriculum, and that students not subject to this bill outperformed their children.

So please — let’s stick to science and only science for the benefit of our students. Let’s not take away the competitive edge that our students desperately need.

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