Evolution education is improving, and ASCB helped

In my experience, few things provoke as consistent a reaction from biologists as the observation that some 40% of Americans believe that humans were created pretty much in their present form in the last 10,000 years.

“I can’t believe so many people still reject evolution” is a common response, often followed by “What the heck are biology teachers doing?” I understand this reaction—mine would have been much the same six years ago, when I became the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “How hard can this be to fix?” I thought. Well, now I know.

Why do so many people reject evolution? Because some religious groups have taught their followers for years that accepting evolution and believing in God are mutually exclusive. Given a choice between their faith and a hard-to-understand abstract “theory,” many religious people choose faith.

What are biology teachers doing? Well, for the most part, they’re working their tails off with limited resources and often without the training to master and teach a topic that frequently provokes conflict with students, parents, and even colleagues.

And how hard can it be to fix? The answer to that is “plenty hard,” believe me. After all, there are over 50,000 high school biology teachers scattered through 15,000 local school districts in the United States, facing a wide panoply of challenges to which there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

But there are signs that the dedicated work, over more than a decade, of a great many supporters of accurate evolution education, including ASCB, is paying off. There have been dramatic improvements in the way in which evolution is presented in public high school biology classrooms just over the last 12 years, according to a new rigorous national survey conducted by NCSE in collaboration with Eric Plutzer of Pennsylvania State University.

The survey was designed to replicate a similar national survey that Plutzer and his colleagues conducted in 2007. The earlier survey came on the heels of the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover decision that declared that the teaching of intelligent design—creationism’s latest manifestation—was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. The legal battle was won, but the 2007 survey revealed that the situation in the classroom was far from perfect.

The NCSE/Penn State survey, conducted in 2019 and discussed in a paper recently published in Evolution: Education and Outreach, shows real, and impressive, progress. In 2007, a bare majority of public high school biology teachers—51%—emphasized the scientific consensus on evolution without giving any credence to creationism in their classrooms. In 2019, more than two-thirds of them—67%—did so.

At the same time, the proportion of teachers who exclusively endorsed creationism dropped from 8.6 to 5.6%. The proportion of teachers who avoided endorsing either evolution or creationism dropped from 18 to 15%. And the proportion of teachers who endorsed both evolution and creationism plunged from 23 to 12%.

Here’s more good news. The average number of hours devoted to general evolution rose from 9.8 in 2007 to 12.4 in 2019. And the average classroom time devoted to human evolution nearly doubled, from 4.1 to 7.7 hours.

What explains these improvements? There are several factors, but one of them may surprise you. State science standards make a modest but significant difference. The Next Generation Science Standards, which are based on a National Research Council report and developed by a consortium of more than 20 states, were released in 2013. Currently, 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) have adopted the NGSS and another 24 have developed standards based on the same framework. In the NGSS, evolution is included as one of four disciplinary core ideas for the life sciences and is integrated into life sciences instruction beginning in kindergarten.

The inclusion of evolution in state standards results in the increased discussion of evolution in the classroom, directly and indirectly. Directly, topics in the standards are harder to avoid: The content of textbooks, statewide tests, and coursework for pre-service and in-service teachers is strongly affected by the content of the standards. Indirectly, when challenged over the teaching of evolution, teachers can point to the standards as requiring them to teach evolution. In communities where evolution is not widely accepted, such a shield is very important to teachers.

There is still a long way to go, to be sure. It is simply not acceptable that a third of U.S. public high school biology teachers continue to present evolution misleadingly!

At NCSE we are working with teacher ambassadors to provide their colleagues with evolution lessons that help students overcome misconceptions—for example, the false dichotomy between religion and science. And we will continue to work with our many supporting organizations, including ASCB, and the thousands of individual scientists who support us as members, to monitor local school boards and state legislatures, advocate for accurate science standards, and catalyze local action when the integrity of science education is threatened.

I’d like to say thank you to the members of ASCB for supporting an organization that supports us. And if you’re also an individual member of NCSE, thank you twice. We could not have achieved so much progress on evolution education without you.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Ann Reid is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. reid@ncse.ngo, @NCSEreid.