In a 1,000-plus page biology textbook used to school Hamilton County students, the origin of human life takes up a mere chapter.
The chapter, one of nearly 40, doesn’t show the well-known picture of a monkey evolving to man, but it does say primates evolved. It teaches about the fossil record and Darwin’s theories of adaptation.
And many local teachers say — even though questions over the origins of life have been a cornerstone for the political culture war in schools for years — that chapter is rarely the source of fireworks.
“We don’t even call it evolution. We call it genetic change,” said Donna Sellers, lead teacher in the math, technology and science academy at Central High School. “Evolution is when a bacteria becomes resistant to an antibiotic. It’s how the woolly mammoth became extinct and how the horses used to be smaller. It’s sub-breeds of dogs. It has nothing to do with whether man was once a monkey.”
“I am a Christian ... but our job as teachers is to present the side of science, not to discredit what [students] learn at home or at church.”
Still, legislators thought public school teachers needed the protection. A bill passed into law last week — without the signature of the governor — gives teachers the freedom to present scientific weaknesses on culturally controversial topics such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, climate change and human cloning.
National research and proponents of the bill say many teachers are afraid to broach the topic of evolution, fearing politicians and parents.
But educators view the bill as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. They doubt it will have any impact in the classroom next year.
“What it purports to support is what teachers are already doing,” said Becky Ashe, president of the Tennessee Association of Science Teachers, a group that opposed the bill.
Tennessee educators say they’re already free to discuss scientific findings on controversial subjects, and students are, too. And state curriculum requires that students learn about adaptation, natural selection and Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it doesn’t require the teaching of the origins of life and the ascent of man.
“We know enough to stay away from that,” Ashe said.
In fact, many teachers don’t have the time to thoroughly cover primate evolution. Some don’t even bring it up.
Evolution is mentioned only a few times among the dozens of science standards teachers must cover in class, documents show.
“With as much as they have to teach and the high-stakes accountability, there is little time to teach anything else,” said Jamie Parris, Hamilton County Schools director of secondary math and science.
The legislation, called a “monkey bill” by opponents and an “academic freedom bill” by supporters, is being viewed as yet another victory for the socially conservative majority in the Tennessee Legislature.
This year has seen a host of ideological legislation.
In this session alone, legislators have debated bills that would outlaw sagging pants in schools, prevent discussion about homosexuality in schools, allow teachers to be involved in student-led prayer in schools and tighten restrictions on sexual education, even warning that hand-holding is a gateway to sexual activity.
Even though the scientific weaknesses bill specifically states that it only supports the discussion of scientific information and doesn’t allow teaching that promotes any religious or nonreligious doctrine, some teachers worry that the new law will open the door for Christians to underscore their belief in creationism.
It could especially be a problem in small, rural systems where one teacher sets the standards for science education, Ashe said. She fears that some teachers could take it as license to push creationism on students, she said.
The scientific weakness bill began to garner steam several years ago when David Fowler, a former state senator from Signal Mountain and president of Family Action of Tennessee in Nashville, contacted the Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle that was supporting similar legislation in all states.
Louisiana enacted a law similar to Tennessee’s in 2008, to national criticism. Some states have required that stickers be placed on textbooks, warning that evolution is a theory when it comes to the origins of human life.
But 40 years of court cases have resulted in rulings that teaching creationism or intelligent design violates the Constitution. As a result, some of those school system policies have been struck down.
The Discovery Institute created a base “academic freedom” bill for states to follow, and Tennessee used it as a model, said Casey Luskin, a policy analyst for the Discovery Institute.
He said the institute staff drafted the bill because they heard reports from across the country about science teachers being demoted or “moved to physical education” because they presented scientific evidence against Darwinism in the classroom. But he said they never heard any negative reports from Tennessee.
“There is a climate of fear and intimidation,” Luskin said. “Teachers are unclear about their rights. This lurks beneath the surface because they are afraid to deal with the issue.”
However, while national research does say teachers are unsure of their rights, it tells a different story about what’s happening in the classroom.
According to a Penn State survey last year of 926 public high school biology instructors, the majority of those teachers were not strong advocates of evolutionary biology.
Twenty-eight percent of teachers said they consistently introduce evidence that evolution occurred and create lesson plans that use evolution as a unifying theme for the biology course.
Another 13 percent of biology teachers said they advocate for creationism by spending some class time talking about it in a positive light.
The rest of the study reveals a “cautious 60 percent” of science teachers who wanted to avoid the controversy altogether. They may teach some parts of evolutionary theory while ignoring others.
“Some teachers rationalize the teaching of evolution by referring to high-stakes examinations,” the study stated. “These teachers tell students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, so long as they know it for the test.”
With standards that don’t touch primate evolution or the origins of life, teachers don’t have much to fear in Tennessee, said Dianne Kelehear, an Ooltewah High School biology, chemistry and anatomy teacher.
“I think the way the standards are worded, they’re not that controversial. I don’t think teachers shy away from it because of the way they’re worded,” she said.
Kelehear said her classes already discuss all sides of controversial issues, such as the merits of climate change theory or whether the country should drill for oil. But the key is to keep those discussions rooted in science and not personal ideology or beliefs.
“The whole idea of science is to think,” she said. “That’s why it doesn’t bother me that you would present different views. But you can’t do it out of ‘this is what I believe.’ It has to be based on facts.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...