Texas Public Charter Schools Are Teaching Creationism

The state of the universe.
Jan. 16 2014 4:30 AM

Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism

An investigation into charter schools’ dishonest and unconstitutional science, history, and “values” lessons.

140115_SCI_Creationism
A Texas charter school group has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

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Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Charter schools may be run independently, but they are still public schools, and through an open records request, I was able to obtain a set of Responsive Ed’s biology “Knowledge Units,” workbooks that Responsive Ed students must complete to pass biology. These workbooks both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.

A favorite creationist claim is that there is “uncertainty” in the fossil record, and Responsive Ed does not disappoint. The workbook cites the “lack of a single source for all the rock layers as an argument against evolution.”

I asked Ken Miller, a co-author of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook published by Pearson and one of the most widely used science textbooks on the market today, to respond to claims about the fossil record and other inaccuracies in the Responsive Ed curriculum. (It’s worth noting that creationists on the Texas State Board of Education recently tried, and failed, to block the approval of Miller’s textbook because it teaches evolution.)

Charles Darwin, circa 1870, glass negative.
Charles Darwin, circa 1870.

Courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

“Of course there is no ‘single source’ for all rock layers,” Miller told me over email. “However, the pioneers of the geological sciences observed that the sequence of distinctive rock layers in one place (southern England, for example) could be correlated with identical layers in other places, and eventually merged into a single system of stratigraphy. All of this was established well before Darwin's work on evolution.”

The workbook also claims, “Some scientists even question the validity of the conclusions concerning the age of the Earth.” As Miller pointed out, “The statement that ‘some scientists question,’ is a typical way that students can be misled into thinking that there is serious scientific debate about the age of the Earth or the nature of the geological record. The evidence that the Earth was formed between 4 and 5 billion years ago is overwhelming.”

Another Responsive Ed section claims that evolution cannot be tested, something biologists have been doing for decades. It misinforms students by claiming, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”

The curriculum tells students that a “lack of transitional fossils” is a “problem for evolutionists who hold a view of uninterrupted evolution over long periods of time.”

“The assertion that there are no ‘transitional fossils’ is false,” Miller responded. “We have excellent examples of transitional forms documenting the evolution of amphibians, mammals, and birds, to name some major groups. We also have well-studied transitional forms documenting the evolution of whales, elephants, horses, and humans.”

Peking Man Skull (replica) presented at Paleozoological Museum of China, February 2009.
A replica of the Peking man skull presented at the Paleozoological Museum of China in February 2009.

Photo by Yan Li/Creative Commons

Evolution is not a scientific controversy, and there are no competing scientific theories. All of the evidence supports evolution, and the overwhelming majority of scientists accept the evidence for it. 

Another tactic creationists often use is to associate evolution with eugenics. One Responsive Ed quiz even asks students, “With regards to social Darwinism, do you think humans who are not capable should be left to die out, or should they be helped?”

“They imply that the control of human reproduction and the abandonment of people who might be ‘left to die’ are elements of evolutionary theory,” Miller said. “This is false, and the authors of these questions surely know that.”

Outright creationism appears in Responsive Ed’s section on the origins of life. It’s not subtle. The opening line of the workbook section, just as the opening line of the Bible, declares, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

Responsive Ed’s butchering of evolution isn’t the only part of its science curriculum that deserves an F; it also misinforms students about vaccines and mauls the scientific method.

A young girl receives a band aid after getting an H1N1 flu vaccination, December 2009 in San Francisco, California.
A girl reacts to receiving the H1N1 flu vaccination in 2009 in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

On the scientific method, Responsive Ed confuses scientific theories and laws. It argues that theories are weaker than laws and that there is a natural progression from theories into laws, all of which is incorrect.

The Responsive Ed curriculum undermines Texas schoolchildren’s future in any possible career in science.

Dan Quinn, the communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization that monitors the religious right, said, “These materials should raise a big red flag for any parent or school administrator. It's bad enough that they promote the same discredited anti-evolution arguments that scientists debunked a long time ago. But the materials also veer into teaching religious beliefs that the courts have repeatedly ruled have no place in a public school science classroom.”

When it’s not directly quoting the Bible, Responsive Ed’s curriculum showcases the current creationist strategy to compromise science education, which the National Center for Science Education terms “stealth creationism.”

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism is unconstitutional. In the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, Judge John Jones III ruled in federal district court that intelligent design is still creationism and equally unconstitutional.

To get around court rulings, Responsive Ed and other creationists resort to rhetoric about teaching “all sides” of “competing theories” and claiming that this approach promotes “critical thinking.”

In response to a question about whether Responsive Ed teaches creationism, its vice president of academic affairs, Rosalinda Gonzalez, told me that the curriculum “teaches evolution, noting, but not exploring, the existence of competing theories.”

Bringing creationism into a classroom by undermining evolution and “noting … competing theories” is still unconstitutional. What’s more, contrary to Gonzalez’s statement, teaching about supernatural creation in the section on the origins of life is doing far more than noting competing theories.

In a previous Slate column on the Texas textbook wars, I explained that Texas’ current science standards were designed to compromise the teaching of evolution. The standards require teachers to “analyze, evaluate, and critique” evolution and teach “all sides” of evolution to encourage “critical thinking.” These requirements are a back-door way to enable teachers to attack evolution and inject creationism into the classroom. If teachers are questioned on their materials, they can shift the responsibility for what they’re teaching onto the state.

I asked Gonzalez if these science standards played a role in Responsive Ed’s curriculum on evolution, and her answer was yes.

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