National Academy Guides Teachers on Evolution
Betting that a teacher's best offense is a good defense, the National Academy of Sciences broke with tradition and offered its expertise directly to teachers with last week's publication of a guide on the hot-button issue of biological evolution.
"This is a new experiment for the academy and a very important one," Bruce Alberts, the president of the NAS, said at a press briefing here to unveil the manual.
The book is not designed to provide teachers with an information arsenal that they can use to counter challenges to instruction in evolutionary theory brought by some religious conservatives, academy officials said. Instead, they emphasized, it is a way to shore up teachers' understanding not only of the theory of evolution but also of science as a way of knowing about the world.
"It's about teaching biology effectively, not how to argue with creationists effectively," Rodger Bybee, the executive director of the National Research Council's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, an affiliate of the academy, said in an interview last week.
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But the release of the book by the highly respected academy is a testament to the high-profile nature of the long-running classroom battles between evolutionists and believers in the literal truth of the Biblical account of creation over how to teach the origins of life on Earth. The academy is a private, nonpartisan group of scientists that advises the federal government on scientific and technical matters.
About 16 months and $300,000 in the making, the colorful, 140-page guide is a one-stop-shopping primer on evolution and the nature of science. The academy's last major document on K-12 science education was its voluntary national standards for the subject that came out in early 1996.
The new book is meant to mesh with and bolster the standards, in which evolution is a significant theme, and to offer teachers practical tips for how to bring them to life in the classroom.
Inadequate Coverage Seen
A panel of 13 scientists and science educators wrote the guide. Donald Kennedy, a former president of Stanford University and now a professor of environmental studies there, chaired the group. Mr. Alberts was also a member.
The need to produce such a book, academy officials said, stems from the often poor coverage of the topic. The book "reflects our failure to teach evolution adequately in our schools," Mr. Alberts said. The guide notes, "Many students receive little or no exposure to the most important concept in modern biology, a concept essential to understanding key aspects of living things."
Not only is that a consequence of some of the state and local political clashes on the topic, but, Mr. Bybee said, it is also an indictment of the science education that teachers get before they enter the classroom.
Opponents of the teaching of evolution in the public schools have waged assaults on many fronts. They have succeeded in getting state legislation and policies aimed at discouraging discussion of evolution, persuading textbook publishers to self-censor on the topic, and pressuring teachers and administrators "to present ideas that conflict with evolution or to teach evolution as a 'theory, not fact,'" the guide says.
For example, the Alabama state school board in 1995 approved an insert for high school biology texts that says evolution is a controversial theory and that "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."
In addition to presenting evolution's major themes and the latest research on the topic, the book addresses the national science standards and runs through a series of questions about evolution and the nature of science.
The guide should prove useful to teachers, said Jo Anne Vasquez, a science specialist with the Mesa, Ariz., public schools and the immediate past president of the National Science Teachers Association. Written by a respected agency, the book compiles information that to date has not been available in one volume, she said.