The head of the Texas agency responsible for deciding whether to approve a Bible-based master’s degree in science education says the review, though favorable so far, has miles to go.
Interim approval for the degree is being sought by the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school, which has been offering science and science education degrees online under California law. But the nonprofit group is moving to Dallas, where new rules apply.
Raymund A. Paredes, the commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that the review of the institute’s request has thus far focused on whether the ICR graduate school is a credible institution of higher education with adequate resources.
Now, he said, the focus shifts to the merits of the science education program itself.
“Our primary objective in looking at this program is to make sure any master’s degree in science education will prepare teachers who can get students in high school ready to do college-level work in science,” Mr. Paredes said.
Alarm was raised among scientists and science educators when the higher education board’s advisory panel in November recommended approval of the master’s-degree program. The advisory panel’s recommendation was based on the report of a three-person site-visit team, one member of which works in the field of science education.
The team found that “the proposed master’s degree, while carrying an embedded component of creationist perspectives/views, is nevertheless a plausible program … comparable to an initial master’s degree in science education from one of the smaller, regional universities in the state.”
Courts nationwide have consistently rejected attempts to include creationism in school science lessons. Creationism is the belief that God created the universe as outlined in the Bible. The vast majority of leading scientists and major groups of science teachers say that creationism and intelligent design, which posits an unspecified creator behind living things, are not part of science and have no place in the science classroom.
Joshua Guthrie Rosenau, a spokesman for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, said that presenting a creationist perspective on a par with the evolutionary framework of mainstream science is, in effect, “presenting nonscience.”
“What teachers should be teaching in high schools should be the consensus reached by the scientific process of testing ideas,” he said. Teaching creationism in the context of biology would be akin, he said, to teaching astrology as part of astronomy.
Teachers, administrators, parents, and others who find themselves “embroiled in debates about evolution” are being offered a new guide aimed at bringing scientific clarity to those discussions.
“Science, Evolution, and Creationism” was set for release Jan. 4 in Washington by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. The guide presents the basics of the theory of evolution and provides examples of established and new scientific evidence for it.
The 70-page booklet is the third edition of an NAS publication designed to inform the public about evolution and what distinguishes it from religion-based views such as creationism.
The guide illustrates how evolution influences life today in such varied forms as humans’ attempts to control infectious diseases and to develop agricultural products such as wheat.
The authors also respond to recent arguments put forward by supporters of creationism and intelligent design in court cases and elsewhere in the public sphere. One section is titled: “What’s Wrong With Teaching Critical Thinking or ‘Controversies’ With Regard to Evolution?”
Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, a membership group of 55,000 in Arlington, Va., said the objectives of the ICR program in science education clearly are antithetical to “good science.” Mr. Wheeler pointed, for example, to a program objective that calls for students, in part, to “implement a variety of methods to convey successfully scientific knowledge as it relates to a purpose and a destiny.” Purpose and destiny are not scientific topics, Mr. Wheeler said.
“The [Texas] coordinating board should refuse this request,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s totally outrageous.”
While indicating that the decision on the ICR program should be made on its own merits, Mr. Wheeler and others are concerned that Texas may be going the way of other states in allowing science teaching to include creationism or intelligent design.
The Texas board of education is scheduled to revise its science standards this year, and some religious conservatives are pressing for teachers to be able to point to what those opponents see as flaws in the evolutionary framework.
In what some scholars took as an ominous sign, the science director of the Texas Education Agency resigned late last year under what she said was pressure to be private about her criticisms of intelligent design. She had forwarded an e-mail announcing a talk by an opponent of creationism in public schools.
Henry M. Morris III, the chief executive officer of the Institute for Creation Research, said he believes his school has gotten embroiled in Texas’ war over the science curriculum. “We’re all about education, not legislation,” he said.
Phase II of Review
According to Mr. Morris, the ICR’s graduate school has been operating at least since the early 1980s and had been accredited in California by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a group that Mr. Morris’ father, also Henry M. Morris, helped found.
Texas, however, requires accreditation mainly from the standard regional accrediting bodies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities. State law further requires that up until such endorsement can be obtained, private institutions in Texas must get approval from the higher education board to offer programs and grant degrees.
Mr. Morris said that most of the graduates of the master’s program in science education, which now has about 50 students, teach in Christian schools. Few teach in public schools.
“We teach the same science as in any university,” Mr. Morris said about the program. “You get the same education as with the other side, but with value added, if you want to put it like that.”
Mr. Paredes of the higher education board said that in the second phase of his review, he would call in “top scientists from around the state,” including those from religiously affiliated universities, such as Texas Christian University, to help assess “the quality and rigor” of the ICR program.
The board is scheduled to meet to vote on his recommendation Jan. 24, but Mr. Paredes said that the recommendation might not be ready by that date.
“We’re more interested in doing this right than doing it quickly,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Bible-Based Science Ed. Degree Awaits Texas Board Action