Evolution on the Bayou

By Sean Cavanagh — January 13, 2009 2 min read
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In what will probably not come as a surprise to anybody, a potential fracas over evolution is surfacing again in Louisiana.

I write that this wasn’t unexpected, because the topic was all but certain to re-emerge with the passage of legislation signed into law last summer by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The first-term Republican governor, with little fanfare, gave his approval to Senate Bill 733, which allows teachers to use supplemental classroom materials that will help students “analyze, critique, and review” scientific theories, including evolution. (It also says the “origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” could be the subject of that scrutiny.)

Supporters of similarly worded measures in other states have said that they are necessary to allow students to examine and discuss evolution’s supposed weaknesses. Critics call them backdoor efforts to single out evolution for special criticism, and weaken teaching of the foundational scientific theory.

Science teachers, according to the language of the law, are still required to use state-approved science textbooks, but can supplement them with other materials. The law says that teachers can use materials “as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board,” but it also says that Louisiana’s Elementary and Secondary Board of Education must create rules and regulations for the law. Determining what materials are allowed would presumably be the key to whether the law provokes controversy—or lawsuits—in classrooms.

Now the state board has released a draft of its guidelines for local school officials, with language that could stir things up. The document is scheduled to be discussed today (Tuesday) according to this story in the Associated Press.

On the one hand, the guidelines expressly state that “materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited in science classes.”

But the AP story also quotes Barbara Forrest, a Louisiana academic scholar who has studied the teaching of evolution. She voices skepticism about a few sentences in particular. The document says that “evaluations of supplementary materials shall be made without regard to the religious or nonreligious beliefs and affiliations of the authors of supplementary materials.”

But making those judgments is valid, Forrest argues. It’s important to know whether classroom resources originated from a credible scientific source, or someone promoting a religious agenda.

What’s occurring in Louisiana is a reminder that battles over evolution are sometimes not focused on state standards, per se, but rather supplementary curricular materials aimed at helping classroom teachers. I looked at some of these issues a few years ago.

You can read the latest version of the Louisiana guidelines here, under the “Student/School Performance and Support Committee meeting packet. The action on evolution begins on page 85.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.