Will Restrictions on Teaching ‘Controversial’ Issues Target Science Classes?

By Sarah Schwartz — February 15, 2023 5 min read
Antique copy of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, first published in 1859 it is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology
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In their efforts to regulate how teachers can discuss issues of politics and identity in the classroom, Republican state legislators have so far focused mainly on social studies and history instruction. Now, a few lawmakers are eyeing science.

In Texas, a bill that would mandate teaching a “positive” version of U.S. history and ban works that “condone civil disorder” also includes language long used by advocates on the religious right to prevent the teaching of evolution as scientific fact.

In Oklahoma, a lawmaker who introduced a bill requiring that teachers be allowed to support students in critiquing “existing scientific theories” told local news outlets that this and other proposals would ensure students “learn factual information rather than modern wokeness.”

Neither legislator responded to requests for comment.

Bills that use this kind of language—mandating schools to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories—aren’t new, said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a group that advocates for teaching evolution and climate science and tracks related legislation.

They’re part of a decades-long push by conservative activists to require that schools downplay or qualify the scientific consensus on evolution. These bills pop up in a handful of state legislatures most years, he said, and they generally fail to pass.

But now, some legislators are linking these science instructional mandates to the ongoing movement to restrict how teachers discuss race and gender in schools.

There’s a common thread in all of these proposals, said Erika Shugart, the executive director of the National Science Teaching Association.

“Issues that were just not controversial for a long time have suddenly become controversial,” she said. “And it’s not coming from the educators or the teachers, it’s coming from politicians.”

Tracing the links between anti-evolution laws and the current moment

Over the past two years, schools have fielded an onslaught of challenges about how teachers discuss race and gender in the classroom.

Republican politicians and conservative activists claim that teachers focus too much on the negative aspects of America’s past and present, and are teaching white students to feel guilty and ashamed. They’ve pushed to remove books with LGBTQ storylines and ban discussions of gender and sexuality.

Since January 2021, lawmakers in 44 states have introduced bills or other policies that would restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans.

Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack

The map below shows which states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
It will be updated as new information becomes available.

Click here for more information on the measures and variations from state to state.

The movement, for the most part, has been focused on the novels students read and the history they learn—not science instruction. But this moment bears some similarities to the cultural firestorm over evolution that swept schools in the 1920s, said Adam Laats, a history professor in the department of teaching, learning, and educational leadership at Binghamton University in New York.

Both, he said, are a backlash to anxieties about societal change.

In the 1920s, several states adopted laws banning the teaching of evolution, with lawmakers and other political leaders citing fears that it would subvert religious teaching and corrupt the morals of American children.

The most famous of these was Tennessee’s Butler Act, which was challenged in 1925 in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—more commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. But it wasn’t until 1968 that the Supreme Court declared anti-evolution laws unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Since then, the language in proposed legislation on this issue has changed. Instead of explicitly banning the teaching of evolution, or promoting the teaching of creationism, bills require that teachers have academic freedom to critique scientific consensus or teach strengths and weaknesses of established scientific theories.

Other bills have proposed that teachers only be allowed to present scientific facts, and not scientific theories—an attempt to prohibit the teaching of evolution or climate change, Branch said. (One such bill introduced this session in Montana was recently tabled.)

The phrasing implies that a scientific theory is a “mere guess or hunch,” he said. But a “theory” in science is different from the common usage of the word—it refers to an accepted scientific principle based on decades of empirical research.

This elliptical language is designed to avoid running afoul of prior Supreme Court rulings, Branch said.

“Laws and policies like this have uniformly been declared to be unconstitutional, because there’s always been a detectable religious motive,” he said. “If you want to get a bill like that over, it’s not in your interest to admit that’s the motivation.”

Anti-evolution bills don’t tend to pass—but could still have a chilling effect

In 2012, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law that would allow teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” A 2006 Mississippi law gives teachers the right to discuss and answer student questions on “origin of life.” And in 2008, Louisiana mandated that schools foster “critical thinking skills” and “open and objective discussion” of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Still, the vast majority of these kinds of bills don’t make it into law, said Laats. “They don’t tend to work, or pass, or do much,” he said.

And while it’s possible that some of these new science-related bills may pass, Branch said, he thinks it’s unlikely that there will be an explosion in legislation on the topic to parallel how Republicans have targeted certain novels and social studies topics.

Nevertheless, local challenges to science materials rooted in so-called curriculum transparency laws have occurred. And the current political climate has made science educators more wary, said Shugart of the National Science Teaching Association.

Along with three other national teaching associations, the NSTA signed a 2022 statement against attempts by legislators and local school boards to restrict what materials teachers can use and what they can say in the classroom. The statement specifically references “the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change” as a present threat.

“When state legislators are … making people fear for their jobs if they ‘teach the wrong thing,’ that only chills the environment more for educators,” Shugart said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Will Restrictions on Teaching ‘Controversial’ Issues Target Science Classes?


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