Biology texts, state teaching policies criticized, defended

Science groups downgrade courses for uncorrected errors, confusion

The teaching of biology is getting poor grades this year amid criticism of confusing textbooks and lackluster state science standards.
Despite the complaints about materials, biology teachers are doing a fine job, said the president-elect of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

“Our teachers are just excellent, and they work with what they have,” said Ann Lumsden, professor of biology at Florida State University. “This is a hard time to be in education because of all the pressures.”

In June, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a grim report card on the nation’s high school and middle school biology texts, saying they lacked focus on a few main concepts.

Biologist Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, blamed the textbook marketplace because it “requires that they cover the entire range of facts about biology, thereby sacrificing . . . depth.”

Nationwide, 93 percent of high school student take biology, and 98 percent of teachers use a textbook, the AAAS said.

On Sept. 26, biology education will receive another salvo when the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a private D.C. group, gives low grades to how state science standards treat biological evolution, the foundation told The Washington Times.

The standards, adopted by lawmakers and educators in each state, list what must be learned and tested. They also determine what kinds of textbooks a state buys.

Fordham research director Marci Kanstoroom said “sins of omission,” or leaving out parts on evolution, has “affected all of the ‘historical sciences.’ ”

Lawrence Lerner, a veteran science educator, has compiled the review, “Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States.”

What the states set as standards influence how publishers design biology textbooks, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division.

“Conforming to the state criteria is the highest priority,” he said, “and not every state looks for the same thing.”

Textbooks tend to feature as much material as possible so they are useful in several states, he said. The publishers took seriously the AAAS call to simplify, he said, “but it’s not the only perspective.”

Another view is that textbooks must be visually stimulating to focus students. “People learn in different ways,” Mr. Driesler said, adding that textbook publishers also struggle to meet state needs as states face controversies on topics ranging from evolution to a new kind of math.

The place of evolution in state standards has stirred debates in several states in recent years. But another biology textbook review last week has claimed the books are “lying to students” about evolution by using obsolete photographs, captions and texts.

The report, issued by a science and culture program at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that promotes “the free market and individual liberty,” cites seven “icons of evolution” that stay in textbooks even after evolutionists questioned errors in them.

The report cites the popular photo of white and black peppered moths on tree trunks. The texts use the moths to show how “natural selection” eliminates the moth that hungry birds can see, while the camouflaged moth has more offspring and evolves.

“All the peppered-moth pictures were staged,” said biologist Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow at the institute. “Scientists have known since the 1980s that the moths do not normally rest on tree trunks.”

Other icons, the report said, are the look-alike embryos of back-boned creatures, “Darwin’s finches,” and a 1953 laboratory experiment to create primitive life in a round glass beaker.

“Scientists have known for over a century that the embryo drawings were faked,” Mr. Wells said. The report also said the finches did not influence Darwin’s thinking, and that the 1953 experiment made no progress since then.

The report gave 10 popular biology texts nearly all Ds and Fs for how they featured the seven “icons.”

Mr. Wells said, “Textbooks have failed to change with the times.”

Though the textbooks give false evidence for evolution, he said the review “is not trying to ban the teaching of evolution, we’re trying to improve it.”

Mrs. Lumsden, the Florida teacher, has heard the moth criticism but still finds it useful to teach natural selection. “That is not one of the proofs of evolution,” she said. “It’s an example teachers use for students.”

An occasional shakeup of textbooks, standards and “icons” can be helpful, she said. “Sometimes we need to get shocked into saying, ‘Oops, we better improve this.’ ”

But she said teachers generally are happy with the textbooks and with the state standards, especially when teachers write them.

“The standards are not just pulled out of the blue,” she said. “They come from the teachers.”