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Live Blog of the Texas State Board of Education Meeting, 2011 July 21

Public Testimony about Supplemental Science Instructional Materials
by Published on

Steve Schafersman is blogging on the SBOE hearing as a participant and activist. He is presenting testimony to the board as well as writing about his observations. His testimony is available here.

10:00 a.m. – Good morning. I am present at the William Travis Building in Austin waiting for the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting to start. Later this morning the State Board will hear public testimony about the impending adoption of new supplemental digital science instructional materials. These are the first science instructional materials submitted under the new 2009 controversial science curriculum standards that had several new TEKS inserted by the State Board over the objections of the scientists and science educators who wrote them. The standards were written and adopted by 8-7 majority votes by the radical religious right Republican SBOE members. Highly-qualified science curriculum experts and professional scientists and science teachers were asked to write new science standards and update old science standards during a series of meetings in 2008 and 2009. These were given to the SBOE and generally adopted, but sections in Biology and Earth and Space Science that included information about evolution, DNA, the fossil record, and the origin of life were modified by the ultra-right members.

I have discussed these issues in detail in articles on the website of Texas Citizens for Science and here at the Texas Observer. Articles are at both places now. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am the president of TCS and I also will testify on behalf of TCS during public testimony later today.

The SBOE meeting is being live-streamed here. You must have a RealPlayer client such as RealPlayer SP installed on your computer to watch the streaming videos. I often watch these live video streams at home when the State Board is meeting to avoid ten hours of driving to and from Austin to attend in person.

My friends at Texas Freedom Network (TFN), Ryan Valentine and Dan Quinn, are also live blogging this meeting at TFN Insider. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education is also here live tweeting at at @JoshRosenau and @NCSE (using hashtag #txtxt). TFN informs me they are also live tweeting at #SBOE. Abby Rapoport of the Texas Observer will also be tweeting about this meeting using #SBOE.

11:00 a.m. – Today is the first meeting chaired by Barbara Cargill who was just appointed to the chairmanship by Governor Rick Perry two weeks ago. When the special session of the Texas Legislature ended without Senate approval of Perry’s former appointment of Gail Lowe as chairman, Perry had to appoint someone new. He chose Cargill. Like Gail Lowe and Don McLeroy before her, Barbara Cargill is a Young Earth Creationist (she believes the Earth is 6-10,000 years old and Earth, life, and all species were specially created by a supernatural deity in six days) and radical religious right Republican. Cargill, McLeroy, and Cynthia Dunbar were most instrumental in damaging the science standards with motions to amend the specific topics of evolution, the fossil record, origin of life, and DNA. Barbara Cargill especially tried to damage the new Earth and Space Science standards with numerous anti-science amendments that would damage the integrity of the ESS standards. Several unfortunately passed. However, ESS materials were not requested for adoption so today only the Biology supplemental materials will be controversial. Physics, chemistry, and other non-controversial sciences will also be adopted tomorrow but I doubt many will address these sciences.

11:30 a.m. – The SBOE is still listening to testimony about technology TEKS that mostly concern computer courses. I am not going to write about this testimony.

The science TEKS will come up next. It is very likely that only supplemental instructional materials submitted under the high school Biology standards will be controversial and addressed by testifiers. Tomorrow, during formal adoption of these materials, the State Board members will discuss these topics with quite differing viewpoints. Mainstream publishers will be criticized by Creationists for not writing enough about the bogus “problems” evolution supposedly has with biological complexity and the fossil record. The politically-inserted standards that promote Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) will be the topics of debate from those presenting public testimony. The mainstream publishers certainly addressed the new standards, but not in the way that Creationists wished. They expected more content that would disparage the ability of evolution to account for complexity in DNA, cells, the origin of life, and indeed in all of biology. Complexity is one of the ideas that motivate ID Creationists such as those at the Discovery Institute. They sincerely believe that life is too complex for evolution to explain it, but this is nonsense. Mainstream modern biology does not share this belief. Many experiements and observations have revealed how evolution can produce complex biochemicals and organism relationships.

The other side, scientists and pro-science testifiers, will support the mainstream publishers and criticize the single IDC supplemental science submission from International Databases LLC (ID LLC, get it?). The author of the ID LLC materials is an experienced high school and college science teacher who lives in New Mexico. He is intersted in geology as well as biology. He is a person who also sincerely believes that evidence of IDC exists in nature, a concept contrary to mainstream science that sees no IDC in nature. His materials explicitly mention Intelligent Design, much to the annoyance of the Discovery Institute who want to hide the IDC undercurrent in materials they write and distribute to teachers and school officials for use in public schools. Unfortunately for ID LLC, his materials also contain many errors of fact and science. I discuss one such error in my written testimony.

11:50 a.m. – We just broke for lunch but I want to get one more item in. The SBOE Committee on Instruction met earlier this morning. This important five-member committee has long been dominated by radical religious right members because the Board’s leaders, Don McLeroy and Gail Lowe were able to appoint a majority to this panel, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down since she was just appointed the chair of the SBOE. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as new chair. Clayton and Farney, though Republicans, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction of the party. Cargill immediately nominated fellow radical religious right Republican Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate because Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings. The committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Mary Helen will be present. Terri Leo chaired the meeting after the vote, making me think for a moment that she was elected. But she chaired the meeting because she was vice-chair and Cargill did step down. Berlanga will likely vote for Farney at the September meeting and we will finally have a responsible and non-agenda Republican leading this important committee.

12:50 p.m. – The meeting resumes with an introduction by Associate Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction Anita Givens describing the new digital science instructional materials. Next, new Chair Barbara Cargill described the new rules of public testimony. She will only allow two minutes instead of the traditional three minutes. Also, she will allow only a maximum of four hours of testimony instead of continuing until everyone has finished.

1:15 p.m. – Public testimony begins. Most of the first speakers ask the Board to keep Creationism out of the science instructional materials. Both David Bradley and Ken Mercer claim the science standards do not mention “creationism.” Indeed they don’t, but the concept is still there as an implication in the politically-inserted standards.

Kathy Miller (TFN) and Jonathan Saenz (Liberty Institute) presented conflicting views about the process without getting into the details of the instructional materials (because neither is a scientist). Kathy asked that the process not be corrupted by either making changes to mainstream publishers’ materials in ways that compromise scientific accuracy. She also aske the SBOE to ignore the ID LLC submission (which was not recommended). Saenz also presented no details (you really can’t present details in two minutes!) but said that subsequent “scientists” would detail some of the problems with the biology materials. He of course was referring to the fact that the mainstream publishers did not produce content that disparages evolution or implies that there is a scientific alternative to evolution within modern science. The point is this: although the political radical religious right Board members inserted the unnecessary and really unscientific standards for the purpose of forcing publishers to include material that weakens evolution and implies an IDC alternative, the publishers did not do this. They produced scientifically accurate content which is now making some Board members angry.

I was the next speaker. My testimony is availble here. I asked the Board to adopt only the recommendations of the TEA and Commissioner and not adopt the ID LLC submissions (which was not recommended and would have to have a positive motion to adopt). I did acknowledge that a few mainstream materials still contained the erroneous Haeckle vertebrate embyo diagram. This engendered questions from both Terri Leo and Ken Mercer about my apparent agreement with their side. In fact, the flawed nature of this old diagram has been well known to scientists for decades and the diagrams have been gradually removed from biology textbooks over the years. Creationists, such as the Discovery Institute, adopted this critique and have made it their own by widely publicizing it. Just because Creationists object to Haeckel’s diagram doesn’t make it permissible. My specific page about the Haeckel diagrams is here. I learned just today that one of the submitters withdrew its Biology module and the other two have already agreed to make changes. I believe the members of the biology review panels that evaluated these submissions already detected the use of Haeckel’s vertebrate embryo diagrams and asked that these be changed. I also emphasized that the other objects to the mainstream materials contained in the DI Evaluation (see the previous link) were not valid and should be ignored. Ken Mercer pointedly insisted that the Haeckel diagram was fraudulent but I explicitly said it was erroneous, not fraudulent. Haeckel was ignorant of the true morphology of some vertebrate embryos and his flawed diagram has been handed down for generations from one biology textbook to the next as an illustration of the evidence for evolution. I emphasized in a response, at considerable length, that the evidence for vertebrate embryonic similarities is there but the specific diagram should not be used.

David Shormann, a Young Earth Creationist who produces pseudoscience materials for home schooled children whose parents are Religious Fundamentalists, spoke about science education but presented no details. I thought his testimony was rather mild compared to what I expected. I thought he would explicitly demand changes to the mainstream publishers’ materials and perhaps ask that the ID LLC modules be adopted, but he did not.

A long stream of speakers follows, almost all supporting the adoption of the TEA Commissioner’s recommendations. A few criticized the mainstream publishers for not addressing the claimed but actually bogus criticisms identified by the Discovery Institute. Although no representative of the DI is present, a few speakers took up its cause of damaging evolution content in the new digital instructional materials. The only publisher that the DI liked, ID LLC, was not recommended by the TEA for several reasons. ID LLC did not cover the TEKS adequately, did not make three mentions of each TEK, had many factual errors, and most notably explicitly advocated Intelligent Design Creationism.

4:30 – Public testimony about the proposed new supplemental science instructional materials has ended, and the State Board of Education is now starting debate about whether to adopt the materials recommended by the Texas education commissioner. In past adoptions, the state board has taken a preliminary vote at the end of this initial debate. The final, formal vote on which materials to put on the official adoption list is scheduled for the meeting tomorrow, Friday, and I will be present to live blog this (in case anything happens at the last minute–which it often does).

 

The SBOE decides to consider the proposed instructional materials by grade level, beginning with Grade 5. Under consideration are science materials for Grades 5-8 and materials for Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Integrated Physics and Chemistry at the high school level. The State Board is considering a motion that would require publishers to make corrections to errors identified by the Texas Education Agency’s instructional review teams in June. This motion would apply to all materials, for Grades 5-8 and high school. This type of correction is normal and is a good thing since the review panels usually have good people on them who know the subjects. It is a fact that new instructional materials always have errors that should be corrected. Problems only arise when the State Board members themselves decide to make the changes by majority vote, since the Board members generally have no knowledge or expertise in the subject (usually evolution).

4:47 – The Board begins voting on the approval of the commissioner’s recommendations by grade level, subject to publishers making required changes to errors. Chairman Barbara Cargill moves Biology to the end of the list because it is really the only subject that will generate controversy from some members of the Board. The Board quickly gives preliminary approval to the Commissioner’s list for Grades 5-8 subject to publishers correcting any errors review teams identified.

The errors that publishers must correct include grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. Sometimes these errors really add up. During the present adoption, School Education Group/McGraw-Hill was dinged for 2,288 errors. I spoke to the publisher rep who was present and he told me the errors were all for commas out of place! Of course these will all be routinely corrected. It’s not unusual for publishers to correct numerous such errors after initial submission for adoption. Problems arise only when some state board members start identifying errors that are really ideological, religious, or political objections to content. [More soon about Holt McDougal and this very concern.]

5:21 – Board members discuss concerns that they might be adopting instructional materials without knowing how publishers will make corrections to identified errors.

6:00 – Thomas Ratliff states that the Board shouldn’t make a decision about a publisher’s biology materials content from the review of one person without hearing from the publisher who would defend its content. The content in question deals with evolution and the critical review (from a biology review panel member who is obviously a Creationist) objects to several statements. The publisher did respond in print, also provided in the handout, but the Creationist Board members want the material removed because one person criticized it from a Creationist standpoint. Next, George Clayton questions whether we would hear from a publisher or a biologist of the publisher. A vote is taken to determine if we should hear from the publisher. The vote wins 7-6 but Cargill then votes no, and a tie vote means it does not pass. If Mary Helen Berlanga were present, this vote would have won.

Gail Lowe objects to drawings of Haeckel’s vertebrate embryos in the biology materials submitted by Adaptive Curriculum and Learning.com. She asks that the materials be approved subject to replacement of the Haeckel diagram with something else.

6:20 – The State Board votes to adopt Adaptive Curriculum and Learning.com biology materials subject to replacement of its Haeckel vertebrate embryo diagram with photos of vertebrate embryos. The publisher rep showed the State Board photos of very early embryos that looked identical and more developed embryos of a human and a fish. These will be posted here soon.