Defending Science Education in Your Community

An Online Toolkit for Students and Parents Whose Public School Science Curriculum is Under Attack

Table of Contents

Is there an effort in your state, locality or neighborhood school to introduce creationism or sideline evolution in the science classroom? If so, this toolkit was made for you.

Unlike private schools, public schools are intended to provide an education to every child, regardless of religion or creed. You have a right to expect that religious activists will not be able to use public school curricula to promote the beliefs of particular religious traditions in ways that are unconstitutional and that undermine scientific education.

Activists are increasingly targeting science education with attempts to ban the teaching of the theory of evolution, or undermine that curricula by advancing religion in its place — either explicitly or cloaked in the language of science.

If these are problems you are familiar with where you live, check out the following resources:

How to Respond to Religiously-Based Curricula

Challenges to science education can take many forms and can take aim at almost any level of the education system, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to protecting quality science education where you live.

Whatever the circumstances, here are some simple steps you can take to address challenges to evolution and science education if they arise in your community:

  1. Identify the source.
    The source of the attack on science could be parents, teachers, administrators, the state or local school board, or a single elected official. Right-wing activists might be acting through or in cooperation with Religious Right organizations. Find out who is instigating the challenge to help focus your next steps.
  1. Find allies.
    Many parents, community members, school administrators and science teachers are also concerned about quality science education. Working with others will help you to speak out more powerfully. Don't overlook local religious leaders — many mainstream religious leaders will be your allies, and they can effectively make the point that the anti-science advocates don't have a monopoly on faith.
  1. Make your case.
    Speak to the person, or people, in positions of authority in the situation. If a teacher is advocating instruction in "bad" science, you may need to arrange a meeting with the principal. If a principal is allowing a teacher to get bullied by anti-science parents, you may need to speak out at a school board meeting. Don’t be afraid to go speak to more than one person.

    Remember to prepare in advance what you're going to say. Be polite but firm: science class should teach science, not religious belief.

    If the attack is coming from a public official, such as the governor or superintendent of schools you may need to speak out publicly with letters to the editor or op-eds submitted to your local newspaper. You and your allies may need to organize your own community group and consider sponsoring a public forum with speakers who can help your neighbors understand the issues and how to address them.

  1. Contact PFAWF.
    People For the American Way Foundation may be able to help you argue your case or put you in touch with other useful resources. We also want your help in tracking anti-evolution activists who are attacking science education across the country.

Students: Points to Raise with Parents and School Personnel

Use these talking points to help make your case in favor of quality science education. They can assist you in talking to your teachers, speaking out at a school board meeting, or writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

    Quality Science Education Includes Evolution
  • Evolution is overwhelmingly accepted by scientific and educational leaders nationwide, and attacks on evolution have been considered and rejected. Science classrooms should teach the very best science available.
  • Evolution is the cornerstone of biology. You deserve a quality science education, and you cannot get one without learning about evolution.
    Students Need Science
  • You will be expected to have enough scientific understanding to compete in the 21st century world. If your school refuses to give you a good science education, including the study of evolution, you'll be getting prepared for the 18th century instead.
  • Students without an understanding of evolution are unprepared for college. They tend to fall behind and lack a firm grasp of the basics of scientific thought and discovery. Your school district should give you the best science education to prepare you for college and beyond.
  • You deserve an honest science education. Every student has a right to his or her own religious beliefs, but your science teachers should be teaching science, not religion.
    Creationism Isn’t Science
  • Science is a way of acquiring knowledge about the natural world through rigorous testing and observable data. Other explanations for life, like Intelligent Design, are based on super-natural, unobservable and unprovable phenomena and are not science. Non-scientific theories do not belong in a science classroom. Remember: if you can't see it or prove it, it's not science.
  • Intelligent Design is not science; it is religion. Everyone's right to religion must be respected, and that means that no particular religion should be given special preference in public school.
  • "Teaching the debate" is just another way to attack science. There is no scientific debate about evolution, just political spin. "Teaching the debate" about evolution would be like "teaching the debate" about gravity — there isn't one. Pretending otherwise for political or religious reasons doesn't change the reality, it only undermines the quality of science that students are taught.
  • The campaign against evolution is not a scientific movement or an educational movement. It is a political campaign being waged by people who think their religious beliefs should be taught as science in our public school classrooms. It's not good science and it's not good education.

Parents: Points to Raise with Other Parents, School Personnel and Elected Officials

Use these talking points to help make your case in favor of quality science education. They can assist you in talking to a teacher, speaking out at a school board meeting, or writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

    Quality Science Education Includes Evolution
  • Evolution is the cornerstone of biology. Students deserve a quality science education, and they can not get one without learning about evolution.
  • Evolution has been overwhelmingly accepted by scientific and educational leaders nationwide, and attacks on evolution have been considered and rejected. Science classrooms should be in-step with the very best science available.
    Students Need Science
  • Students will be expected to have enough scientific understanding to compete in the 21st century world. If your local school refuses to give its students a good science education, including the study of evolution, they'll be getting prepared for the 18th century instead.
  • Students without an understanding of evolution are unprepared for college. They tend to fall behind and lack a firm grasp of the basics of scientific thought and discovery. Our children deserve the best science education, and they need it to live as adults in the 21st century.
    Creationism Isn't Science
  • Science is a way of acquiring knowledge about the natural world through rigorous testing and observable data. Other explanations, like Intelligent Design, are based on super-natural, unobservable and uprovable phenomena and are not science. Non-scientific theories do not belong in a science classroom.
  • "Teach the debate" is just another way to attack science. There is no real scientific debate about evolution: it's just political spin. "Teaching the debate" about evolution would be the same as "teaching the debate about gravity" — there isn't one. Pretending otherwise for political or religious reasons doesn't change the reality, it only undermines the quality of science our students are taught.
  • Intelligent Design is not science; it is religious belief. As such, it cannot and should not be taught in a science classroom. There are, of course, suitable courses (such as World Religions) where students can learn about the beliefs of different faith groups, including those groups' beliefs about the origin of the universe and development of humans. Everyone's right to religion must be respected, and that means that no particular religion should be given special preference in public school.
  • The campaign against evolution is not a scientific movement or an educational movement. It is a political campaign being waged by people who think their religious beliefs should be taught as science in our public school classrooms. It's not good science, good education, or good policy.

Evolution FAQs

What is evolution?

Evolution, as propounded by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species in 1859, is the theory that living things have descended, with changes, from common ancestors. The most important mechanism of evolution is natural selection, which observes that organisms that are well adapted to their environments thrive and reproduce, while organisms that are poorly adapted die off. Change thus occurs in populations through time. Every living species — palm trees, eagles, and even humans — has evolved over billions of years, from single-celled organisms.

Evolution is just a theory, right?

Yes, but scientists use the word "theory" differently than most other people do. When we say "I have a theory about why Susan is angry," we mean that we have a hunch or an educated guess. For a scientist, a theory is much more than that. A scientific theory is an explanation that is supported by many experiments and observations. Scientifically, gravity is also a theory. The theory of evolution is an explanation of the natural world that is supported by decades of scientific investigation.

What is Creationism?

Creationism is the religious belief that all life was created by God out of nothing. There are many kinds of creationism, but all include the idea that God created things in their present form: living things did not descend with modification from common ancestors. Creationists reject the theory of evolution. One common form of creationism is Biblical Creationism, whose believers accept a literal interpretation of the story of creation presented in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Another kind is Intelligent Design creationism.

What is Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design Creationism is less detailed than Biblical Creationism. Its proponents contend that living things are so complex, they could not possibly be the result of evolution. Instead of admitting their belief that God created all organisms, however, Intelligent Design advocates claim that they are promoting "scientific" evidence that an unidentified "intelligent designer" did so. In fact, federal courts and the overwhelming consensus among scientists agree that both Biblical Creationism and Intelligent Design are religion, not science: they cannot be tested using scientific observation and reasoning, and have no place in a high school science class.

What's the matter with teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design in Biology class?

There are two reasons we shouldn't teach Intelligent Design or creationism in science classes.

The first is that students deserve a quality science education. The claims of creationism and Intelligent Design are factually wrong; to teach them means teaching pseudoscience in the biology classroom. And teaching that supernatural explanations for natural phenomena are part of science miseducates students. It undermines their education.

The second, equally important, reason is the need to respect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state that is one of our nation's bedrock principles. The Constitution does not permit public schools to endorse religion generally or one faith over another. Undermining science education by teaching one particular religious view of the world would be inappropriate and run counter to our most basic American values. This does not mean, however, that students cannot be taught about religious views of creation. They can study about these beliefs in appropriate courses, such as World Religions.

Why not just teach the controversy?

That sounds like a good idea, but in reality it's another way for creationists to undermine science. The slogan, "teach the controversy" means "scientists are debating whether evolution took place," which is not true. Scientists debate details of evolution, but "teach the controversy" isn't about students evaluating legitimate contrasting views. It's about attacking science and miseducating our children.

Is Intelligent Design the only threat to science education?

No! Creationists are attacking evolution in the classroom through a variety of means. One of the most recent and widespread strategies is to claim that there is legitimate scientific evidence "questioning evolution." There isn't. Students should know that evolution has been overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community.

The important thing is to remember that there’s no replacement for comprehensive, honest science education. Every student deserves it. And in the increasingly competitive global economy, America needs students to have a solid grounding in science.

What can I do to help protect quality science education?

Make sure your local school district teaches evolution in an honest, scientific way. If not, remind administrators that they have a responsibility to teach quality science. Learn about your local and state school boards’ position on science education, and let us know if evolution is threatened in your town.

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