Jun 19, 2020

By Rebecca Rifkind-Brown

The teaching of evolution in public school biology classes has, unfortunately, been a long-standing controversy in the United States, as religious fundamentalists who believe in creationism seek to water down instruction about Charles Darwin’s scientific discoveries.

But here’s some good news: Recently, a new survey was released, conducted by Eric Plutzer at Penn State and commissioned by Americans United’s allies at the National Center for Science Education, which shows the improvements public schools have made in the last decade to improve education in this area.

The survey, conducted in 2019, updated data from a similar 2007 survey (also completed by Plutzer), which found that “only one about one in three public high school biology teachers presented evolution consistently with the recommendations of the nation’s leading scientific authorities.” The 2007 data also showed that “13% of teachers emphasized to their students that creationism was a valid scientific alternative to modern evolutionary biology.” These conclusions were extremely troubling as we seek to make sure that public schools value and emphasize scientific discovery, while also separating religious beliefs from those of scientific principles.  

Plutzer’s new report, however, shows steady improvements in the teaching of evolution over the last decade. The 2019 survey found “substantial reductions in overtly creationist instruction and in the number of teachers who send mixed messages that legitimate creationism as a valid scientific alternative to evolutionary biology.”

This is good news for anyone who supports the separation of church and state, as it is imperative that teachers at public schools funded with taxpayer dollars don’t spend time imposing their religious beliefs on students. It is also critical that students are receiving a well-rounded education in science, covering the most important discoveries, including evolution.

The 2019 survey analyzed data from 752 public high school biology teachers. It found that over the last decade, teachers are overall spending more time teaching evolution. In 2007, the average amount of time spent on evolution was 9.8 hours, and in 2019 it was 12.4 hours. This is an impressive increase of 25 percent. In addition, in 2007, 51 percent of high school biology teachers “emphasized the consensus on evolution while giving no credence to creationism.” By 2019, these numbers rose to 67 percent.

Plutzer concluded that the increase in the teaching of evolution can in part be attributed to the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize evolution as a critical concept in life sciences, as well as pre-service teacher education and in-service teacher professional development.

Although some public schools still have more work to do to ensure that all biology teachers are teaching evolution and separating scientific ideas from those of religion, the 2019 survey provides evidence that our schools are moving in the right direction to implement these necessary improvements.