Covert Classroom Creationists: Survey Of Pa. Science Teachers Shows Disappointing Results

In some public school districts, evolution is taught in such a watered-down manner that it might as well not be offered at all.

I graduated from Altoona Area High School in western Pennsylvania in 1980. I recall taking biology in the 10th grade. The teacher didn’t hesitate when it came to evolution.

“All biologists know that it’s a fact,” he said.

The following year I took chemistry. My teacher had a reputation for being tough but fair (although I seem to recall mostly the “tough” part). Again, evolution was taught as a fact.

Sadly, things have changed in my hometown. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday reported on a survey of public school science teachers it conducted earlier this year. The newspaper asked the teachers if they believe in evolution, creationism, intelligent design or if they’re not sure or believe something else. It received 106 responses.

Ninety percent chose evolution, which sounds good. But 19 percent indicated that they believe in creationism, and 13 percent backed “intelligent design.” Five percent marked “not sure/other.” (The Post-Gazette allowed the teachers to pick more than one response, so the totals don’t add up to 100 percent.)

What’s more disturbing are the individual responses the newspaper received. Joe Sohmer, a chemistry teacher at my old high school, said he believes Earth is 10,000 years old and that the methods used to date it at 5 billion years are faulty. Worse yet, Sohmer appears to be spreading his fundamentalist Christian faith in class.

“Sometimes students honestly look me in the eye and ask what do I think?” wrote Sohmer. “I tell them that I personally hold the Bible as the source of truth. I tell them that I don’t think [radiocarbon dating] is as valid as the textbook says it is, noting other scientific problems with the dating method.

“Kids ask all kinds of personal questions and that’s one I don't shy away from,” Sohmer continued. “It doesn’t in any way disrupt the educational process. I’m entitled to my beliefs as much as the evolutionist is.”

Or consider this response from an anonymous teacher in Indiana County, Pa., about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh: “Most parents and officials do not want evolution ‘crammed’ into their children. They have serious philosophical/religious issues with public schools dictating to their students how to interpret the origin of life.”

The teacher went on to say that he teaches creationism for one class period and devotes five to evolution – although it’s clear from his response that he doesn’t do a good job teaching evolution.

He wrote, “I have been questioned in the past about how I teach evolution principles, and [school officials] are satisfied with my approach. My approach is to teach the textbook content of Darwinian evolution but modified to explain that data can be interpreted differently dependent upon one’s world view.”

This sad story illustrates a serious challenge to defenders of church-state separation and good science education: We can go to court and win when creationism is overtly taught – as we did in Dover, Pa., where the school board voted to introduce “intelligent design” into the curriculum – but protecting students from bad teaching and subtle fundamentalist proselytizers is a much more difficult task.

Indeed, this has been the creationists’ secret victory. It’s true that their efforts to have creationism taught alongside evolution have not fared well, but they have intimidated, misled or duped so  many teachers, administrators, parents and school board members that in some districts, evolution is taught in such a watered-down manner that it might as well not be offered at all.

This does a great disservice to students who later go to college and struggle in freshman biology classes. Post-Gazette reporter David Templeton quoted David Lampe, a Duquesne University biology professor who said he routinely asks first-year biology students to respond to a questionnaire about their previous exposure to evolution.

Lampe said that a quarter to a third of freshmen say they’ve had no instruction in it at all. Another third report getting two class days or fewer on the subject. A third received three or more days of instruction about evolution.

Ironically, the newspaper in Altoona a few days ago ran a story about planetariums in area high schools. A number of them were built in the 1960s and ‘70s, during a time when national leaders feared that American students were falling behind the Soviets in science and math. I remember the one at Altoona High well.

The newspaper quoted Rick Imler, a science teacher in the nearby town of Hollidaysburg, who lamented the fact that we are falling behind again. Imler bemoaned the “erosion of our science, technology, engineering and math standing relative to countries such as China and India.” He called for an educational initiative “to refocus national goals that will allow our country to remain competitive in an increasingly science/technology-fueled global economy.”

The Post-Gazette made the same point in an editorial, asserting, “The ones who suffer from this breach in the wall of separation between church and state are the nation’s children. The urgent effort to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education are undone every time a teacher banishes scientific facts from a classroom.”

If enough Pennsylvania science teachers agree, their task is clear: Expel fundamentalist Christianity masquerading as science from the state’s public schools.