What America’s Middle School Students Are (And Aren’t) Learning About Evolution

  Rob Boston

Researchers affiliated with Americans United’s allies at the National Center for Science Education earlier this month published a paper examining the issue of how science teachers in public middle schools approach the issue of evolution. As the saying goes, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that of the teachers who discuss evolution in class, 81.8% emphasize that there’s a scientific consensus on the reality of evolution. Furthermore, those who teach evolution are devoting a substantial amount of classroom time to it – 14.6 class hours, which translates to about three weeks of instruction.

The bad news is that not all middle school science teachers are offering instruction on evolution. Of all the teachers surveyed, 52% teach evolution as settled science, 21% avoid the topic, 18% offer a mixed message (defined as “emphasizing the broad scientific consensus on evolution while also emphasizing the scientific credibility of creationism”) and 9.3% are actually favoring creationism. 

The paper’s authors, NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid, NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch and Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science and sociology at Penn State, write, “We find that, compared to high school biology teachers, middle school science teachers report themselves as less well-equipped to teach evolution, devoting less class time to evolution, and more likely to avoid taking a stand on the scientific standing of evolution and creationism.”

Reid, Branch and Plutzer go on to say that middle school science teachers in states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards “are more likely to report devoting more class time to evolution” and that teachers in the pro-standards states “who are newer to the profession are more likely to report themselves as presenting evolution as settled science.”

Those findings would indicate that the situation will improve in the future as this younger generation of teachers gets established. But these teachers will need support – from their administrators, from faculty at local colleges, from the large scientific community, from legislators and from parents who recognize the value of teaching sound science.

It’s not easy to teach evolution front and center in some parts of the country. While creationists haven’t been very successful in court, they have managed in some communities to create a culture of intimidation that results in evolution being taught half-heartedly if at all.

Supporting the teachers who are doing the right thing will ensure that when it comes to understanding evolution – a fundamental, unifying principle of biology – no child is left behind.



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