Teacher Certification: How to Keep Evolution in the High School Classroom

Make teachers take an evolutionary biology course in college. So say the authors of a recent PLoS Biology paper (italics mine):

The majority of teachers, however, see evolution as central and essential to high school biology courses. Yet the amount of time devoted to evolutionary biology varies substantially from teacher to teacher, and a majority either avoid human evolution altogether or devote only one or two class periods to the topic. We showed that some of these differences were due to personal beliefs about human origins. However, an equally important factor is the science education the teacher received while in college. Additional variance is likely to be rooted in pressures–subtle or otherwise–emerging from parents and community leaders in each school’s community, in combination with teachers’ confidence in their ability to deal with such pressures given their knowledge of evolution, as well as their personal beliefs.
These findings strongly suggest that victory in the courts is not enough for the scientific community to ensure that evolution is included in high school science courses. Nor is success in persuading states to adopt rigorous content standards consistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations. Scientists concerned about the quality of evolution instruction might have a bigger impact in the classroom by focusing on the certification standards for high school biology teachers. Our study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses. In the long run, the impact of such a change could have a more far reaching effect than the victories in courts and in state governments.

One of the difficult things about causing any form of political change, particularly when it is an issue where failure does not have dramatic and widespread effects, is that it’s often the details that matter. Teacher certification is one of those things (and handwashing in public health is another).

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12 Responses to Teacher Certification: How to Keep Evolution in the High School Classroom

  1. Mike says:

    The Biology Department at our university recently decided to make the evolution course a requirement for all biology majors, rather than an elective. All good, I think, except that they decided to eliminate an organic chemistry requirement rather than reduce the number of electives or make another requirement elective. (I’m a chemist, so naturally I think organic chemistry shouldn’t be dropped….)

  2. Robert Ward says:

    Yeah, the small college I attend has both organic chem and evolution as requirements for the major, which I am more than okay with, being a bio major myself. Meaning all the education majors who want to become HS biology teachers have to take it.
    Oh how depressing that a person can actually teach biology and, in the eyes of some states, be qualified to do so yet still either not teach it at all or full on say it’s nothing more than a myth.

  3. Joe Shelby says:

    Heh – at my school, Organic Chem was the big one, the make or break class that weeded out the true biology & pre-med majors from the future English majors.
    While every bio major would love to not take it, it seems to me to serve a useful purpose, much as say, advanced data structures or raw assembly programming does for a CS major, or modern physics for a physics major. if you can’t get your head around a graph (see Mark CC’s posts on graph theory for what I’m talking about) at the basics level, you may be a programmer, even a decent one, but no computer scientist. if you can’t get your head around frames of reference and relativity and differential equations, forget physics (which I did and promptly aced my way through CS).
    similarly, a biology major really can never be a biologist, and shouldn’t be a doctor, if they can’t prove they’ve got their head around all the miracles (sic) and more importantly the side effects of the Carbon atom when it meets its friends.
    Organic chemistry seems to me to be one of the more unintuitive aspects of biology/chemistry, but every field of science has that one thing that crosses the easy->makes no sense line. evolution seems, to me, on the easy side. the only reason its hard for college students is that we’ve had an K-12 educational system too damn scared to actually teach it.
    I’m actually increasingly concerned when programs start eliminating those make-it-or-break-it classes, ’cause it seems to me that it’s more protecting their numbers (and justifying their existence) rather than providing the best education and being able to say “our students know what they’re supposed to know”. it’s almost an alternative to grade inflation, another adaptation to the fact that we have some damn lazy students out there these days.

  4. khefera says:

    @joe shelby
    some of us english majors did just fine in bio, thank you very much.

  5. Mike M. says:

    I’m just now finishing up nearly five weeks of evolution in the high school honors biology course I teach. In actuality, I teach evolutionary concepts all year as they relate to the other topics covered. My experience has been that by the time we get to evolutionary theory, my students already know what to expect as I have been preping them all year. Additionally, I teach a honors chemistry course, into which I add a considerable amount of organic chemistry beyond the few tidbits in the textbook. I primarily use it as exercises in nomenclature and structures, particularily isomers. I strongly agree that both of these topics are extremely important, not just in the topic, but also into how science is performed and what science is.
    From my interactions with other science teachers, I think it would be beneficial to students to have science teachers with science degrees. For instance, I had one student in my college biology course that could not identify the parts of an atom even after taking the course twice. The next year I learned that he had been hired to teach middle school biology and physical science. To this day, I don’t understand how someone who cannot learn the basics of atomic structure can be hired as a science teacher.

  6. Joe Shelby says:

    In actuality, I teach evolutionary concepts all year as they relate to the other topics covered. My experience has been that by the time we get to evolutionary theory, my students already know what to expect as I have been preping them all year.
    As it should be, in my opinion. “nothing makes sense…”
    khefera: I did fine in high school bio, even in a rushed summer school form with next to no time on evolution at all. i simply saw no reason to doubt it before, particularly when I saw the archeopterix fossil for the first time. i might have had some intro to it in 7th grade bio, but i have little recollection of much of anything from that time.
    in college, i was physics/chemistry (originally looking into thermo as a focus), but diff-eq and modern physics reminded me that i already was a decent programmer so i followed that instinct into cs.
    for my ha ha only serious remark? as i said, every program has the make-it-or-break it, and at JMU for biology/pre-med, organic chemistry was it. oddly, in spite of its complexity, the chemistry majors never had a problem with it and always wondered why the bio people were so vexed, considering they’d both had the same chem 151/152 classes and labs the year before…

  7. randy says:

    we make our Bio-Secondary Ed students take evolution.
    However, taking it, doesn’t mean they accept evolution. ALthough I do believe by the end they understand that they are rejecting science. Therefore they do end up feeling ok teaching it (in some of my informal follow-ups)

  8. Jefrir says:

    How the hell do you get someone teaching a subject without understanding a vital part of it? How is that even possible?
    At least tell me American teachers are required to have a degree relevant to the subject they’re teaching…

  9. Immunologist says:

    My former spouse is a teacher, and got her undergraduate degree in biology. After working a lab for while she took additional courses (a MA in education) to qualify for a teaching credential. In contrast, many of her colleagues got degrees in teaching per se, and NOT in the academic discipline that they taught. It has always seemed to me that at least some lamented teacher inadequacy could be explained by this simple observation. Perhaps we need change that requirements for teaching degrees or for teaching licenses.

  10. Mike S. says:

    Actually, to be more specific, I think it is only the second semester of organic that is being dropped as the requirement.

  11. Robert Ward says:

    @ Immunologist – Did these other teachers teach high school? At the college I go to if you are majoring in Secondary Education/High School , then you have to also major in the discipline you want to teach. So if you wanted to be a high school Biology teacher you can either major in Biology and just get the other required classes after for an MA in education OR major in Education AND Biology. Same for other subjects. I think that is the NYS standard and as it should be elsewhere.

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