Today science education advocates have good reason to be encouraged by developments in Texas. But we’re not out of the woods just yet.
After two hours of heated debate and nerve-wracking twists and turns, a majority on the State Board of Education very late last night gave preliminary approval to all of the proposed textbooks for high school biology and environmental science courses. None of those textbooks undermine instruction on evolution or climate change, much to the frustration of the board’s creationist faction.
The board must take a final vote on the adoption of those textbooks today, but the majority last night turned back a last-minute effort to derail the adoption of two of those textbooks: the biology product from publisher Pearson Education and the environmental science product from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The adoption of the Pearson textbook was held up because an anti-evolution activist appointed to serve as an official state reviewer alleged that it included nearly two dozen factual errors. Some of the alleged “errors” focused on relatively small and almost trivial details — such as whether scientists estimate the age of Earth as 4 billion or 4.2 billion years old. But most dealt with evolution or related concepts and essentially repeated many discredited claims anti-evolution activists have been pushing for decades.
Scientists reviewing those allegations, including a scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, have thoroughly debunked the claims of alleged errors. Moreover, for weeks Pearson has refused to make the changes demanded by the anti-evolution reviewer and creationists board members. And many board members were appalled that they were being asked to judge the scientific validity of the material themselves. Board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, for example, bluntly called the attacks an attempt to “hijack” the process and hold the textbook hostage:
“To ask me — a business degree major from Texas Tech University — to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable. To plop this at the 11th hour and say a book that is being used, as I understand it, in over half of the classrooms in the United States is now on the verge of 15 laypeople deciding finite and specific and specialized scientific information is hardly the best way to review a book for 5 million kids.”
Ultimately, a majority of board members voted to adopt the Pearson textbook while allowing, over the next four weeks, a panel of three science experts to review the alleged errors. The publisher reserved the right to withdraw its textbook from consideration if that process is also hijacked by anti-evolution activists.
The board then turned its attention to the environmental science textbook from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). As we reported yesterday, an oil and gas professional running for political office on Wednesday claimed that the HMH textbook was filled with factual errors on topics like hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the problem of carbon emissions (which the vast majority of climate scientists say is the primary cause of climate change). The official review panel had approved the textbook and hadn’t noted any such factual “errors.”
But the same board members who had attacked the Pearson textbook called for the board to reject the HMH textbook anyway. After another lengthy debate, however, a majority of board members voted to adopt the HMH textbook when the publisher agreed to revise material that might be outdated. Scientists who reviewed the publisher’s (tentative) proposed revisions were satisfied that none of the provisional changes compromised the integrity of the science in the textbook.
Last night’s board votes aren’t the last word on this adoption. Today the board must take a final vote on which science textbooks will go into Texas classrooms beginning in fall 2014. But so far, we can report that publishers and a majority of state board members have turned back every effort to hijack this process and undermine instruction on evolution and climate change in the new textbooks. We expect a final vote this afternoon.