Good news about the teaching of evolution in American public schools

August 9, 2020 • 11:45 am

A new report from the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach gives some pretty good news about the state of evolution teaching in American high schools. In particular, in two surveys of teaching methods published 12 years apart (2007 vs. 2019), the number of hours that teachers devote to the subject of evolution has become greater, the proportion of teachers presenting evolution as “settled science” as opposed to something more dubious has increased, and the presentation of creationism or Intelligent Design as valid alternatives to evolution has diminished, as has the proportion of teachers sending “mixed messages” about evolution. Click on the screenshot below to get free access to the article, and you can download the pdf here.

The authors wanted to survey how evolution was presented because several events over the 12-year period could have affected it. First, in 2005 there was the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, in which the judge ruled that Intelligent Design (ID) was not science. It likely took a few years for that ruling to seep into high schools throughout the U.S. (Happily, the legal battles over teaching creationism in public schools appear to be over.)

Further, after 2010 a new set of science standards (the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS) were adopted by 20 states and have influenced standards in 24 other states as well as the District of Columbia. These standards are strongly pro-evolution.

The new survey was of high school teachers, with 2503 in the initial set and a 40% response rate. (The authors discuss the possibility of bias in the sample who answered, but dismiss it for empirical reasons given in the paper.) The questions asked were largely identical to those in the 2007 survey.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the survey, and will report just a few key results.

The Table below shows both surveys’ data on how many hours were devoted to human evolution and “general evolutionary processes”. In both surveys, only 17% of teachers didn’t cover human evolution, while those not covering general evolutionary processes went up a bit, from 1% to 5%. More important, the mean number of hours devoted to evolution rose substantially: for human evolution from 4.1 to 7.7 hours, and for general evolution from 9.8 to 12.4 hours—a rise of 88% and 48% respectively. That’s a lot more hours about evolution than I got in my high-school biology class, where the topic was left to the end, probably in hopes that we wouldn’t get to it. (I went to high school in Virginia).


Here’s part of Table 2 showing how teachers actually teach evolution—whether they teach it as a broad consensus that it’s a fact.  Again, there is a rise over the survey period in those who do. If you lump “strongly agree” with “agree”, the total goes from 74% of teachers to 79% of teachers, while the “strongly agree” category rose by over 50%, from 30% to 47%.  So there’s been a shift even within the “generally agree” category. Those who disagree and who strongly disagree dropped, with the total of these two positions dropping from 22% to 14%. Again, that’s good news.

Below you can see that the number of hours devoted to creationism or ID dropped, which will really tick off the Discovery Institute. 82% of teachers in the latest survey (as opposed to 75% in 2007) don’t cover any form of creationism, while 13% devote some time to it. However, other questions show that much of the discussion of these creationist views is devoted to showing why they are not a valid scientific alternative to modern evolutionary theory. Because the proportion of teachers giving this negative view of creationism has also increased over time, the figures below are actually an underestimate of the degree to which evolution is taught according to the modern scientific consensus.

Finally, based on teachers’ responses to the questions, the authors divided them into four groups as to how they present evolution to the students. From the paper:

. . . a clearer picture emerges if we summarize the results. To do so, we assigned teachers to four categories based on themes they agreed that they emphasized to their students.Footnote4 The first group are those who reported that they emphasized to their students that evolution is established science: all teachers who said that they “emphasize the broad consensus that evolution is a fact, even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred” and did not report sending any pro-creationism messages. Exclusively pro-creationist teachers are all who agreed that they emphasized creationism as a “valid scientific alternative” to their students. All other teachers we classified as either “avoiders” (those who agreed with none of the relevant statements) or sending “mixed messages” (those who told us they emphasize both positions).

As you can see from this plot, the green boxes—the proportion of rational teachers who present evolution as settled science—have risen from 51% to 67% in 12 years, while the avoiders, those who send mixed messages, and the creationists have all dropped, though not always significantly so.

There’s a long discussion of why this is happening, though it’s not very conclusive because of the difficulty of parsing out causes in such a sample. The authors attribute it to the adoption of the NGSS, the increasing tendency of older teachers to teach evolution as settled science, and to the  influx of younger teachers who are more prepared to teach evolution as a fact (maybe they read my book!).

Re the latter: it’s palpably clear that not only is America becoming more secular, but also that less religious people are more accepting of evolution. This goes along with the one decades-long trend that we’ve seen in American acceptance of evolution from the frequent Gallup polls surveying American acceptance of evolution: the rise of those who accept evolution as a purely naturalistic proposition, not driven by God and not the result of a creation event.  To wit, follow the dark green line (click on screenshot to see the poll):

Take that, Discovery Institute! (No worries, they’ll find a way to dismiss these data.)

h/t: Laura Helmuth, who tweeted about the results, calling them to my attention.

15 thoughts on “Good news about the teaching of evolution in American public schools

  1. Here’s my first guess as to why the teaching of evolution in the US is increasing. We know that division within the US has increased dramatically in the Age of Trump. Teachers tend to be more liberal and fact-based than the population in general. Perhaps the teachers and educational administrators have decided that evolution is Blue and Intelligent Design is Red and this is pushing them in the right direction. Ok, I will admit this is a pretty cynical position. That doesn’t make it false, though.

    1. In the public school systems they do have to follow the law somewhat and that is making a difference. However, since much of the power is at the local level it is very hard to get through all the nonsense. That is why we see the FFRF spending so much time on this.

      On the down side, consider how much of the population is in private schools where you likely see no evolution at all. Religion is still the enemy, no matter how you slice it.

      1. I thought private schools were generally for richer kids whose parents are on-average less religious and more insistent on preparation for achievement in the real world. Perhaps you meant religious private schools.

        1. I would have to do some checking but I believe most private schools are religious? Yes, expensive but the parents pay to get the proper indoctrination “religion”. Then you have bunches of charter schools and I’m not sure many of them follow the rules.

          1. Catholic private schools do teach evolution. Charter schools are flouting many rules, but they do not seem to be religiously motivated. They are effectively selective private schools that pretend to be public schools capable of fixing the achievement gap.

            I suspect that many devoutly creationist parents are homeschooling.

        2. 78% religious. 34,576 private schools serving 5.7 million kids. 25% of the nations schools are private.

  2. The ngss provide excellent guidance for states developing or updating their statewide science content standards. The ngss were developed by teams that included subject matter experts under the management of achieve, inc, a non-profit first created by the national governors association to address k12 weaknesses around 1990. Because k12 education is the responsibility of the states…its a tenth amendment thing…there is no national curriculum in the u.s. but having the ngss nationally (but not federally) developed by representative teachers and subject matter experts from a couple of dozen states provides a nicely vetted set of guidelines for any state that wants to use them. Glad to see the good news on the life sciences front. Btw, the ngss integrate engineering design into each of the traditional science core discipline standards.

  3. It would be interesting to see data on the teacher age and/or years in teaching within these surveys. I have a notion that the increase in evolution teaching and decrease in creationism teaching is happening ‘one funeral at a time’. This would parallel what Max Planck said about how scientific consensus advances.

    1. Also of interest is the grade level at which it is taught. My boys are going into 7th grade and their science teachers have not mentioned it yet, as far as I know. Is it perceived as high school subject material? Seems more foundational.

  4. “In both surveys, only 17% of teachers didn’t cover human evolution, while those not covering general evolutionary processes went up a bit, from 1% to 5%.” Is this by science/biology teachers in public high schools or am I missing something? In England the national curriculum (which is controversial, naturally) stipulates that Key Stage 3 pupils (aged 11-14 years) must learn about heredity in their Genetics and evolution module and in Key Stage 4 (14-16 years old) that “evolution occurs by the process of natural selection”. The national curriculum is followed by the very vast number of publicly funded schools – though recent reforms aimed at removing schools from local authority control and instead funding them directly from central government funds makes the situation more confusing than it used to be. I would be astonished if the figure not learning about human evolution at all was as high as 17%. Even so-called Faith schools “may not teach creationism as an evidence-based scientific theory. In RE lessons it may be presented as part of a particular belief system, if this does not undermine established scientific theory. It should not be presented as having a similar evidence base as or superior evidence base to scientific theories.”

  5. (No worries, they’ll find a way to dismiss these data.)

    Oh, no, they will take them very seriously and will convey the same to their donors. In fact, I imagine they’re quite elated. They never had a plan for if their vision caught on and the money dried up.

  6. I would hypothesise that the availability of alternative views on the internet might have something to do with it, as well.

Leave a Reply