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.