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Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:

Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.


Thanks so much for the details...it does seem promising for our curriculum!

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