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ScienceRewired Podcast – On The Texas Science Textbook Debate – Interview With NCSE’s Josh Rosenau

NCSE BlogOn the 17th September, teachers, parents, creationist supporters and scientists went to what the Texas Freedom Network (a non-profit civil liberties group) described as a “lopsided victory for science,” in order to testify before the State Board of Education on proposed biology textbooks for K-12 students. The books currently under review are set to enter Texas classrooms at the beginning of the 2014 – 2015 school year.

The hearing lasted about four hours, focusing on whether creationism should be included in the instructional materials for science classes. This came after it was revealed that some of the state’s biology review panel suggested to publishers that books include information about creationism. While the board has the ultimate say over which books the state puts on an “approved” list, hearings like the one held in Austin allowed for a number of voices to be heard.

One of those voices heard that of Josh Rosenau of the National Centre for Science Education.

He not only attended but testified at the Texas state board of education’s hearing on the textbooks. His testimony is posted on the Science League of America blog, as is his report of the hearing. “I lost count over the four hours of testimony,” he observed in the latter, “but it felt like there were three or four speakers in support of evolution and climate change education for every creationist or climate change denier who spoke.”

The process of adopting textbooks requires the publishing companies to submit books for review to the Texas Education Agency, who solicits nominations for textbook review panelists before it selects a final group, according to the Texas Education Agency website. These hearings are important, as a 2012 New York Review Of Books article noted that Texas textbooks have disproportionate power throughout the nation.


Kylie: Josh, firstly, how great of a concern are the revisions suggested for the 15 high school biology textbooks that were submitted for the State Board of Education in Austin, Texas? Who exactly are suggesting changes, and what are they?

Josh: The process is that the State Board of Education asked publishers to submit textbooks. In the past, because of the length of the process and all of the demands they usually place on publishers. Only three or four the biggest publishers will even bother submitting textbooks for the biology adoption.

This year, they changed the rules a little bit, so it wound up being 15. The whole thing, they, a little bit, had been having to do on the fly, switching up and trying to figure out a way to deal with this much greater volume of textbooks that had been submitted.

What they always do though is have some sort of process for public review. The books are available in public libraries and high schools for people to come in from the community and look at. They also have this formal review process where people self-nominate or board members can nominate someone to be on the panel.

Then the agency pulls together these groups where three or four people will read a textbook, make sure that it covers all of the required standards that were adopted, in 2009, in this case, in science. Make sure that it’s free of factual errors, make sure that it’s manufactured properly, and make recommendations to the state education agency about what changes need to be made in order for the books to be adopted.

That’s what the reviews are that we’ve seen so far. A public records request got the agency to release those so we could see what pressure was being put on the publishers.

The biggest publishers were the ones that really took the brunt of that criticism. It was mostly Pearson, which is the most widely used textbook, the one published by Ken Miller and Joe Levine (that was also at issue in the Dover trial in 2005), McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Those three publishers are really the big ones. That’s where the brunt of the effort really was. There were a number of smaller publishers, some of whom also got criticism, but it wasn’t really the creationist criticism. It was just that they were smaller publishers, and they hadn’t quite gotten everything set up perfectly for the Texas system. They’ll need to make some revisions in order to be adopted.

With the big publishers, objectively, they had covered evolution properly. The creationist reviewers who managed to get into the process are basically trying to rewrite those textbooks to cast doubt on evolution, to weaken the evolution coverage, to reduce the coverage.

Kylie: That’s astounding. I’ve noticed online, and certainly in the media, that it’s been getting quite a lot of traction. It was even reported on the Texas Freedom Network Insider blog. Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science said the textbook adoption scheme is “sick, broken, and corrupt” while live-blogging during the hearing itself. How is the scheme generally viewed, and how is it viewed by NCSE?

Josh: It’s certainly an elaborate process! Compared to other states where I’ve tracked textbook adoption, science standards adoption, it really does seem…I understand why they want to have a lot of public input. That’s valuable. It’s to the good that the state agency has not tried to take it upon itself to decide, “You are a real scientist… You’re allowed to be a reviewer… You’re not a real scientist.” The agency staff is not where those decisions should be made. There should be a decision made at some level. Some of the creationists who went into the process have PhDs, some of them in molecular biology, others in things like chemical engineering. I don’t know why you would say that this person is best qualified to speak about biology books rather than chemistry books!

The agency staff is not necessarily the place that should be deciding you’re qualified or you’re not, on that level, once you’ve got those basic credentials. Having some system to make sure that the comments and the reviews they’re getting are not driven by ideology, but that they’re driven by an accurate understanding of the science would be really valuable.

One of the things that I pointed out when I got a chance to speak was that there was one reviewer, the guy with the chemical engineering degree, who, in his reviews, said that genetic drift and recombination should not be treated as evolutionary mechanisms in the textbooks.

The random person on the street should not be expected to know what those are, necessarily. A high school student should be and should know that they are evolutionary mechanisms, that they’ve been recognised for a long time. Someone who’s reviewing the textbooks should know that the standards themselves require those to be covered as evolutionary mechanisms.

If someone’s making those sorts of comments in a review, they didn’t understand the science, and they don’t understand the standards. They’re not qualified to be doing that review if they don’t know that.

That’s a concern about the process. There were a lot of comments, yesterday, from all sides, including the board, from people who were creationist reviewers. From people who were pro-science reviewers really concerned that there is something funky about the process.

One of the things that people spent a lot of time talking about is the fact that, as the system is set up, publishers will be allowed to continue making changes to the textbooks until next May, but the final vote to adopt or not adopt textbooks will be taken this November. There will be about six months after the textbooks are adopted where things can still be changed, in response to the board’s requests and other things.

The agency and the publishers have not committed to making all of the revisions public before November. The public will not know what the board is voting on. The board probably will, but there’s no way to be sure that they’ve gotten advice on whether those changes are really in the best interests of students of the textbooks of Texas.

Kylie: It’s incredible. How did the “Don’t Mess with Textbooks” campaign get started? You said yourself you had the opportunity to speak even.

Josh: We had done something similar, in terms of the name, in 2003, which was the last time that textbooks were adopted in Texas. I wasn’t at NCSE then, so I had seen the graphics and hadn’t quite realized that we had produced them. I just knew that people had been using that graphic.

Texas, starting in the ’80s, had done this advertising campaign – it’s an anti-littering campaign, actually! – of “Don’t Mess with Texas,” which has become an unofficial state motto at that point. It entertains us to use that as the rallying cry for this. We watched Texas carefully because it’s one of the largest student populations, the largest textbook markets in the country.

Until recently, it was the largest state that did textbook adoption. They’ve changed the law so that, even though they’re doing this adoption process, school districts can use, now, state funds to buy books that are not on the approved list.

They have to certify that they’re covering everything that the approved textbook was covering. It gets complicated. This is the first time that they have done a textbook adoption since that law changed, so everyone is watching this very carefully to see how the publishers respond to those changes and how the board responds. The board’s power is diminished.

If they push the publishers too hard, the publishers could just walk away and say we’ll sell directly to the districts and we’ll tell them how they can certify that they’re covering everything that they need to cover.

All else being equal, I’m sure that the publishers don’t want to do that. But everyone knows that the breaking point where publishers walk away is going to come a little bit sooner than it would have when the state board of education controlled the purse strings as well as the adoption process.

That’s why we will pay so much attention in Texas. This is the only state where I’ve ever come to test before a state board of education. Usually it’s important that the state hear from people who live here, that the elected officials hear from their constituents. But because there’s that national impact, historically if you go back to the ’80s, publishers would do a major textbook revision and time it to the Texas adoption. They would write it for Texas, and then modify it for the national market.

It’s important for us to bring in a national perspective on what will these textbooks do for everybody. The degree to which that’s still the case for the textbook market today is debatable. If you ask publishers they’ll say, oh no, we don’t do that. Yes, we can make different additions for every state and it’s no problem. We do it really easily. But I think still at the end of the day it’s always easier to write one addition rather than 50 additions. They will say that Texas has no impact on what happens in their textbooks in other states. I’m a skeptic.

Kylie: I was about to say, there’s a lot of doubt there! So what’s it like, just giving a testimony? What was the atmosphere like there?

Josh: In past years what they’ve sometimes done is divide the testimony up so they alternate between people who are in favour of adopting the standards or opposed to adopting the standards, which gives equal representation to both sides, even if equal numbers of people didn’t show up.

In this case, they didn’t really seem to try to do any sort of alternating. There was a block of creationists, including the former chairman of the board who made the famous comment in 2009, “I disagree with the experts. Someone has to stand up to experts.”

Kylie: Ah, yes. That was a classic head-slapping quote…

Josh: Yeah, it was a great moment when it happened! It was just like, really?? He lost the next election, but came back in his private capacity to speak. He was the third or fourth person to testify in a block of about five creationists who testified.

But after that, I would say that people testifying in support of the publishers, saying don’t make these revisions, don’t make publishers make these changes, it may have been three or four to one, or more. It was really great to see how many people came out to support good textbooks, and either how few people wanted to come out or how little energy the creationists put in to trying to organise around this. I hope that that’s a good sign.

Kylie: I’d hope so too. Looking at the Tweet-stream and at social media, people blogging about it – it did seem as if there was quite a mixture of people standing up. What kind of surprises were there? Were there any surprises apart from the fact that there were less creationists than you thought there might have been?

Josh: It was a really diverse crowd of people who stood up. There were clergy, there were scientists, there was a 9th grader, a 14-year-old, who got up to speak about why he wanted to make sure that they adopted the science textbooks.

There was a mother who brought her daughter with her who I think was about maybe seven or eight. It was an unexcused absence. She wasn’t going to get her perfect attendance award at the end of the year, so one of the board members asked the commissioner of education if he would write her a note explaining that she was absent – that this was an important part of her political education, which is entirely true!

Kylie: Fascinating. Were there any surprises? Obviously there would have been people who may have been religious who were speaking out in favour of the textbooks, I would have hoped?

Josh: Oh yes, there were a few different members of the clergy who spoke in favour of the textbooks. Just a really remarkable diversity of people in favour. There was only one person who stood out and clearly said, “I want creationism taught. I think creationism should be in the textbooks.” Most of the people who were speaking from the creationists’ side were a little bit more subtle.

Kylie: So what next? Obviously this is the first hearing. There’s some time to go. What do you think’s going to happen now?

Josh: What’s happening now, what has been happening since early August, is that the state agency is negotiating with the publishers of how they’re going to respond to the changes that the review panel suggested. We don’t know what the publishers have agreed to already. We don’t know what they will agree to between now and the meeting in November where they’re scheduled to have the final vote on textbook adoption.

We’re hoping that the publishers will voluntarily make that public as the chair of the board urged them to do. We’re hoping that the board will change its policies and find some way to make those public, not just as a voluntary matter but to say that the publishers have to release that in order for the public review and comment to be informed at all about what the actual vote is.

A lot of what we were trying to do at the hearing was to tell publishers – to signal to publishers – that the public supports them and doesn’t want them to have to make these changes, and for the board to know that so that no one tries to push people to make changes that are wrong or inappropriate, and we’re going to get people ready for remembering them. We’ve got a couple ones to keep organising people and to keep pushing people.

We had a great turnout yesterday and we’re going to need an even bigger turnout I’m sure. The creationists may just have been saving their fire for the November meetings. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out in bigger numbers then, and we need to be ready for that.

Kylie: Where can people go to to lend their support? What can they do in order to help out?

Josh: They can sign up on our website. Becoming a member of NCSE is only $35. Once you’re in our database, we can contact you and say, “Here’s something that’s happening in your neighbourhood,”

Last week, I was sending out emails to people in Kentucky and Texas. Next week, who knows where it’ll be. In Kentucky, they were adopting statewide science standards. Being in our system is a great first step as a way to get those action alerts when something really critical comes up. As I said, it’s really about the local constituents. It’s about someone in the neighbourhood.

When it’s a teacher who’s in trouble, who calls us and says, “My principal’s telling me to do this and I don’t want to they want me to teach creationism.” I’m not going to send an alert out to the whole state. But I might send a note to the five people who live in that town and say, “Could you meet with this teacher and attend this meeting with her to show the principal that what she’s doing is right.”

It can be really local. It can be statewide. It can be national, on other occasions. Or we blast something out to everybody because there’s just something of broad, global concern. That’s a first step. We do have a “Taking Action” section. There’s a signup sheet there to be involved in Texas specifically. Those are important things. People who live in Texas, especially, should be writing to the State Board of Education and telling them that they want to have textbooks adopted without these suggestions made by these unqualified and ideologically-driven reviewers.

Josh: If people have contacts in the publishing world, especially at those big publishers, Prentice Hall, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, if they know anyone who works there and want to lean on them a little bit and ask them to stand firm, that would certainly be helpful.

Kylie: Excellent. Of course, the website’s had a bit of a makeover recently. It looks really snappy.

Josh: Yeah, we added a blog! We’re really excited about it. The name of the blog, the “Science League of America,” is a callback to a group that existed in the 1920s, that was actually founded in the Bay Area, as we are, in Sausalito, just up in the North Bay, by this science writer who, during the era of the Scopes trial, organised a group in defence of evolution education. Membership then was $5, and you could pay it in instalments through the year. When the Depression hit, one member paid by mailing in rabbits! Which I don’t think that we allow any more.

Kylie: No, it might be a bit difficult. You’d have to pass it on to some of the Bay Area magicians and see if they wanted anything for their hats.

Josh: Exactly! It’s just a reminder that this is not a struggle that is new. You look at what Maynard Shipley was writing, the founder of the group, in the 1920s. I could put my name at the top of any of it, and no one would know the difference today. It’s a little bit sad.

Kylie: I was about to say, “Should I be laughing, or should I be groaning about that?” Oh, man…

Josh: It is inspiring to know that there is that history and that we stand on the shoulders of giants today, in that way, as well as in our scientific research.

Kylie: You keep maintaining the good fight, which is an awesome thing that you’re doing. Thanks so much for that and for talking to me for the show.

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