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U.S. Science Teachers Are “Cautious” When Teaching Evolution

A 2005 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and
Public Life reported that 64% of Americans support teaching creationism
alongside evolution in U.S. public schools while only 26% opposed this idea (1).
Moreover, 38% of Americans preferred that creationism be taught instead of
evolution. The decisions of several court cases explain that there is no room
for teaching intelligent design and creationism in high school biology or other
classes. Intelligent design, creationism, and many of its alternative theories
should be excluded in public school science education because it serves to
legitimize religious based ideologies as though they were scientifically
grounded theories. In addition to the legal rulings, State governments
emphasize evolution as a central theme in the instruction of science, but vary
in the amount of detail and importance the offer schools and teachers (2). Yet
despite the emphasis on evolution from State boards and court rulings, U.S.
science teachers seem cautious when teaching evolution.

In 2007, two political scientists Drs. Michael B. Berkman
and Eric Plutzer in the Department of Political Science at Penn State
University published a landmark study examining the teaching of evolution and
creationism in U.S. public schools. Of the 938 teachers that participated (48%
response rate), 17% did not cover human evolution (as opposed to covering evolution
of non-human animals) while 60% spent one to five hours of class time. Of the
teachers that discussed evolution as part of their pedagogy, only 23% strongly
agreed that evolution is a unifying theme in their biology or life science
classes (2). More striking however is the amount of time teachers spent
teaching creationism. Twenty-five percent of teachers reported that they
devoted at least one or two classroom hours on creationism or intelligent
design; the authors report that this result needs to be taken with a grain of
salt as some might report spending class time to critique creationism. Of the
25% of teachers that did spend time teaching creationism, half of them believed
it was a valid scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution. The same number
of teachers also reported that during their teaching of creationism, they
emphasize that “many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to
Darwinian Theory” (2). This means that about 12.5% of American high school
teachers thought that creationism is a scientifically grounded theory akin to
Darwinian evolution.

When examining belief systems, only 28% of high school
teachers believe that humans developed gradually over millions of years and god
has no part of the process, 47% reported humans developed gradually but god was
involved in the process, and 16% believed that god created humans in the past
10,000 years (2). This seminal study begs the question, why are high school
science teachers going beyond teaching scientific theory to include other
aspects based most likely on their personal religious beliefs. Is it due to a
lack of knowledge surrounding evolutionary theory, or possibly what constitutes
sound scientific theories as opposed to religious or alternative views?
Certainly high school teachers don’t teach quackery or that the world is flat
in science classes. Alchemy might be brought up in a high school chemistry
class but it does not become standard curriculum. So how and when did
intelligent design and creationism become a bonafide scientific theory, and why
are teachers so reluctant to teach evolution in their biology classes?

Most recently, the same authors of the previous survey followed-up
their work by conducting focus groups with 35 teachers at 4 colleges including
a research university, a graduate degree granting institution, a historical
black university, and a Catholic college (Berkman and Plutzer, 2015). The
researchers found some interesting aspects that could explain high school
teachers’ reluctance to teach evolution. One theme found was that high school
teachers see themselves as future teachers, not as scientists (Mervis, 2015). One
interesting finding was that Catholic school teachers were more comfortable
discussing the differences and tensions between evolution and creationism. This
may perhaps be due to their comfortably with grappling and reflecting on the
issue of evolution and their religious beliefs throughout their lifetimes. Yet
teachers learning in secular institutions perhaps did not have the same opportunity
to seriously explore their religious beliefs and convictions over evolution
(Mervis, 2015). In an interview, the researchers of this study explained that
many teacher trainees lack good role models because they were not taught the
subject well (Mervis, 2015).

My thoughts however rest with the idea that teachers have
not learned to adequately separate science from religion and are attempting to
reconcile the two. This combined with limited training in science and
insufficient opportunity to reflect on the tension between evolution and
creationism may lead teachers to think that the latter is an opposing
scientific theory. Moreover, science teachers may perhaps face tension from
parents and senior high school administrators to include religious viewpoints
in science class. A possible solution to ensure that human evolution is part of
high school biology class and to avoid co-teaching creationism as an alternate
scientific theory is to mandate more specifically what should and should not be
taught in high school biology class by State boards overseeing public
education. Moreover, the leadership in high schools need to help pass the
message and enforce the top-down mandate to teachers and families. If families
are concerned that their children are not receiving sufficient religious
training, then they are more than welcome to teach creationism and intelligent
design at home. Teachers and high schools can facilitate this by offering a
list of books that grapple with this issue. However, teaching creationism or
intelligent design in public high schools as if it was a bonafide scientific
theory distorts the scientific method and offers a false impression of what
science is all about.


The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
2005. Public Divided on the Origins of Life.

Berkman, M.B., Pacheco, J.S. and Plutzer, E.
2008. Evolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait. PLoS
Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124.

Berkman, M.B. and Plutzer, E. 2015.
Enablers of Doubt: How Future Teachers Learn to Negotiate the Evolution Wars in
Their Classrooms. The Annals of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science

Mervis, J.
2015. Why Many U.S. Biology Teachers Are ‘Wishy-Washy.’ Science 347:1054.


The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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