Will voucher students learn biology?

Will voucher students learn biology?


In a recent North Carolina court decision about the constitutionality of state funded private school vouchers, Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that it is unconstitutional to use state funds to support schools in which the curricula are not subject to any requirements or standards. A clear implication is that in the absence of review by a state educational agency, state funds might be inappropriately directed to the teaching of subject matter that is not clearly presented, not up to date or even incorrect.

Possibly in some subject areas there would be a wide range of opinion as to what might be considered acceptable, but in a scientific subject like biology, it is straightforward to determine whether course material presented is up to date and accurate. A high school biology text used by a number of private schools that would be eligible for voucher support is the A Beka Book publishing company book: Biology, God’s Living Creation. It would seem relevant to the court decision to compare the material included in the A Beka book with material covered in a standard high school biology text, for example, Miller and Levine, Biology. Because the A Beka book is used in schools with a Christian orientation, I chose the Miller and Levine text for comparison because one of the authors has publically stated that he is a Christian. Care has been taken in the Miller and Levine book to present the theory of evolution in a non-confrontational manner.

The A Beka book has some strengths. It is professionally assembled with attention to detail, and is attractively packaged. The figures have been carefully chosen and present material in a clearly understandable format. There are several sections in the A Beka text that compare favorably with the Miller and Levine book. For example in my area, the nervous system, things are roughly comparable with major regions and functions of the different parts of the nervous system clearly presented in both texts. For this and other sections related to functions of the human body (except the reproductive systems – inexplicably not covered in the A Beka text), most biologists could use the book to teach high school students.

However, an aspect of A Beka book that makes one uneasy at the outset is that information about the authors’ (Keith Graham and Gregory Parker) credentials is not easily accessible. In the Miller and Levine book, one sees immediately the university affiliation of one author and that the other is a science writer. Importantly there is also an impressive list of more than 40 additional biological scientists and teachers listed as having read and contributed to various sections of the book. All of this increases confidence that the material presented in the Miller and Levine textbook is accurate. With the A Beka book one is less confident that the material presented has been properly vetted.

The A Beka book also suffers in the presentation of current material. It starts with descriptions of different kinds of plants and animals. This is an old-fashioned approach, and reminds me of high school biology I took many years ago. The descriptions of different plants and animals are clear, but I’m guessing that high school students (10th grade) can and should handle more complicated material.

The A Beka book only gets to the major topics of modern biology at the very end. In roughly 50 pages, modern ideas about cells, genetics and DNA are presented. In contrast the Miller and Levine book has material about cells, genetics and DNA at the beginning and more than 250 pages are devoted to these topics. There is also a huge difference in how current the presentations are. Recent advances in sequencing of the human genome, regulation of gene expression, and RNA interference are carefully presented in the Miller and Levine book, but not even mentioned in the A Beka book. The situation is similar for the workhorse modern techniques of biology like fluorescence microscopy, DNA sequencing, and bioinformatics, none which are covered in the A Beka text. Of course one could quibble about what should and should not be presented, but future training and jobs in biological sciences and health professions will require the latest knowledge about cell biology and DNA. It is less clear whether the detailed descriptions of different types of plants and animals included in the A Beka text will be useful in the modern work place.

Probably the biggest problem with A Beka book is that religious teachings are interspersed in the text throughout. In several chapters, there are sentences like: “Modern science was built on biblical principles”, “…the Bible is very important to the scientist because it records facts about the history and future of the universe that the scientist would otherwise not know” and “DNA …. is the “Master’s plan for controlling and perpetuating His living creation on earth”. Personally I see little reason for science and religion to be in conflict, but virtually all scientists and professional educators would agree that religious teachings do not have a place in science textbooks.

As one might imagine, the treatment of evolution could not be more different in the two texts. The theory of evolution is a central organizing principle of modern biology. Without getting into sterile arguments about “theories” versus “facts” in science, virtually all science educators agree that it is important for biology students to be introduced to evolutionary theory.

The A Beka chapter on evolution, rather than explaining evolution, is an attack on the theory as a “retreat from science.” In the preface the authors state: “Since the day that Darwinism invaded the classroom, God’s glory has been hidden from students.” The chapter is a major disservice to biology students. For instance:

  • The first problem is not clearly stating the theory of evolution (thus setting up a “straw man”). In much of the chapter it is stated or implied that the theory of evolution fails because it doesn’t explain the origin of the earliest living things. The central tenets of the theory of evolution do not deal with the origin of life.
  • A second problem is mixing in religious commentary that has no place in a biology text. Statements that “Many varieties of canines have developed from a single pair of canines that left the ark”, “All the diversity we see in the human race today comes from an original couple”, and that “Man is created in the image of God” are not arguments that can be used against evolutionary theory, nor do they teach students biology.
  • A third problem is misinformation on multiple points. Nowhere is this more striking than on the age of the earth. Stating the earth is “relatively young” when scientists approximate the age of the earth as 4.5 billion years is misinformation that is harmful to students. The statement that radiometric dating is an unreliable method is simply incorrect. For example, dates determined by radiocarbon dating have frequently been verified by other methods.
  • A fourth problem is misrepresentation of the fossil record. Although a complicated issue, virtually all biologists and paleontologists agree that there is a progression from simple to complex organisms through the various eras of the earth’s history. Biologists agree that if convincing evidence were shown of a species out of temporal order, this would be a powerful argument against evolution, but no such examples have been found. In the A Beka book the authors simply say that the ordering of the fossil record is flawed with no evidence to support the statement.
  • A final issue is not pointing out the ways that evolutionary theory is central to modern biology. A theory providing an explanation for the fossil record, that proposes a mechanism for how species can change over time and how new species can appear, that is strongly validated by the discovery of DNA and commonality among genome sequences, and that can be seen in operation today in the appearance of drug resistant bacteria is a powerful organizing principle. Students using the A Beka book are deprived of the opportunity to learn what biology students (and potential competitors for future jobs) all over the world are learning and thus placed at a major disadvantage.

There is a reason that DNA is presented early in the Miller and Levine book and given primary emphasis. No one has more clearly pointed this out than Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health who has written eloquently about his personal Christian faith. In an interview posted on the website beliefnet, Collins stated: “It’s also now been possible to compare our DNA with that of many other species. The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming. I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.”

In sum, the A Beka text as a central component of a high school biology curriculum would be suspect if it were evaluated by a state board of education. It would fail because of confusing science and religion, for misstating the theory of evolution, and because it compares unfavorably with other texts in not fully presenting modern advances in cell biology and genetics. It is difficult to envision the justification for using state funds to support curricula that do not prepare students for the modern workplace.

Professor William D. Snider, MD is the Director of the Neuroscience Center at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. The views expressed in this essay are his own and he does not speak for the university.

(Image: www.abeka.com)