Texas educators selected by the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to review textbooks for adoption in November 2013 are insisting upon changes to major science and biology instructional materials that would contradict the widely established international scientific consensuses on the subjects of evolution and human-caused climate change.
If major education publishers such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson and McGraw-Hill Publishers buckle under the pressure of religious fundamentalists in Texas aiming to cast doubt on two of the most widely supported scientific concepts in history, the changes that will affect Texas public schools for the next 10 years could become part of a larger trend affecting science education across the nation. Texas could set this national precedent because major publishers typically cater their educational materials toward the large Texas market first then make small changes to those materials for smaller markets around the country.
The Texas SBOE goes through a process of review and adoption of classroom materials every 10 years and throughout the decades the process has come under fire regarding the amount of influence reviewers have in convincing publishers to make crucial changes to science and biology texts.
Members of the SBOE can nominate individuals for the review panels, but individual citizens can nominate themselves to serve. The TEA then looks at the list of nominees and assigns the selected individuals to review teams for specific instructional products. These appointed panels have been evaluating drafts of mostly electronic classroom materials and negotiating the content with publishers since July, with much of the review process taking place in private.
The SBOE had its first public hearing Sept. 17, 2013, regarding the textbooks under consideration, in which some of the reviewers pressing for changes expressed their views regarding evolution and climate change.
That same week the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) released documents obtained through an open-records request that provide some transparency in the review process and confirmed that some of the appointed reviewers are pushing creationism and theories that promote skepticism about the human causes of climate change.
The documents also revealed the reviewers contested information relating to fetal development that recently has been used by anti-abortion activists in the state pushing the recent omnibus abortion overhaul expected to close the vast majority of clinics in the state.
"[The reviewers'] objections shape the content of the textbooks because the publishers have to decide how they're going to respond to those objections," said TFN Spokesman Dan Quinn. "Do they cave and include these junk science arguments against evolution or do they stand firm and take the risk that their textbook will get rejected?"
TFN believes the TEA selected largely unqualified individuals who do not have a background in biology or any kind of science and, in some cases, are themselves conservative political activists to serve on the review panels.
But TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe contends that the individual comments from reviewers on these panels can't impact the review process as much as has been claimed because what the publishers consider is really the majority report from a review panel. She told Truthout that because a majority of the instructional material is online, the agency performed some of its work virtually.
"We did get comments from individual reviewers, and those were bundled up and forwarded on to the publishers," Ratcliffe told Truthout. "I think the publishers understand that it's the consensus reports that give them direction."
Ratcliffe also said that some of the reviewers' job titles don’t reflect their qualifications on a subject up for adoption, such as one biology reviewer who is a retired dean of business school but who has advanced degrees in chemistry.
But it may not even matter whether or not the SBOE adopts a publisher's textbook. Texas passed a law in 2011 that allows the state's public school districts to decide which textbook and instructional materials they want to purchase, even if those materials haven’t been adopted by the SBOE. The current review process is the first since the law's passage.
Pearson and other publishers are not required to make their changes public until May 2014, even after the changes are voted on and possibly adopted in November, according to Joshua Rosenau, who is programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). NCSE has been working closely with TFN to monitor the review process.
Rosenau told Truthout that publishers may choose to forgo any changes to their science and biology materials because Texas school districts already are using their textbooks and can choose to buy the updated editions anyway. He thinks publishers potentially could see the review process as politicized and use that as a selling point. But that doesn’t appear to be the case for Pearson, at least.
"We're following the state's process and submitted changes that improved our coverage of the state's standards but did not compromise the integrity of the science. We are now awaiting the final evaluation report from the state," Pearson spokeswoman Susan Aspey wrote in an email. She was not explicit about the changes submitted to the SBOE.
"It's very important that publishers know that people are watching this," Quinn told Truthout. "We want solid science in these textbooks and not junk science arguments that have been discredited by scientists now for decades."