Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Ala., recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.
“She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she’d get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it,” he recalled. “She told me other teachers were doing the same thing.”
Though the teaching of evolution makes the news when officials propose, as they did in Georgia, that evolution disclaimers be affixed to science textbooks, or that creationism be taught along with evolution in biology classes, stories like the one Dr. Frandsen tells are more common.
In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.
Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.
“The most common remark I’ve heard from teachers was that the chapter on evolution was assigned as reading but that virtually no discussion in class was taken,” said Dr. John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, an evangelical Christian and a member of Alabama’s curriculum review board who advocates the teaching of evolution. Teachers are afraid to raise the issue, he said in an e-mail message, and they are afraid to discuss the issue in public.
Dr. Frandsen, former chairman of the committee on science and public policy of the Alabama Academy of Science, said in an interview that this fear made it impossible to say precisely how many teachers avoid the topic.
“You’re not going to hear about it,” he said. “And for political reasons nobody will do a survey among randomly selected public school children and parents to ask just what is being taught in science classes.”