Biology Texts, State Teaching Policies Criticized, Defended

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The teaching of biology is getting poor grades this year amid criticism of confusing textbooks and lackluster state science standards.

Despite the complaints about materials, biology teachers are doing a fine job, said the president-elect of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

"Our teachers are just excellent, and they work with what they have," said Ann Lumsden, professor of biology at Florida State University. "This is a hard time to be in education because of all the pressures."

In June, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a grim report card on the nation's high school and middle school biology texts, saying they lacked focus on a few main concepts.

Biologist Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, blamed the textbook marketplace because it "requires that they cover the entire range of facts about biology, thereby sacrificing . . . depth."

Nationwide, 93 percent of high school student take biology, and 98 percent of teachers use a textbook, the AAAS said.

On Sept. 26, biology education will receive another salvo when the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a private D.C. group, gives low grades to how state science standards treat biological evolution, the foundation told The Washington Times.

The standards, adopted by lawmakers and educators in each state, list what must be learned and tested. They also determine what kinds of textbooks a state buys.

Fordham research director Marci Kanstoroom said "sins of omission," or leaving out parts on evolution, has "affected all of the `historical sciences.' "

Lawrence Lerner, a veteran science educator, has compiled the review, "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States."

What the states set as standards influence how publishers design biology textbooks, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers' school division.

"Conforming to the state criteria is the highest priority," he said, "and not every state looks for the same thing."

Textbooks tend to feature as much material as possible so they are useful in several states, he said. The publishers took seriously the AAAS call to simplify, he said, "but it's not the only perspective."

Another view is that textbooks must be visually stimulating to focus students. "People learn in different ways," Mr. Driesler said, adding that textbook publishers also struggle to meet state needs as states face controversies on topics ranging from evolution to a new kind of math. …