An Empirical Study of Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design Instruction in Public Schools

Article excerpt


Recent reports from students and teachers alike suggest that even though teaching creationism as a credible scientific theory in public schools is clearly unconstitutional, some teachers still do just that. Conversely, despite the fact that many states' educational standards explicitly require that evolution be taught, anecdotal evidence also suggests that evolution sometimes is not discussed at all or, more frequently, may be the subject of mere cursory instruction. But, how widespread are these practices? This Article reports and analyzes the results of a 2006 survey in which nearly 1,000 college students from across the country provided their recollections about the frequency and manner of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design instruction in their high school science classes. In sum, about three out of ten recent public high school graduate respondents recalled that they were taught about creationism in science class and two out often reported receiving intelligent design instruction, although not all instruction communicated that a given concept was scientifically credible. Nearly all recent public high school graduate respondents reported receiving some evolution instruction (92%), but surprisingly few (73%) received much of it. Additionally, the results of this survey show that cultural factors such as politics and geographic region are somewhat more strongly correlated with disparities in perceived classroom instruction than are states' educational standards; the rate of disregard for constitutional principles in this context is low but definitely not nonexistent; and legal literature does not sufficiently address constitutionally problematic practices occurring in classrooms.


The scene is not difficult to picture: it is May-this year, ten years ago, five years hence-and as the school year draws to a close, a public high school biology teacher skims over the theory1 of evolution in class, perhaps following a suggestion from the principal or a more formal direction from the local school board or the state board of education, maybe afraid to invoke the ire of some students or parents (or just too worn down to deal with the potential fallout), or possibly playing out his or her own skepticism of Charles Darwin's big idea. For these reasons or others, the teacher may go further still and present creationism or intelligent design as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution. Variations of this story, by now, are the subject of frequent anecdotes.2 But, a dearth of research exists in this area, particularly regarding the perspectives of the students themselves who currently attend or recently graduated from public high schools across the country, and so we have little idea whether those anecdotes are merely isolated, decreasingly frequent instances, or whether they are reflective of widespread contemporary practices.

This lack of information has impacted legal scholarship. Admirable works in this area have engaged complex questions of the constitutionality of various practices, questioned the propriety of different Establishment Clause tests or factors, and considered ways in which science and religion can be compatible.3 However, because our sense of what happens in public high school science classrooms often is based more on conventional wisdom than anything else, this scholarship largely has been unable to situate the issues it discusses in the relevant social context by making reference to the magnitude of any particular classroom practice identified as a "problem." Thus we don't know to what extent the existing scholarship addresses pervasive practices in our schools or relatively infrequent ones, and to what degree Establishment Clause doctrine has consistently filtered down into classrooms. Stated more bluntly, we have not had the data that will allow us to discuss in a comprehensive way how frequently public high school science teachers broach the topics of evolution, creationism, or intelligent design in a manner that violates well-settled, or emerging, dictates of constitutional law or state regulation. …


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