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The dentist in charge

The Statesman has a profile of Don McLeroy, the young-earth creationist who is also the chair of the State Board of Education and who is currently leading the fight to cripple science education in Texas. I’m not going to get into the details of this story – Hal and TFN Insider do all the heavy lifting, if you’re interested – but I will pass along Greg’s observation that McLeroy didn’t score a particularly impressive electoral victory in 2006, and will be on the ballot again in 2010. That’s the good news; the bad news is that McLeroy’s district is made up of 28 mostly small, mostly rural counties – suburban Collin County was about 30% of the vote there in 06 – and therefore isn’t likely to be all that friendly to a Dem in 2010, no matter how much more attention McLeroy’s harmful antics attract. Still, this is a fight that will need to be fought, so I hope he will draw an opponent at least as strong as his fellow traveller Cynthia Dunbar has done.

The sad state of sex education in Texas

We do a really lousy job of it.

In sex education classes, 94 percent of Texas school districts teach that abstaining from sex is the only healthy option for unmarried couples, and, in many cases, students are given misleading and inaccurate information about the risks associated with sex, according to a 72-page report released Tuesday.

Two percent of districts — in a state that has the third highest teen birth rate in the nation — ignore the subject completely, according to the study.

The two-year study, “Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools,” was conducted by two Texas State University researchers and funded by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, the research arm of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right.”

You can find the report and all related materials, including some fascinating videos that demonstrate just how sex ed is done these days, here.

Researchers David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, who both teach health education, examined tens of thousands of lesson plans, student handouts, speaker presentations and other related documents obtained from 990 school districts, 96 percent of Texas’ districts, through the Texas Public Information Act.

“Most of the mistruths share a common purpose, and a likely effect, and that is discouraging young people who might already be sexually active from using condoms, a message I find shocking as a professional health educator,” Wiley said.

[…]

In the report, researchers documented at least one factual error in the materials received from 41 percent of the school districts. The study’s authors found instances in which districts used what they called sexist, religious and shame- or fear-based techniques during instruction. The findings include:

On wearing condoms during sex, the Brady district has told teens, “Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off a bridge, at least wear these elbow pads.”

The Edinburg school district policy states, “Students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas and highly correlated with the transmission of AIDS.”

I guess if you think the only acceptable sex is married heterosexual sex, and that nobody needs to know how not to have kids, then all this makes sense. For the rest of us, I think we could maybe do a little better than this. Kudos to the TFN for taking this on.

And in a bit of fortuitous and not-coincidental timing, I got a piece of email shortly after this came out from State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and State Rep. Mike Villarreal, who have legislation filed to address some of these concerns. From the email:

SB 1076 and HB 1567 require abstinence curriculum that includes instruction on contraception to provide scientifically accurate information about contraceptives and methods of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. SB 1076 and HB 1567 prohibit these school districts from discouraging contraception use by students who are sexually active. This legislation does not mandate that schools provide sex education, but if they choose to offer a sex education course, it prohibits them from providing inaccurate information.

“While it is true that abstinence is the healthiest choice for teens, we cannot close our eyes and pretend we do not have students that are sexually active. We must equip students with the knowledge necessary to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies,” said Van de Putte.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that our children receive accurate information in the classroom, particularly when students’ health is at stake,” Villarreal said. “We’re dealing with a myriad of problems in Texas as a result of our sky high teen pregnancy rates. We cannot allow our schools to provide erroneous information – the stakes are far too high.”

The Observer reports on more such bills.

Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama filed legislation, Senate Bill 1100 and House Bill 1694, which they are calling the Prevention Works Act, which requires that school districts notify parents about the content of their children’s sex education classes. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s House Bill 741 and its companion, Sen. Rodney Ellis’ Senate Bill 515, require health education to be comprehensive, age-appropriate and based on medically accurate information. “I know that sounds like a ridiculously minimal standard,” says Ryan Valentine, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, “but it’s not an inconsequential first step.”

No it isn’t is it? Both of the Senate bills above have at least one Republican coauthor, though neither of the House bills do. Perhaps if we can tear our attention away from ultrasounds for a few minutes, we might get something that would actually help people passed. Click on for more from the TFN.

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Chron coverage of yesterday’s SBOE actions

Here’s the Chron story about yesterday’s happenings at the State Board of Education, in which the good news was that the anti-science “strengths and weaknesses” language had been removed from the curriculum, and the bad news was that a subsequent attempt to back-door similar nonsense made it in for now.

The “strengths and weaknesses” standard has been a staple in the curriculum for about 20 years.

On Friday, however, the board looked again at the issue and decided students should have to evaluate a variety of fossil types and assess the arguments against universal common descent, which serves as a main principle of evolution — that all organisms have a common ancestor.

The board’s effort to undermine “universal common descent” in public schools will make the state’s science standards “an object of ridicule,” said Steve Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

“It’s really unscientific. It promotes creationism. It says that students will be required to learn arguments against common descent or ancestral connections,” Schafersman said. “The only alternative to common descent is creationism in their minds.”

Scientists vowed to fight the plan before the board takes final action in March. New science curriculum standards will influence new science textbooks for the state’s 4.7 million public school children beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

One board member who pushed for the change said that fossil records create scientific evidence against universal common descent — and students should be allowed to study the possibility.

“There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions,” said Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, a former science teacher.

[…]

They are asking students to explain something that does not exist, said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner.

“This new proposed language is absurd. It shows very clearly why the board should not be rewriting the science standards, especially when they introduce new language that has not even been reviewed by a single science expert,” Hillis said.

Yeah. I mean, you wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t use the Internet setting standards for broadband, would you? The “fossil gap” argument is an old, longdiscredited one that keeps getting trotted out anyway. As Daniel Davies posited in The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA – Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101, good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. Not that this would stop the zealots on the SBOE.

The good news is that there should be time between now and March to get the same votes as before to reject this absurdity. That’s the hope, anyway. Martha has more. I’ve also got some testimony by 2008 candidate for SBOE Laura Ewing beneath the fold. We wouldn’t be going through this nonsense if Ewing had been elected, as there would then have been a clear majority for maintaining scientific standards, but sadly that was not to be. All the more reason to make sure we take out Cynthia Dunbar next year, that’s for sure. Click on for her account.

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Update on yesterday’s evolution happenings

In the comments to yesterday’s post about the vote taken by the State Board of Education that stripped out “strengths and weaknesses” language about evolution, Martha noted that there was another vote on this to be taken today. I haven’t seen any newspaper coverage of that, but according to TFN insider and Thoughts from Kansas, both of which did extensive liveblogging of the hearings yesterday, today’s vote went the same way as yesterday’s. There’s still a final vote to be taken in March, and as reported by both Martha and TFN there was some other anti-evolution language slipped in the back door as an amendment to the Earth Science TEKS, but overall things are looking better for science education in Texas than they were before. Keep your fingers crossed.

UPDATE: I missed Martha’s blogging on this – see here and especially here for more.

You there! Stop evolving this minute!

Someone once said that no one’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session. I’d extend that observation to note that no one’s intelligence or education is safe when the SBOE is in session. For those who want the gory details of today’s farce hearings, I’ll point you to the Texas Freedom Network’s exhaustive liveblogging of the proceedings:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Vince has some background as well. You have to admire their fortitude – as Elise Hu said, “SBOE meetings really sap the life out of me.”

What all this comes down to is whether or not Texas will acquire a reputation for being hostile to science and research, and thus an unattractive place for high-tech companies to locate. Not really what you want to happen, especially in tough economic times, is it? If it does, you can thank the loony fringe of the Texas GOP for it.

UPDATE: Hair Balls is also on this – one, two, three.