New Law Boosts Tennessee Science Standards

Back to June Ed Reporter

New Law Boosts Tennessee Science Standards

A new Tennessee law protects science teachers who choose to discuss the controversies surrounding climate change and evolution in the classroom. The Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act, which became law on April 17, states that:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

The law does not require teachers to teach alternatives to scientific theories like evolution. Instead, it assures that teachers who do discuss alternate theories will be protected, in keeping with the No Child Left Behind requirement that “the curriculum should help students to understand the full view of scientific views that exist.”

Tennessee state Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) told the the new law would protect teachers whose fear of possible legal repercussions prevents them from adequately addressing student questions:

There appear to be questions from teachers like, ‘What can we discuss and not discuss that won’t get us in trouble as far as nonconventional, nonscientific ideas, things that student may see videos about on YouTube?’ [The bill] doesn’t allow for religious or nonreligious ideology to be introduced.

Opponents disagree, saying the new law will allow teachers to bring religion into the classroom. The bill encountered stiff opposition from groups including the National Association of Biology Teachers and the American Institute for Biological Sciences. Becky Ashe, president of the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, told the Los Angeles Times,

Our fear is that there are communities across this state where schools are very small and one teacher is the science department, and they also happen to teach a Sunday school class, and this gives them permission to bring that into the classroom.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to veto the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, told the Wall Street Journal the law was “very clever” but “would clearly gut science education in our schools.” Both groups warned that the new law would expose the state to lawsuits. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Tennessee ACLU is on the lookout for “the right set of facts” and is “certainly ready to pursue litigation.”

Family Action of Tennessee, a conservative public-policy group, helped draft the legislation. The group believes the new law will help address weaknesses in the state’s science curriculum standards:

America is lagging behind other nations in the subject of science. And for science to advance, critical thinking skills and an understanding of the scientific method must be developed and strengthened. Yet such skills and understandings are often discouraged, particularly when it comes to certain scientific subjects. For example, in many classrooms, Darwinian evolution is currently taught in a completely one-sided manner, with most students never learning anything about growing scientific controversies about the theory. This may be particularly true in Tennessee where the curriculum standard regarding evolution requires only that students know “the supporting evidence for the theory of evolution,” with no allowance for knowing anything about the controversies surrounding the theory.

Family Action denies allegations that the new law will inject religion into classrooms:

The bill specifically states that the information discussed must be “scientific” and must relate to scientific theories “required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education.” The bill does not change the existing curriculum frameworks that govern the subject matter covered. Consequently, the amendment makes it clear that the bill is only addressing the curriculum framework adopted by the state board of education. Thus the bill does not allow the teaching of creation science or intelligent design as they are not “existing theories” being “covered” in the courses taught pursuant to our curriculum frameworks. Further, teaching those subjects has been ruled contrary to the “establishment clause.” State law cannot “trump” the U.S. Constitution.