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Hey Science, Don't Mess with Texas

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It can't be a good thing when a state fires its head of science education for promoting science education. But that's what happened when the Texas Education Agency put its science curriculum director Chris Comer on administrative leave in late October, leading to what she calls a forced resignation.

We begin our story on October 26 when Comer forwarded an e-mail announcing a presentation titled, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," by Barbara Forrest. Forrest co-authored a book arguing that creationist politics are advancing the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools, and are doing so through public relations rather than through scientific research. Shortly after forwarding the e-mail, Comer was put on administrative leave.

"Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," according to the author of a TEA memo calling for Comer's firing.

The memo also criticizes Comer for failing to get permission to give a presentation at a conference and for suggesting there was a lack of leadership at the agency, but these offenses hardly seem grounds for a pink slip so let's focus on the statement above.

Does forwarding an e-mail really "impl[y] endorsement of the speaker?" Every day I forward more event-promoting e-mails than my Microsoft Outlook outbox knows what to do with. If I "endorsed the speakers" at half of them, you wouldn't be able to tell whether I was voting for Barack Obama, Ron Paul or Raffi. Comer's in charge of science education, so it makes sense that she'd forward an e-mail about a science education event. She sent the e-mail with the subject line, "FYI." For all we know, she does the same for hundreds of e-mails announcing presentations by intelligent design theory advocates too. That wouldn't make her an advocate of intelligent design theory, just an avid e-mail forwarder.

Does forwarding an e-mail really "impl[y] that TEA endorses the speaker's position"? We don't know whether Comer signed the e-mail "Sincerely, Chris Comer, Director of Science Curriculum, Texas Education Agency" or "xoxo, your old college girlfriend chrissy wissy," so even if Comer did privately endorse the speaker's position, we can't say whether she did so in her professional role. Although she did use her TEA e-mail account, it's still too big a jump to claim this implies agency endorsement of the speaker.

My third beef is the degree to which the agency's desire for "neutrality" stifles educational inquiry. Actually in this case it seemed to stifle Comer's effort to stay informed about current topics of controversy in her field. I understand it's the TEA's policy to "remain neutral" on the evolution-intelligent design debate, but the only thing this policy seems to do is politicize science education. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the Board [of Education]," Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

This of course leads us to the Board of Education. (Thanks for the segue, Eugenie.) Comer had held her position for nine years, so what might have motivated the TEA to clear her office now? Perhaps the fact that next year the Texas Board of Education will review the state science curriculum and set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection. My little conspiracy theory gets even better when you hear that the woman who led the charge to get rid of Comer just joined the TEA this year to become "senior adviser on statewide initiatives." (That woman, by the way, is Lizzette Reynolds, former deputy legislative director for Dubya when he was Texas guv and later a Bush appointee at the US Department of Education.) Might one of those statewide initiatives be inundating Texas children with intelligent design theory?

One closing note (thanks to my friends at The Great Beyond): In a recent international examination by the OECD of the performance of 15 year-olds in science, the United States scored significantly below average, finishing just behind Latvia. You might find it interesting to compare this chart showing where countries stand in the OECD rankings with this chart showing how much of their population believes in evolution. I'm not endorsing the position that people who believe in evolution are smarter. Just consider this a forwarded e-mail with the subject "FYI."