I share Ross Nehm's concerns (in “Faith-based Evolution Education?” BioScience 56: 638–639) about the deplorable state of public education with respect to the teaching of evolution and the urgency of addressing the problem. However, I believe timing is everything. One of the problems with the public schools' teaching of evolution is that it is late. Theodosius Dobzhansky, in his well-known dictum “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” has made the clear-cut case for attending to the teaching of evolution as early on as possible. By the time evolution is typically brought into biology curricula, students have already learned bits and pieces of biology with no firm underpinning—much less understanding—of how the pieces got here, how they work together, and what keeps them running. Evolution becomes a sound-bite sidebar rather than the basis of biology.
My sabbatical fellowship here at NESCent [National Evolutionary Synthesis Center] is based on a proposal to craft a curriculum to teach “no-holds-barred evolution” to elementary students and, along the way, to their teachers. This effort is based on experiences I have had teaching ecology to elementary students in a like manner. One of the premises of this curricular philosophy is that elementary students are “undertaught” and are quite capable of understanding the basic ideas and tenets that underlie ecology.
So too in the teaching of evolution. If evolution is to become an understood (rather than misrepresented) part of the vocabulary of public discussion of the world and environment that citizens live in, then its teaching must begin in the elementary grades, where it can become a logical foundation for the rest of scientific teaching and learning.
This point is recognized in the National Research Council's 1996 guide—the National Science Education Standards—for the knowledge base that K–12 students should have as educated citizens. The standards note that an understanding of evolution is necessary in describing all aspects of “changes in the universe.” Hence, this knowledge base should certainly begin as soon as possible; and I would argue, based on experience, that that would be the third and fourth grade level.
Putting effort into elementary evolution education—including that of teachers—would be a smart and academically profitable way to place the teaching of evolution where it should be—at the forefront of biological education.