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The Acceptance of Evolutionary Theory among Students Enrolled in a Master's Degree Program for Educators (2012)

Randal R. Kight


Evolution is the central and unifying theme of modern biology (Rutledge & Sadler, 2007), and professional science and science-education organizations strongly emphasize the importance of effectively teaching the theory in public schools in the United States (NAS, 1998; NABT, 2002; NSTA, 2004). In addition, most states' science standards emphasize the teaching of evolution, though they may vary greatly in how well they cover the subject (Cavanagh, 2005). However, according to Lerner (2000), many states fail to effectively teach the theory to their students.

Over the years, many surveys and polls have been administered to the general public in order to assess their acceptance of evolution (Gallup, 2007; CBS News, 2004; Geotimes, 2005). Results indicate that more than half of all Americans reject evolution and favor alternative explanations, such as intelligent design (ID) (CBS News, 2004; Geotimes, 2005). In addition, surveys have found that many high school biology teachers reject evolution and identify with creationism and/or ID (Eglin, 1986; Ellis, 1983; Moore, 1999). For example, a recent survey found that 12% of high school biology teachers believed that creationism was not only a valid scientific alternative to evolution, but also a view widely held by many reputable scientists. More surprisingly, however, this same survey revealed that 16% of the respondents also believed that God created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years (Rowley, 2008).

Given these results, it is not surprising that many biology teachers emphasize alternative theories to evolution in their classrooms. A survey by Moore (2007) found that 25% of respondents emphasized creationism and/or ID over evolution in their courses. Other studies have found that many teachers refuse to discuss evolution at all, most often to avoid conflict with students, parents, and administrators (Aguillard, 1999; Bergman, 1999; Johnson, 1986; Trani, 2004; Randak, 2001; Rutledge & Mitchell, 2002; Roelfs, 1987; Shankar, 1989; Tatina, 1989; Weld & McNew, 1999; Zimmerman, 1987, cited in Moore & Kraemer, 2005). But few studies have investigated the acceptance of evolution by educators who teach in subjects outside of high school biology courses. In one study, less than 50% of elementary educators, and less than 80% of secondary educators, claimed to accept evolution (Kibbler, 2001; Troost, 1979, cited in Moore & Kraemer, 2005). To date, there are no studies in the literature which have surveyed educators enrolled in advanced degree teaching programs.

Purpose of the Survey

This survey aims to measure the level of acceptance of evolutionary theory among a group of graduate students enrolled in the Spring 2008 graduating class of the Penn State Harrisburg, Teaching & Curriculum master's degree program in education. Survey participants attended the program through online and face-to-face courses at the Beaver campus located in Monaca, Pennsylvania. The required coursework emphasized discussion of major issues and current trends in instructional curriculum practice and development, focusing on the concepts of critical thinking, democracy, diversity, and scholarship in the field of education.

Survey Design

The survey was designed using SurveyMonkey software and completed online by participants, who were informed about it through e-mail and online classroom message board posts that linked to the survey. Participants were ensured that their responses would be completely confidential and anonymous. They were also informed that if they declined to participate in the survey, their choice would in no way impact their grade for the course. Survey results are displayed in Table 1.


Of the 27 students enrolled in the Spring 2008 graduating class, 23 completed the survey. Of those participating, 17.4% were male and 82.6% were female. The average age range of the respondents was between 25-34 years, 73.9%. Those between the ages of 35-44 made up 17.4%, and those under 25 years of age and between 45-54 years of age were equally represented at 4.3%. In addition, the majority of respondents taught in suburban school settings (outside the city) (72.7%) and rural settings (13.6%), while 9.1% taught in city schools (central to the city) and 4.5% taught in urban schools (within the city).

The majority of participants, 40.9%, taught in schools with an enrollment of 800 or more students, while 31.8% taught in schools with an average size of 401-600 students. Only 13.6% of the respondents taught in schools of 201-400 students. None of the respondents taught in schools with fewer than 200 students.


Political Views

Of those participating in the survey, even numbers (30.4%) described themselves as Democrat and Republican, whereas 17.4% described themselves as Independent. Of the Democrats and Republicans, 4.3% identified themselves as strong Democrats or strong Republicans. Equal numbers (34.8%) described their political views as moderate or conservative. 8.7% described their views as liberal, and 13% as very liberal, while 8.7% identified their views as very conservative. A majority (52.2%) claimed to have voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election. Fewer (30.4%) voted Democrat, and 17.4% chose not to vote.

Religious Views

The majority (87%) of respondents identified themselves as Christian. Most of these Christians (60%) described themselves as Catholics, and the remainder (40%) as Protestants. In addition, 8.7% selected "other," and 4.3% identified themselves as atheists. None of the respondents selected the additional choices of Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, or agnostic. 56.5% claimed to attend church services frequently, while 26.1% said they attended services sometimes. Only 8.7% responded that they attended services rarely or never.

Science and Religion

Many respondents (45.5%) indicated that they believe that science and religion are largely in conflict, and that evolutionary theory in particular is in conflict with their personal religious beliefs (30.4%). Furthermore, only 26.1% believe that evolution is compatible with their own religious beliefs. In addition, 34.8% disagreed (and 17.4% strongly disagreed) with the statement, "My religious beliefs do not influence my perception of evolutionary theory."

Intelligent Design and Evolution

Most respondents (56.5%) were quite certain that evolution was only one of many different scientific theories which explain the complexity of life on Earth. However, the majority of respondents (34.8%) were uncertain as to whether ID was a scientific theory and a legitimate alternative to evolution. In addition, an equal number of respondents (26.1%) were either uncertain about or agreed that complex living systems, such as the eye, were best explained by an intelligent cause.

Teaching Intelligent Design in the Classroom

Several of the survey questions were designed to assess respondents' level of comfort with teaching ID in a variety of settings. Respondents were asked whether they would be comfortable teaching lessons which involved presenting ID as a controversial public issue in different settings. More specifically, they were asked about the appropriateness of teaching about ID within social studies and science classes.

The majority of respondents agreed (39.1%) or strongly agreed (13%) that they would be comfortable teaching a lesson which discussed ID as a controversial public issue within the school science curriculum. Only 8.7% disagreed, and 13% strongly disagreed, that they would be comfortable discussing ID as a scientific controversy. In addition, 26.1% were uncertain about how they would feel presenting ID as a controversy. When asked whether they would be comfortable teaching a lesson which required students to debate ID, 26.1% agreed and 8.7% strongly agreed. Additionally, 26.1% were uncertain, while 21.7% disagreed and 17.4% strongly disagreed.

Many respondents agreed (56.5%) or strongly agreed (17.4%) that they would be comfortable teaching a lesson which required them to discuss how different peoples and cultures have differing views concerning the origins and development of humans. An additional 21.7% were uncertain about how they would feel, while only 4.3% claimed that they would feel uncomfortable in this situation. None of the respondents strongly disagreed.

When asked, 34.8% of respondents agreed, and 8.7% strongly agreed, that they would be comfortable teaching a lesson which required them to discuss what accounted for the increased interest in teaching ID in public schools. An additional 17.4% disagreed, and 13% strongly disagreed, while 26.1% remained uncertain about how they would feel teaching this lesson.

Teacher and Student Knowledge Structures

An overwhelming majority of the respondents agreed (60.9%) and strongly agreed (21.7%) that it was important for them to present a controversial subject matter in a dispassionate and unbiased manner. In addition, 22.7% agreed, and 9.1% strongly agreed, that their students' knowledge structures were similar to their own. Only 13.6% disagreed, while none of the respondents strongly disagreed. 54.5% claimed that they were uncertain. 47.8% disagreed, and 13% strongly disagreed, that they allowed their personal attitudes and opinions to influence their instructional choices. Only 17.4% agreed, and another 21.7% were uncertain. None of the respondents strongly disagreed.


Limitations of this Survey

One limitation of this survey is the small number of participants involved. Another is that the survey did not represent a wide range of educators from different school settings (e.g., rural, urban, city, and so on), different school sizes (e.g., small or medium), or different locations. Nevertheless, the sample did represent a diverse group of educators certified to teach in a variety of subject areas (e.g., English, music, social studies, mathematics, etc.).

Suggestions for Future Surveys

Future surveys targeting graduate students ought to be administered to larger groups of potential respondents, as well as those enrolled in different graduate degree programs (e.g., math, science, philosophy, English, history, etc.).


Over the years, surveys have found that many educators have a poor understanding of evolution and the mechanisms by which it works. In addition, most underestimate the scientific power of the theory to explain how life on Earth has changed over time (Eglin, 1986; Ellis, 1983; Moore, 1999; Rowley, 2008). As a result, many teachers favor alternative theories, such as creationism and ID, and even prefer that these theories be taught in science classes along with, or in place of, evolution (Kibbler, 2001; Troost, 1979, cited in Moore & Kraemer, 2005). To avoid conflict in the classroom, many teachers simply avoid discussing evolution at all (Aguillard, 1999; Bergman, 1999; Johnson, 1986; Trani, 2004; Randak, 2001; Rutledge & Mitchell, 2002; Roelfs, 1987; Shankar, 1989; Tatina, 1989; Weld & McNew, 1999; Zimmerman, 1987, cited in Moore & Kraemer, 2005).

Because evolution is the central and unifying theme of modern biology (Rutledge & Sadler, 2007), and teaching about evolution is a requirement of most states' science curricula, it seems warranted to recommend that preservice and regular classroom teachers be better educated about the importance of evolution through specific coursework and workshops targeted at improving their understanding of the theory.

One of the primary goals in American K-12 education ought to be providing students with a solid background in science. This is especially true if, as a nation, we wish to remain competitive in a science- and technology-driven global economy.


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Copyright ©2012 Randal R. Kight. The electronic version is copyright ©2012 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Randal R. Kight. All rights reserved.