Evolutionary theory is fundamental to biology, yet evolution instruction in high schools has often been unsatisfactory. How or whether high school biology teachers teach evolution is influenced by their own acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, parents’ and community members’ views, and in the case of some private schools, their religious affiliations. Studies documenting how evolution is taught in public high schools have been conducted, yet private schools remain underresearched.

Arkansas high school biology teachers employed by public and private schools were invited to complete a survey composed of the Measure of Acceptance of the Theory of Evolution (MATE) and other items designed to allow comparison of their treatment of topics within evolutionary theory. Specifically, we sought to compare public and private teachers’ acceptance of evolution, how they teach it in their classrooms, and how their acceptance of the validity of evolution compares with four other widely accepted scientific theories (cell, gene, germ, and atomic). Results suggest that public school teachers have higher levels of acceptance of evolution than private school teachers. However, teachers in both public and private schools reported lower acceptance of the validity of evolutionary theory compared with the other four scientific theories. Across topics within evolution, natural selection was given the most treatment while human evolution was given the least.

Dozens of scientific, educational, and even some religious organizations have published position statements verifying evolution as a central and unifying scientific theme (Voices for Evolution, 2016). Though recent evidence suggests that acceptance rates have increased in recent years, and biology teachers are now teaching more evolution to their students (Plutzer et al., 2020), national polls have reported consistently low public acceptance for several decades, and the percentage of Americans who reject evolution is high compared with other developed countries (Miller et al., 2021). Evolution education has been especially contentious in southern states, with legislation aimed at weakening the status of evolutionary theory introduced as recently as February 2023 in West Virginia (Senate Bill 619, 2023).

Public acceptance or rejection of evolution in the United States is culturally complex, stemming from “a myriad of often interwoven reasons” (Pobiner, 2016) including identity-protective cognition (Walker et al., 2017) and creationists’ views (Wingert et al., 2023), and correlates with factors such as GDP and educational attainment (Heddy & Nadelson, 2013). Notably, religiosity has been found to be more predictive of low scientific literacy than income, race, or gender (Sherkat, 2011), and Rissler et al. (2014) found that religiosity was a better predictor of evolution acceptance than education. Jensen et al. (2019) suggested that religious affiliation and religiosity (e.g., how one’s religion affects behavior) both affect acceptance of creationist claims (e.g., the six-day creation story), which, in turn, affect evolution acceptance.

Studies suggest teachers have been pressured to modify their teaching of evolution or to present nonscientific explanations for the diversity of life, such as intelligent design (Berkman et al., 2008; Griffith & Brem, 2004; Pobiner, 2016). While teaching standards generally include evolution, its teaching has historically been avoided, de-emphasized, or replaced with nonscientific alternatives in high schools (Bland & Moore, 2011; Moore, 2008; Rutledge & Warden, 2000). Moreover, some studies suggest science standards may not matter where teaching evolution is concerned (Bandoli, 2008; Moore, 2002; Moore & Kraemer, 2005).

Science provides insights into natural phenomena through rigorous testing, formulating conclusions based on empirical evidence, and the development of theories. Because science is limited to naturalistic explanations, science teachers have no basis for introducing nonscientific explanations for natural phenomena because science cannot test or reject these. Moreover, scientific theories are “well-substantiated explanation[s] [emphasis added] of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses” (National Academy of Sciences, 1998). Several scientific theories help us understand the nature of living things, such as germ theory, gene theory, and the overarching evolutionary theory (NSTA, 2013). However, acceptance of evolution’s validity has been found to be significantly lower than for germ, cell, gene, and atomic theory (Rutledge & Sadler, 2011).

Views on evolution have been studied for a variety of demographics, yet there is a lack of information from private schools. Schulteis (2010) examined evolution instruction in Lutheran schools across the United States, reporting that all respondents taught at least one of seven fundamental concepts of evolution (speciation, diversity, descent with modification, evidence for evolution, natural selection, pace and rate of evolution, and human evolution) in their classes. Unsurprisingly, natural selection was emphasized more than human evolution. However, 75% of Lutheran high school teachers disagreed with the statement “Evolution is a central and unifying theme in biology,” and 59% disagreed with “Evolutionary topics are supported by scientific evidence” (Schulteis, 2010).

Approximately 4.7 million students are enrolled in private schools in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). Many states, including Arkansas, have or are considering school voucher programs enabling the use of taxpayer dollars to enroll students in private schools, which will surely bolster private school enrollment. Because scientific literacy in general and evolutionary literacy in particular are important as students become citizens (Kampourakis, 2022), an understanding of private school science curricula can help inform interested parties about trends in scientific literacy of United States citizens. This information also would be valuable to college-level instructors in meeting the needs of a significant number of their students.

Opponents of evolution have worked for decades to influence high school science curricula in the United States. In southern states, the anti-evolution movement can be traced to the publication of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony between 1905 and 1915 (Halliburton, 1964; Le Beau, 2007). Fundamentalists “took violent exception to the advocacy and teaching of evolutionary theories” and worked to make teaching evolution unlawful, especially in southern states: “Each and every Southern state experienced a vitriolic anti-evolution controversy” (Halliburton, 1964). Between 1921 and 1929, 37 anti-evolution legislation articles were introduced in Arkansas and other states (Halliburton, 1964), and anti-evolution petitions were circulated in Arkansas newspapers before the 46th Arkansas General Assembly (Bush, 1926).

In 1927, the “Rotenberry Bill” was introduced by A. L. Rotenberry, of Little Rock. This bill passed the Arkansas House but was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 17–14. With the aim of adding a referendum to the subsequent general election ballot, required signatures on circulated petitions were quickly obtained, and a referendum essentially identical to the Rotenberry Bill was passed into law (Halliburton, 1964; Ledbetter, 1979). This made it unlawful for any teacher employed by a publicly funded institution to teach “the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animal” (Ledbetter, 1979).

The Arkansas statute was in place from 1929 to 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968). Creationists in Arkansas later worked to undermine the status of evolution with legislation granting “equal time” for creationist-based science teaching. The Arkansas Federal District Court ruled that “creation science” is not science, and teaching creation-based “science” in public schools violates the Establishment Clause (McLean v. Arkansas, 1982). The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) by overturning a Louisiana law requiring public school science teachers to teach creation science.

The anti-evolution movement in Arkansas is far from over. Introduced in 2017, Arkansas House Bill 2050 read, “To allow public school teachers to teach creationism and intelligent design” (HB2050, 2017). While this bill died in the House, House Bill 1701, introduced in 2021, passed by a vote of 72–21, but then died in the Senate Education Committee (HB1701, 2021):

TO ALLOW CREATIONISM AS A THEORY OF HOW THE EARTH CAME TO EXIST TO BE TAUGHT IN KINDERGARTEN THROUGH GRADE TWELVE CLASSES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND OPEN-ENROLLMENT PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS.

Though neither of these bills were passed into law, their filing—and that 72 state representatives voted in favor of HB1701—reveals much about the current climate in Arkansas.

On the national level, research suggests teachers were teaching more evolution and less creationism in 2019 than a decade prior (Plutzer et al., 2020), perhaps due to implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and improvements in teacher education programs. Because of ongoing resistance to evolution education, we sought to assess the status in both public and private schools in Arkansas. Because (a) teaching licenses are not required for private school teachers, (b) private school science teachers are therefore not required to complete a state-recognized teacher licensure program including a sufficient number of science courses, and (c) teachers who accept jobs at private schools may be doing so for religious reasons, we hypothesized that there would be differences in how private and public school teachers treat evolution in their classrooms. Specifically, we sought to answer these questions: (a) How do Arkansas public and private high school biology teachers compare in their levels of acceptance of evolution? (b) Are there differences in acceptance of evolution’s scientific validity compared with other widely accepted scientific theories (cell, germ, gene, and atomic)? and (c) To what extent do public and private high school teachers treat the topics within evolution?

The Survey Instrument

Rutledge & Warden (1999) designed the Measure of Acceptance of the Theory of Evolution (MATE) to measure high school biology teachers’ acceptance of evolution, though it has since been used for other demographics such as high school students (Wiles & Alters, 2011), undergraduate college students (Moore & Cotner, 2009; Nadelson & Southerland, 2010), and university faculty (Rice et al., 2015). The MATE has been validated through classical test theory (Rutledge & Warden, 1999), Rasch analysis (Romine et al., 2017), and factor analysis (Rissler, 2014), and high reliability values have also been reported (Romine et al., 2017; Rissler, 2014; Rutledge & Sadler, 2007). Romine et al. (2017) conducted a thorough evaluation of the MATE, and while their analysis points to some limitations, they found it to be psychometrically sound.

Additionally, Romine et al. (2018) compared the MATE with more recently developed survey instruments and concluded all three—the MATE (Rutledge & Warden, 1999), GAENE (Smith et al., 2016), and I-SEA (Nadelson & Southerland, 2012)—produce measures with very similar quantitative interpretations.

Items from a survey designed by Rutledge & Sadler (2011) also were used to assess teachers’ acceptance of the validity of five scientific theories—gene, atomic, evolution, germ, and cell—enabling comparisons between participants’ views of evolutionary theory and the other four. Participants were provided with a brief description of each theory and asked to report their degree of agreement on whether each theory is scientifically valid.

Finally, Likert-scale items asking participants about their treatment of topics within evolution were included: speciation, diversity, descent with modification, evidence, natural selection, pace and rate, and human evolution.

Recruitment of Participants

High school biology teachers employed in public and private high schools in Arkansas were invited to complete our survey via the online service, SurveyMonkey, during the Spring 2021, Fall 2021, and Spring 2022 semesters. Reminder emails were sent two weeks after the initial invitation. Due to low response rates from private schools, paper surveys with a stamped return envelope were mailed during the early fall semester, 2021. Ninety-eight public and 16 private high school teachers returned completed surveys. Incomplete surveys were omitted from our analysis. To ensure that only data from biology teachers was used, surveys were screened with the first question of the survey: “I teach one or more biology classes (Yes/No).”

Statistical Analysis

Average MATE scores were calculated for both public and private teacher responses and were compared using Mann-Whitney U. We used Mann-Whitney U and Wilcoxon signed-rank tests to investigate differences in teachers’ acceptance of evolutionary theory compared with the other theories. Mann-Whitney U and Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were also used to assess differences in public and private teachers’ emphasis of evolutionary concepts.

Research Question 1: Acceptance Among Public and Private School Teachers

We hypothesized that public school teachers (n = 98) would have higher acceptance of evolutionary theory than private school teachers (n = 16). Box-and-whiskers plots showing distributions of MATE scores are provided in Figure 1. There were obvious departures from normality, with strong negative skew for scores from public school teachers and slight positive skew for private school teachers, who also showed greater variability in scores. Because these issues could be problematic for typical parametric significance tests (e.g., ANOVA, Student’s t) all analyses on these and other measures reported below were conducted with nonparametric methods (Mann-Whitney U, Wilcoxon signed-rank) and a stringent criterion for statistical significance (p < .001). The difference between the two groups on the MATE (medians of 91 and 55) did reach this level of significance for the Mann-Whitney U, indicating that public school teachers were more accepting of evolution than were private school teachers.

Figure 1.

Box-and-whisker plots depicting scores on the MATE for public and private school teachers.

Figure 1.

Box-and-whisker plots depicting scores on the MATE for public and private school teachers.

Close modal

Research Question 2: Acceptance Across Five Scientific Theories

We hypothesized that private school teachers’ acceptance of evolution’s validity would be significantly lower than their acceptance of four other scientific theories, but that this trend would not be observed in public school teachers’ responses. Teachers were asked to identify their level of agreement with statements describing five scientific theories on a five-point scale (“Strong Disagreement” to “Strong Agreement”). Relative frequency distributions showing percentages of public and private school teachers selecting each level are provided in Table 1. Teachers from public and private schools were in agreement with statements related to gene, germ, cell, and atomic theories. However, the percentage of teachers showing agreement with evolutionary theory was lower, especially for those teaching in private schools. We used separate Mann-Whitney U tests to compare the two groups’ responses toward each theory. They differed significantly only on evolutionary theory and, consistent with MATE scores, public school teachers showed greater agreement than did private school teachers.

Table 1.

Frequency distributions for public school (n = 98) and private school (n = 16) teachers’ acceptance of five central scientific theories.

SDDUASA
Evolutionary Theory      
 Public 5% 3% 4% 22% 65% 
 Private 19% 19% 13% 13% 38% 
Atomic      
 Public 0% 0% 2% 17% 81% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 19% 81% 
Germ Theory      
 Public 1% 1% 1% 13% 84% 
 Private 0% 0% 6% 13% 81% 
Cell Theory      
 Public 0% 0% 0% 15% 85% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 13% 88% 
Gene Theory      
 Public 0% 0% 0% 12% 88% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 19% 81% 
SDDUASA
Evolutionary Theory      
 Public 5% 3% 4% 22% 65% 
 Private 19% 19% 13% 13% 38% 
Atomic      
 Public 0% 0% 2% 17% 81% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 19% 81% 
Germ Theory      
 Public 1% 1% 1% 13% 84% 
 Private 0% 0% 6% 13% 81% 
Cell Theory      
 Public 0% 0% 0% 15% 85% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 13% 88% 
Gene Theory      
 Public 0% 0% 0% 12% 88% 
 Private 0% 0% 0% 19% 81% 

Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were used for pairwise comparisons of responses to theories for all teachers. Comparisons of evolutionary theory with each of the others were significant, indicating less agreement with evolutionary theory. None of the other six possible pairwise comparisons among the four other theories were significant.

Research Question 3: Teachers’ Treatment of Topics Within Evolutionary Biology

Arkansas’ current science standards are a modified version of the NGSS and include significant treatment of evolution (Arkansas Department of Education, 2016). We hypothesized that public school teachers would teach and emphasize themes within evolutionary biology more than private school teachers. Teachers were asked to indicate the degree of emphasis given to seven concepts in evolution (speciation, diversity, descent, evidence, natural selection, pace and rate, and human evolution) on a five-point scale (“No Emphasis” to “Strong Emphasis”). Relative frequency distributions of teachers’ responses are provided in Table 2. Mann-Whitney U statistics were calculated to compare public and private school teachers’ responses for each of the seven concepts. Public school teachers reported significantly greater coverage for natural selection than private school teachers. No significant differences were observed for the remaining six concepts. Comparisons between coverage of the seven concepts for the entire sample of 98 teachers were conducted using Wilcoxon signed-rank tests. The two concepts receiving significantly more coverage than the others were diversity and natural selection, while the two receiving significantly less coverage than the others were human evolution and pace and rate.

Table 2.

Frequency distributions for public school (n = 98) and private school (n = 16) teachers’ treatment of seven topics within evolution.

NoneLittleSomeModerateStrong
Human Evolution      
 Public 15% 28% 23% 19% 14% 
 Private 31% 19% 25% 25% 0% 
Pace and Rate      
 Public 15% 22% 33% 15% 14% 
 Private 31% 6% 31% 31% 0% 
Speciation      
 Public 2% 6% 22% 34% 36% 
 Private 13% 13% 19% 31% 25% 
Descent      
 Public 1% 6% 15% 32% 46% 
 Private 6% 25% 13% 25% 31% 
Evidence      
 Public 2% 4% 15% 26% 53% 
 Private 6% 19% 13% 31% 31% 
Diversity      
 Public 1% 2% 9% 36% 52% 
 Private 6% 6% 13% 31% 44% 
Natural Selection      
 Public 1% 1% 5% 19% 73% 
 Private 6% 25% 0% 31% 38% 
NoneLittleSomeModerateStrong
Human Evolution      
 Public 15% 28% 23% 19% 14% 
 Private 31% 19% 25% 25% 0% 
Pace and Rate      
 Public 15% 22% 33% 15% 14% 
 Private 31% 6% 31% 31% 0% 
Speciation      
 Public 2% 6% 22% 34% 36% 
 Private 13% 13% 19% 31% 25% 
Descent      
 Public 1% 6% 15% 32% 46% 
 Private 6% 25% 13% 25% 31% 
Evidence      
 Public 2% 4% 15% 26% 53% 
 Private 6% 19% 13% 31% 31% 
Diversity      
 Public 1% 2% 9% 36% 52% 
 Private 6% 6% 13% 31% 44% 
Natural Selection      
 Public 1% 1% 5% 19% 73% 
 Private 6% 25% 0% 31% 38% 

Limitations

All survey-based studies have limitations, including the potential for self-selection bias. Public school teachers should know that they are mandated to teach evolution based on the state science standards. Our data may not be representative because some teachers may have elected to not complete the survey, or to misrepresent what they are actually teaching in their classrooms, once they learned that questions about how they teach evolution comprised part of the survey. This may have affected response rates from private school teachers also; however, we suggest that because they are not required to adhere to state standards, questions about how they teach evolution should not have served as a deterrent. Additionally, teachers who feel strongly about their rejection of evolutionary theory could be as motivated to complete our survey as those who feel more strongly about the value of teaching evolution in their classrooms.

The small sample size from private schools makes meaningful inferences more difficult. Sixteen private schools (23% of those in Arkansas) submitted completed surveys, prompting our decision to use nonparametric statistical tests. Return rates for public school teachers are difficult to calculate because contact information for science teachers was unavailable in many cases, so email invitations were sent to whole schools. However, personal communication with the Arkansas Department of Education suggests that 98 completed surveys represent 15% of the total number of certified biology teachers in K–12 public schools in Arkansas.

Finally, though the MATE was recently revised because of concerns over conflation of constructs (Barnes et al., 2022) MATE 2.0 was not available until after this study was completed. It is possible that some participants’ responses were influenced by constructs not directly related to acceptance. However, because the original MATE was designed to measure high school teachers’ levels of acceptance and has been validated and deemed psychometrically sound (Rissler, 2014; Romine et al., 2017; Rutledge & Warden, 1999), we regarded it to be satisfactory for informing us about differences between private and public school biology teachers’ views.

Teaching evolution in public school classrooms has been contentious in the United States for decades. Though recent data suggests an increase in acceptance of evolution among adults in the United States, a significant portion are still unsure of or reject the theory of evolution outright (Miller, 2021).

Recently introduced legislation aimed at diminishing the status of evolutionary theory in Arkansas public schools was supported by more than three-fourths of voting members of the Arkansas State House of Representatives (HB1701, 2021), suggestive of an ongoing anti-evolution climate in Arkansas. Conversely, and consistent with current national trends reported elsewhere (Plutzer et al., 2020), our results suggest that current public high school biology teachers in Arkansas are generally accepting of evolutionary theory, while private high school teachers have a somewhat lower acceptance.

As independent organizations, private schools are not obligated to adhere to state educational standards, nor are private school teachers required to obtain state-issued licenses. Most of them are religiously affiliated, and correlations between religiosity and acceptance of evolution have been documented (Heddy & Nadelson, 2013; Jensen et al., 2019; Rissler et al., 2014). Religiosity is only one aspect of a group of interrelated factors, however. Researchers also suggest that personal beliefs and convictions often have more influence than church doctrines, both religiosity and religious affiliation can impact how one views evolution (Jensen, 2019). Such factors may influence who chooses to apply for positions at private schools, and private school teachers’ religious affiliations and religiosity may influence their acceptance of and teaching of evolution in the science classroom (Schulteis, 2010).

Moreover, whether private school students are taught evolution may have effects moving forward: students who were taught evolution and not creationism have been shown to be significantly more likely to accept the validity of evolutionary theory (Moore & Cotner, 2009; Rissler, 2014), and pre-course knowledge and acceptance has been found to correlate with course achievement in introductory college biology (Carter et al., 2015). Acceptance of evolutionary theory has also been found to correlate with students’ abilities to negotiate biology-based socio-scientific issues (Fowler & Zeidler, 2016). Additionally, college-level instructors would benefit by understanding these effects. Disentangling specific motives driving private school teachers to teach or to not teach evolution presents questions for future research.

We were not surprised that acceptance of evolutionary theory was significantly lower than the other four scientific theories (cell, germ, gene, and atomic) among private school respondents. However, we were somewhat surprised that public school teachers also showed this trend. Consistent with Rutledge’s (2011) findings, it appears that university students and teachers alike are more likely to accept other scientific theories over evolution. The reluctance of science teachers to fully accept these scientific theories as settled science raises questions about the reasons behind this observation; identifying these also presents questions for future research, and addressing this question across other demographics may provide some interesting insight into the reasons behind these differences.

Finally, our assessment of biology teachers’ emphasis on seven concepts specific to evolutionary theory did not yield surprising results, as public and private school biology teachers reported less emphasis on human evolution than natural selection. Human evolution may be considered more controversial than other topics, making private school teachers more reluctant to include it in their instruction. In public schools, the high emphasis on natural selection may be a result of how it is addressed in Arkansas science standards (Arkansas Department of Education, 2016).

An understanding of evolutionary theory is fundamental to scientific literacy, and the high school science classroom is the last opportunity many have to learn about the nature of science and the mechanisms of evolution. Thus, secondary science educators play an important role in developing a scientifically literate populace, including bridging the gap between settled science and resistant sectors of the public (Nehm & Schonfeld, 2007). Long-term progress in closing this gap would be best achieved by recruiting high-caliber high school graduates and early-career college students into quality science education programs. Such programs should provide students with a solid foundation in content, including evolutionary biology and the nature of science, and the instructional tools to teach these topics (see Ziadie & Andrews, 2019, for an excellent resource). Pre-service science teachers are an especially important group for consideration (Glaze, 2018; Glaze et al., 2014; Larkin & Perry-Ryder, 2015; Vaughn & Robbins, 2017): pre-service teachers’ understanding and acceptance lead to a higher likelihood that they will give treatment to evolution in their own classrooms. We consider in-service teachers and college professors as having much potential in this endeavor and call on them to continue to serve as positive role models for our future science teachers.

Historically, Arkansas’ treatment of evolution in state education standards was found to be unsatisfactory (Lerner, 2000). In 2005, Arkansas revised state science standards with strengthened evolution content goals, and in 2016 implemented a modified version of the NGSS (Arkansas Department of Education, 2016). We view these steps as progress and are hopeful that teachers’ efforts in the classroom will continue to close the gap between settled science and public perception.

We thank Dr. Michael T. Scoles for his statistics review and consultation.

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