Thursday, November 29, 2007

Texas Education Agency director of science curriculum fired for announcing Barbara Forrest talk

Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign from her position. Her offense? Forwarding an email from the National Center for Science Education announcing a talk by philosopher and intelligent design critic Barbara Forrest, and adding the text "FYI."

The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, formerly at the U.S. Department of Education and former deputy legislative director for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. She wrote in an email to Comer's supervisors that "This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities."

The movie "Expelled" makes a big deal about cases like the Sternberg affair, where nobody lost a job or responsibilities, and the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzales, whose publication record didn't merit tenure. But here's a case of someone who appears to have actually been removed from her position for sending out an announcement of a talk critical of intelligent design--a subject which the courts have already ruled is unconstitutional to teach in the science classroom. TEA officials claim that Comer was removed for "repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination," which Comer describes as really meaning her concerns about teaching creationism in schools. The Texas Republican Party platform explicitly advocates teaching intelligent design in public schools.

Wesley Elsberry has more about the Comer case at the Austringer blog, where he wonders whether the Discovery Institute will decry Comer's firing, since they've been willing to stretch the facts to complain about cases with far less substance to them:
Will the Discovery Institute come forward to say that the TEA is repressing Ms. Comer’s free speech rights? Will they urge her to become the star of the “Expelled” movie? After all, she did actually lose her job over her stance on evolution in education, as opposed to various people noted as being featured in the film who did not. But the DI is unlikely to do so because Ms. Comer is on the opposite side of the issue from them. They aren’t defending a principle, they are pushing a particular line of propaganda.
I agree with Wesley. The Discovery Institute has a long record of misrepresenting facts (and not just about science) in order to promote its views. I suspect they will either remain silent or try to defend Comer's removal.

Pharyngula also comments on Comer's removal, including the following explanation from Comer's boss:
the forwarding of this event announcement by Ms. Comer, as the Director of Science, from her TEA email account constitutes much more than just sharing information. Ms. Comer's email implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral. Thus, sending this email compromises the agency's role in the TEKS revision process by creating the perception that TEA has a biased position on a subject directly related to the science education TEKS.
As P.Z. Myers comments: "Whoa. The Texas Education Agency is neutral on the subject of teaching good science? It's bad if the TEA takes a position on the subject of science education? Apparently, TEA members are supposed to close their eyes and maximize ignorance before making decisions. I really feel sorry for Texas."

UPDATE (December 2, 2007): And more, from Texas Citizens for Science (via Pharyngula).

UPDATE (December 4, 2007): The New York Times editorializes on this subject.

UPDATE (December 6, 2007): DI Fellow John Mark Reynolds agrees that TEA is in the wrong here.

UPDATE (December 12, 2007): The Society for the Study of Evolution has sent an open letter to "Texas TEA."

UPDATE (December 20, 2007): Glenn Branch has written a nice blog post about his email that cost Comer her job.

UPDATE (July 3, 2008): Chris Comer has filed a lawsuit regarding her termination.


Ktisophilos said...


"I suspect they [Discovery Institute] will either remain silent or try to defend Comer's removal."

Only a week later:

UPDATE (December 6, 2007 [actually 12.05.2007 = 12 May 2008 according to the normal worldwide way of writing dates :P ): DI Fellow John Mark Reynolds agrees that TEA is in the wrong here.

So much for predictions.

A better lesson would be: the government educracy sucks! Milton Friedman had the right idea with school vouchers. Walter Williams explains that partisan politics are precisely due to compulsory government funding of education, and would be just as bad if government funded cars or computers. See also Libertarian Solution to Evolution Education Controversy: No More Public Schools.

Lippard said...

Ktisophilos: That's DI Fellow John Mark Reynolds, speaking on his own behalf, not on behalf of the Discovery Institute.

Can you find anything official from the Discovery Institute that falsifies my prediction?

BTW, school vouchers are government funding of education, which points out that funding, setting standards, and providing the education are logically separable. I think that getting bad schools to go out of business (and having going out of business be a genuine threat to a bad school or bad teacher) is an important incentive for good education.

I don't think the empirical evidence supports a claim that private education is necessarily better than public--the charter school system in Arizona has shown that privately supplied/publicly funded schools can be awful as well as excellent, but if they have their charters revoked for failure to perform, at least they go away.

Ktisophilos said...

The DI didn't boot Reynolds out for disagreeing with the treatment of Comer (I too disagree with this treatment).

Williams also pointed out that just because a government funds something, it doesn't follow that the government needs to provide it. At least if parents are not happy with the private education, they can stop funding it, so there is an incentive to perform. But the teachers unions will fight vouchers tooth and nail in the name of "the children".

Lippard said...

The DI didn't boot out Reynolds, nor have they booted out Behe for endorsing common descent (though they seem to be giving him a bit of a cold shoulder after his last book). But they don't appear to have taken an official position. Has anybody associated with DI besides Reynolds made a similar statement?