Much has been written recently about the renewed controversy over teaching evolution in certain select schools that have bowed to conservative pressure to require teachers to give equal treatment to a theory known as “Intelligent Design,” which asserts that life is so intricately complex that a higher power must be behind it.

That debate — over how, or if, to teach evolution — has broken into the open in just a handful of communities. But it has a powerful echo, one that has school administrators elsewhere hiding under their desks — and muting the way that they teach science. That’s the big story, but it’s also the one that has warranted little attention from the media.

Today, Cornelia Dean of the New York Times moves the subject to the forefront. Dean rounds up experts and classroom teachers who speak openly about the chilling effect that the anti-evolutionists in a few places are having on instruction in a lot of places.

In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.

Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.

Teachers are left in a quandary, writes Dean.

Dr. Gerald Wheeler, a physicist who heads the National Science Teachers Association, said many members of his organization “fly under the radar” of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts of the science curriculum.

Dr. Wheeler said the science teachers’ organization hears “constantly” from science teachers who want the organization’s backing. “What they are asking for is ‘Can you support me?’” he said, and the help they seek “is more political; it’s not pedagogical.”

This is one of those stories that no one held a press conference to announce. To the contrary, it’s the product of an industrious reporter rolling up her sleeves and doing a lot of digging to uncover what’s really going on behind classroom walls all across the country. The result is a well-documented, well-sourced examination of a subject that is simmering just under the surface of public education.

And that is enterprise reporting of the sort that may well be the press’ last best hope.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.