California Panel Backs Science Curriculum That Includes Evolution as a Major Theme

October 11, 1989 4 min read

By Robert Rothman

In a move hailed by science educators and civil libertarians, the California curriculum commission has unanimously endorsed the teaching of evolution as a key theme in science instruction.

The vote late last month came as the panel adopted a curricular framework for science that also calls for revisions along the lines urged by numerous reform reports.

Most significantly, the framework reorganizes science instruction around themes, rather than specific topics, a move designed to put the understanding of scientific concepts before the memorization of facts.

The 187-page document must be considered by the state board of education, which is expected to vote on it next month after a public hearing. If adopted, the framework could wield an influence over improvements in textbooks and science curricula throughout the country, its supporters predicted.

“This is a remarkable document,” said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education Inc., a Berkeley, Calif., group that advocates the teaching of evolution. “I hope it becomes a model for other states.”

“In my eight years’ experience, this is the strongest statement on teaching evolution I have ever seen,” added Michael Hudson, western director of People for the American Way, the civil-liberties group. “It will send an absolutely clear signal to textbook publishers not to water down their evolution coverage.”

The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, an Anaheim-based group that says it represents 6,000 churches statewide, said he will ask the state board to modify the document to ensure that it stresses that evolution is “not fact, it’s a theory.”

But Daniel Chernow, the commission’s chairman, said commission members will argue equally adamantly that the framework should remain intact.

“We want to be clear that, from an education standpoint, we feel strongly about this framework,” Mr. Chernow said. “This will give California very strong science education.”

“We’re not talking about creationism or evolution,” he added. “We’re quite disturbed by the fact that the United States lags behind other countries in science. California should be a leader.”

Compelling Belief?

The science-curriculum framework is the latest in a series of controversial efforts by California officials to revamp instruction in the state.

Previous frameworks for mathematics, English/language arts, and history-social science have sparked battles that have often pitted educators against each other and against textbook publishers. The publishers have argued that the curricula represent too great a departure from what is taught in other states.

Members of the curriculum commission said they expected another battle this year in revising the science framework.

In an effort to avoid a bruising fight over evolution, the panel asked the board to adopt a policy statement emphasizing that science should not be taught dogmatically. The policy, adopted in January, states that science teachers should restrict their instruction to “observable facts and testable hypotheses.” (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)

But instead of settling the issue, the statement appears to have reopened it. Members of the board said after the policy was adopted that the statement prohibits the teaching of evolution, which they consider “dogma.”

In response to the board’s concerns, the commission deleted a proposed sentence that described evolution as a fact and a theory. Board members felt the statement was “too defensive,” according to Mr. Chernow.

But, he said, the panel replaced the sentence with a longer explanation that outlined the scientific basis for including the topic.

“In no measure did we weaken that section,” he said.

The resulting document nevertheless violates the board’s anti-dogmatism policy in Mr. Sheldon’s view.

“The whole thrust of the document--that evolution is the core, central theme, and motif to all science--that is a compelling belief,” which is prohibited by the policy, he said. “If they teach evolution as a fact, they are teaching religion.”

Not Just Pigeonholes

But, although the evolution issue has sparked the most controversy, other aspects of the framework will have a more far-reaching effect on science instruction, Mr. Chernow suggested.

“Unfortunately, the document gets lost in a so-called battle that we thought was decided a long time ago,” he said.

He cited the framework’s call for organizing science instruction by themes--energy, continuity, patterns of change, and evolution, for example--that are common to all sciences, rather than by particular topics within each discipline.

Such an organization will enable students to understand the connections between the disciplines, Mr. Chernow said.

At the same time, Ms. Scott said, the thematic approach will make the subject more interesting. Instead of memorizing endless lists of vocabulary words, as most science courses currently require, students will gain an insight into the ways science explains the natural world.

“Science is not memorizing which pigeonhole to put organisms in,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as California Panel Backs Science Curriculum That Includes Evolution as a Major Theme