California Policy Calls for Curb on Science 'Dogma'

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In a major victory for the state's science teachers, the California Board of Education has unanimously approved a new policy statement aimed at bolstering the teaching of evolution by urging that pressures to teach "dogma" be resisted.

While the statement does not use the terms "evolution" or "creationism," it significantly strengthens a 1972 directive that critics say was too vague to give adequate guidance or protection in the emotion-charged area.

The new policy, which officials said would send a "strong signal" to textbook publishers, is likely to have an impact on science instruction in other states, because of California's large share of the national textbook market.

The one-page statement asserts that the science curriculum should be restricted to discussions of scientific theories based on "observable facts and testable hypotheses."

"From time to time," it notes, "natural-science teachers are asked to teach content that does not meet the criteria of fact, hypothesis, and theory as these terms are used in natural science and defined in this policy."

"As a matter of principle," it adds, "science teachers are professionally bound to limit their teaching to science and should resist pressure to do otherwise. Administrators should support teachers in this regard."

"Science is science," said Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction. "It shouldn't be taught dogmatically."

Discussions about religious or philosophical beliefs, Mr. Honig said, belong in English or social-studies classes.

But at least one religious leader vowed to resist the policy, which he called a "gag order."

"It says that parents and students may not bring up the topic of creationism, or any alternate theory of the history of origins other than evolution," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent 6,000 churches statewide.

Mr. Sheldon added that although the policy "could be a violation of the First Amendment," he has no plans to mount a legal challenge to it. Rather, he said, his coalition's "grassroots" network will "go to school districts and create a climate in which the gag order is not followed through on and parents, students, and teachers can discuss creationism."

'Waffling on Evolution'

The state board adopted the new policy at the urging of a 16-member panel that is developing a new science-curriculum framework for the state.

The board's previous "anti-dogmatism" policy, adopted in 1972, was inadequate as a guide for teachers and textbook publishers, according to Kevin Padian, a panel member.

"We could not draft a framework without a stronger statement of policy on teaching science," said Mr. Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Publishers felt hamstrung by [the earlier] policy," added Thomas Sachse, manager of science education for the state's department of education. "There was so much waffling on evolution."

In 1985, in fact, the state board rejected all junior-high-school science textbooks submitted for adoption, in part because members said the books' treatment of evolution was inadequate.

For example, noted Elizabeth K. Stage, a member of the framework committee and the director of mathematics education for the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, textbooks often qualified statements about scientific findings by saying that "some scientists believe" particular theories.

"It's as if science is decided by vote," she said.

The old policy also provided "a window of opportunity for the teaching of creation science," according to Ms. Stage.

"Teachers had no protection under that policy from pressures from the community," she said.

Defining Terms

By contrast, the new policy would allow publishers and teachers to discuss evolution without fear of community pressure, Ms. Stage said.

"Every one of the publishers who spoke [before the state board] urged the board to send a clear message," she said. "They know what's right."

The new policy defines scientific facts, hypotheses, and theories, and points out that a "dogma is a system of beliefs that is not subject to scientific test and refutation."

"Compelling beliefs," it says, "is inconsistent with the goal of education; the goal is to encourage understanding."

"To be fully informed citizens," the policy continues, "students do not have to accept everything that is taught in the natural-sciences curriculum, but they do have to understand the major strands of scientific8thought, including its methods, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws."

If students raise questions that are "outside the domain of science," it adds, teachers should "treat the question with respect," and urge students to speak to their parents and clergy.

No 'Opting Out'

The policy also points out that schools are not required to provide ''equal time" for creationist views or to allow students to opt out of instruction that may offend their religious beliefs.

"Neither the California nor the U.S. Constitution," the statement points out, "requires, in order to accommodate the religious views ofthose who object to certain material or activities that are presented in science classes, that time be given in the curriculum to those particular religious views. It may be unconstitutional to grant time for that reason."

In addition, it states, although California law permits students to elect not to participate in class discussions of sexual reproduction or experiments with animals, it does not allow students to be excused from class attendance "based on disagreements with the curriculum."

Such an option would destroy the science curriculum, since evolution is such an integral concept in biology and earth science, noted Ms. Stage.

"If you opt out every time it comes up, you'll miss science," she said.

Vol. 08, Issue 18

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