Framework for Science Curricula Backs Evolution

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Last month, the California Board of Education voted unanimously to accept a new curricular framework for science developed by 16 scientists and educators. These guidelines had been backed by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Bill Honig, and passed by the board's curriculum commission after months of review by hundreds of educators and scientists.

Reacting as they usually do to documents concerning science education, conservative religious groups mounted efforts to downplay or eliminate attention to evolution. And just as predictably, the scientific and educational communities supported its inclusion.

Yet, after the vote was taken, both sides claimed both victory and disappointment. Advocates of "creationism" claimed they had gained major concessions. Scientists deplored last-minute tinkering but called the framework the strongest science-education statement ever put in force. Mr. Honig allowed that a compromise had been politically necessary but insisted that "it is very clear in the document that evolution will be taught and creationism will not."

Even more confusing were the reactions of the media. Newspaper headlines variously announced "Creation Theory Backed," "Evolution Teaching Strengthened," "Evolution Theory's Foes Win Textbook Battle in California," and "Evolution Guideline Has Little Impact." One columnist headed a follow-up commentary "Is Man Descended From Bill Honig?"

What happened?

The media's perplexity was understandable. Discussion of the 187-page framework--revised every seven years, in accordance with California's textbook-adoption schedule--had become concentrated on two pages in the final draft of the document before the board. Those two pages outlined how socially controversial topics, such as evolution, animal rights, and conservation, were to be handled by teachers.

According to board policy--adopted last January and based in large part on a preliminary draft of the framework--such topics are not to be avoided. Discussion should center on their scientific aspects, and teachers should show how a knowledge of science is appropriate and essential to deciding public issues based on science. Individual religious and philosophical beliefs are to be respected, but questions not appropriate to the science classroom are to be referred to family and clergy. Such beliefs are not to be used to discourage full and open discussion of scientific issues; the goal of education is not indoctrination, but understanding.

In a June letter to the curriculum commission, the board raised, among other concerns, two points of particular interest here.

First, the board wrote that a statement "indicating that evolution is a fact and a theory is inconsistent with the board's policy and should be corrected wherever it appears in the document." This suggestion demonstrated only that some board members did not understand their own policy.

Evolution, like gravity and electricity, is both a fact and a theory, as any scientist knows. The same term is used to convey both the observations of evolution and the theoretical structure that explains those observations. Despite repeated explanations, some board members seemed incapable of grasping that a theory, in scientific parlance, is much more robust than a fact. And there was no question that some of the impetus for this comment came from the creationists.

The framework's authors and editors declined to "correct" statements that identified evolution as a fact and a theory. Instead, we used several new paragraphs to explain why scientists view evolution, gravity, and electricity as both facts--observable, confirmable propositions--and theories--larger, testable bodies of hypothesis and evidence that explain natural phenomena. Indeed, we would have refused point blank to remove references to evolution as fact. Evolution is a scientific fact. Period.

Second, the board felt that the discussion of "creation science" or "scientific creationism"--which was characterized quite correctly in the guidelines as a body of pseudoscience, rejected by both scientific societies and the Supreme Court--was "too defensive and should be modified." Some fundamentalists objected to having these facts brought forth, and some board members appear to have capitulated to these pleas. It is unfortunate that other members, who backed the framework, did not oppose them. The authors and editors deleted one unnecessary sentence but felt that removing more would erode the clarity of the document on this issue and the protection it afforded science teachers.

The curriculum commission approved the document unanimously in September and sent it to the board for review and action. Negotiation ensued between Mr. Honig and Francis Laufenberg, president of the board, over the points cited, but only two pages of the draft were discussed. Some phrases were removed.

The section on evolution in this part of the framework begins, "Evolution is the central organizing theory of biology, and has fundamental importance in other sciences as well."

A later passage said, "Scientists base the theory of evolution on observances of the sequences of appearance, change, diversification, and disappearance of forms through the fossil record. These sequences show that life has continually diversified through time, as older species have been replaced by newer ones." Curiously, this sentence was deleted.

But the rest of the section, like the 1978 framework and its 1984 addendum, clearly lays out the evidence for evolution and the solid foundation on which the theory is based. The sentence "There is no scientific dispute that evolution has occurred and continues to occur; this is why evolution is regarded as scientific fact" was replaced by "Thus, the theory of evolution is the accepted scientific explanation of how these changes occurred." This is mystifying word play, designed only to appease creationists.

Also removed were a paragraph showing that the National Academy of Sciences had unequivocally rejected "creation science" and documented it as nonscience in a booklet available to teachers, and a paragraph summarizing the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard that "creation science" was a thinly disguised attempt to introduce a sectarian religious belief into public-school classrooms, for which "equal time" was unconstitutional.

Will the creationists be appeased by these changes? At several points in other sections, the document states that evolution is a fact and also a theory; that because all organisms contain dna and rna, they must have inherited them and evolved from a common ancestor; that evolutionary relationship is the basis of biological classification; that the homology of tissues and organs among living things is based on evolution and that teachers should show students how these features appeared and were modified in structure and function through evolutionary history.

Evolution is named as one of the six central themes of science, and the term is used over 200 times in the guidelines.

Furthermore, in the "science content" portion of the new framework, the section on "cells, genetics, and evolution" is not only maintained but expanded. This section begins with a paragraph stating: "The unifying theory of biology is evolution; ... nothing in biology makes sense without it. It is accepted scientific fact, and has been since the mid-1800's, that organisms are descended with modification from other organisms. The patterns, processes, and mechanisms of this descent make up the theory of evolution. ... Curricula must reflect this centrality of evolution in the biological sciences [emphasis added]."

Will this position please the religious right? Hardly. Then what did the eleventh-hour changes in those few opening paragraphs represent? In my view, they signify only an acknowledgment that certain politically conservative board members, appointed by a conservative governor, put politics before their public trust. And they do not care how foolish they appear in public or how futile their conciliatory gestures are.

The new framework also means that the religious right itself is now totally disenfranchised from the public-education system in California. These groups chose not to participate in the process but to try backroom politicking and last-minute pressure to achieve their goals. They succeeded as well as they might have, perhaps, but nowhere near as well as they would have several years ago, in an even more conservative political climate. People seem tired of their intolerance of others' views and of their constantly flogging "creation science," a horse that has long since expired.

The religious right will continue to be most effective at the local level of harassing individual teachers and administrators. This tactic has served such groups well for many years, and picking on teachers is perhaps the most despicable thing they do. But the new framework builds in a strong degree of protection for public-school teachers. As the document is read, adopted, and implemented in the state, and as its influence spreads to other states, the creationists can be expected to find only cold comfort in the few excisions of phrase negotiated for them by their political puppets.

Vol. 09, Issue 15, Page 36

Published in Print: December 13, 1989, as Framework for Science Curricula Backs Evolution
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