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Florida Gets an Online Earful on Evolution

By Sean Cavanagh — November 01, 2007 6 min read
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The committee has spoken. Now it’s the Florida public’s turn—and, when it comes to evolution, there’s a lot to say.

The state’s first revision of its public school science standards in a decade is now up for public comment. For the first time, the draft standards refer explicitly to evolution and, adhering to scientific consensus, describe the theory as a “big idea,” crucial to students’ understanding of the natural world.

In an attempt to make the process as open as possible, officials are encouraging people to submit comments online, until mid-December, through the state education department’s Web page.

Floridians appear to be seizing the opportunity. As of last week, an estimated 3,000 people had weighed in online. (The Web site is http://etc.usf.edu/flstandards/ index.html). Public hearings are scheduled for this month.

Using the Internet to take public comments on proposed academic standards and other policies has become a popular option for state and local education officials in recent years. Kansas—which was at the center of a heavily publicized controversy over the teaching of evolution in 2005—collected some comments online during that debate, as did Ohio when it revised its science standards in 2002.

Click to Rank

Policymakers see the online option as a relatively orderly way of gauging public sentiment, particularly on contentious issues.

And as states expand online options, the process for collecting comments has become more elaborate.

In Florida, for instance, online visitors can rank each individual benchmark, or topic area within the science standards, with options ranging from “strongly agree” to “neutral” to “strongly disagree.” They also can type in written comments for each one.

“We were charged to develop world-class [science] standards, and we felt that getting public input would be a large part of our success,” said Mary Jane Tappen, the executive director of the Florida Department of Education’s office of mathematics and science. She said the online process was important in “getting information out that’s factual, rather than just rumors.”

The current version of the Florida science standards, drafted in 1996, spells out what students are expected to know in science at various grade levels, as is the case in other states. The standards can guide teachers in organizing lessons and in planning for the state’s science test, Ms. Tappen said.

The process of revising academic standards has become major news in some states in recent years, with much of the attention focused on those documents’ treatment of the theory of evolution.

Kansas’ state board of education, which has switched back and forth on teaching evolution depending on which voting bloc has had the upper hand, approved standards in 2005 that described different pieces of evolutionary theory as controversial. That decision appalled scientists, who regard the theory of evolution as the most credible explanation for the development of humans and other living things. (“Evolution Loses and Wins, All in One Day,” Nov. 16, 2005.)

This year, a new Kansas board majority repealed the 2005 policy.

Evolution Emphasis

Florida’s science standards have also drawn scorn in recent years. The current version of the document does not even mention the term “evolution.” A 2005 review by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that has conducted numerous reviews of states’ academic standards in recent years, faulted the state for that omission, and referred to the overall document as “seriously flawed.” The new Florida standards were crafted by a committee of about 60 K-12, college, and business officials, as well as members of the general public, who volunteered or were recommended to the state.

Sounding Off

Florida officials are accepting public comments on proposed revisions to the state’s science standards at http://etc.usf.edu/flstandards/index.html. Online comments for two of the proposed benchmarks include:

BENCHMARK: Explain how evolution is demonstrated by the fossil record, extinction, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology (crosscuts with earth/space), and observed evolutionary change.

COMMENTS:

“Allow the teacher to present, and the students to be informed about, ALL the evidence regarding evolution, both positive and negative.”

“[I]t is clear that you’re proposing to teach evolution as a fact. It’s nothing more than [a] hypothesis and should be taught as such along with the strong scientific arguments against its validity.”

“[W]hat is meant by evolution? If evolution means change over time, the fossil record clearly demonstrates that. If evolution means that all of life’s diversity and complexity are the result of random processes culled by natural selection, none of the categories listed demonstrates that directly.”

BENCHMARK: Identify basic trends in hominid evolution from early ancestors 6 million years ago to modern humans.

COMMENTS:

“Helps understand the place of man in nature and our relationships.”

“The so-called scientific explanations are based on faith. Let’s stop teaching this religion in our schools.”

“[T]his will be attacked—stick to your guns and keep it in there.”

SOURCE: Florida Department of Education

Committee members examined a number of national and international documents in their work, including the blueprints used for crafting the science tests for the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the Program for International Assessment, or PISA, a prominent international exam.

The newly proposed Florida standards demand that students understand many aspects of evolution, including how evidence for evolution appears in the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, and other areas; how humans evolved from early ancestors over millions of years; and how evolution is guided by natural selection.

Brian McClain, a high school biology teacher and a member of the committee, said he heard a few of its members suggest presenting a more critical view of evolution in the standards. But the consensus was that doing so would undermine the document’s scientific legitimacy, he said.

Not discussing evolution “would be comparable to teaching earth science without talking about plate tectonics, or chemistry without the periodic table,” said Mr. McClain, who teaches at Amos P. Godby High School, in Tallahassee. “It just has to be there.”

The Florida committee will be expected to review the public comments, though it is not obligated to change them based on that input, Ms. Tappen said. The standards will then be sent to the state board of education—all of whose seven members are appointed by the state’s governor—for consideration, probably early next year, she said.

Battle Expected

The Florida draft standards’ unflinching description of evolution is encouraging, said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that advocates teaching the topic. But he also predicted opposition.

“I expect to see some of kind of organized effort [by opponents] to deprecate the standards,” Mr. Branch said, citing recent state and local battles over evolution.

In an early count of online comments submitted so far, a majority agreed with how evolution was presented in individual benchmarks. But the responses also reveal sharp divisions.

“Excellent benchmark,” one commenter wrote of a benchmark about evidence for evolution.

“Do some research of creation science,” another countered. “Evolution ‘facts’ have been disproven.”

Federal, state, and local governments routinely allow public comment on policies and regulations, and in some cases, are required to do so by law. As the use of the Internet has grown, more state and local governments have set up systems to gather such views online.

“The advantage is, it’s anytime, anywhere,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a professional and advocacy organization with staff members nationwide.

While comments collected online do not always accurately reflect public sentiment—advocates can flood sites with their views—more state and local education officials see it as a way to increase public involvement, noted Ms. Wolf.

In Ohio, officials collected online comments during the state’s revision of its science standards in 2002, when the topic of evolution was debated, and it uses that process for other academic standards, said Stan W. Heffner, an associate superintendent for curriculum and assessment with the state education department there.

He said online comments prove valuable, particularly in science, because many public concerns center on arcane questions such as the correct order of scientific topics in the curriculum.

“There are some really esoteric debates,” Mr. Heffner said, adding that “you want to know why people think what they think.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week


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