Law & Courts

Pa. School Officials, Science Groups Split Over New Biology Curriculum

By Sean Cavanagh — November 30, 2004 3 min read
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A furor over science and religion in the classroom has roiled a small school district in south-central Pennsylvania, although strictly speaking, the tumult does not center on evolution or creationism.

The controversy in the Dover Area school system stems from the 3,600-student district’s recent decision to include language on “intelligent design” in its revamped biology curriculum.

That change prompted the resignations of two school board members, and it has stirred criticism from outside organizations that say the new guideline amounts to an indirect attempt to thrust religion into the classroom.

Carol Brown, former Dover Area board member.

Dover’s revised curriculum includes the statement: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to intelligent design.” Intelligent design is the general belief that natural phenomena in the world cannot be explained entirely through theories such as evolution, but rather are also the work of an unspecified maker or designer.

Some critics of the statement interpret the wording as a mandate to teach intelligent design. At least two organizations that have followed similar curricular debates say if that is the case, the guideline would make Dover the first district in the country with a requirement to teach that concept.

‘We’re Going to Get Sued’

School officials, however, responded last week to criticism by releasing a statement saying that “no teacher will teach intelligent design, creationism, or present his/her or the board’s religious beliefs.” While Pennsylvania standards require that students learn about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Dover district officials said the subject of life’s origins is not taught in their district, and any discussion of that topic should be left to “individual students and their families.”

But two Dover school board members, husband and wife Jeff and Carol Brown, were so frustrated by the curriculum change that they resigned. Mr. Brown maintains that the language, approved by the board on Oct. 18, is “creationism in another guise” and an unconstitutional promotion of religion.

“All it does is stop short of naming the supreme creator,” Mr. Brown said. “I told [board members] when we passed this, ‘I guarantee we’re going to get sued.’ ”

Several Dover school board members and district administrators did not return calls for comment. But new board member Ronald Short, who was appointed to a seat on the panel to a term that lasts until next fall, said he was “leaning strongly” toward continuing to support the district’s policy on intelligent design. He viewed the new curriculum as an effort to teach students to think critically about science issues. “It has absolutely nothing to do with religion,” he said.

Theories, Beliefs

Debates over evolution have emerged in a number of districts recently, including an ongoing federal court case stemming from the Cobb County, Ga., district’s policy of placing a sticker on textbooks describing evolution as a “theory, not a fact.” (“Evolution Stickers Go on Trial in Ga.,” Nov. 17, 2004.)

Jay B. Labov, a senior adviser at the National Research Council, a division of the congressionally chartered National Academies, pointed out that the scientific community defines a “theory” as an explanation that has been robustly tested and supported through several lines of evidence. Evolution meets that standard, he said, but intelligent design and creationism do not.

Mr. Labov also said that many of the supposed “gaps” in the theory of evolution cited by critics have in fact been explained by science and do not cast legitimate doubt on the theory.

A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences says that creationism and intelligent design “are not science.” Those claims, the document states, “subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief.”

Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-Calif.-based organization that opposes efforts to teach creationism in science classes, agreed. “Intelligent design is a fancy way of saying ‘God did it,’ ” Ms. Scott said. A court would deem Dover’s policy unconstitutional, she predicted, after focusing on “who the designer is.”

Richard Thompson, the chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nonprofit firm that defends Christian views in religious-freedom cases, said his organization has already offered to represent the Dover district, if it is sued over the curriculum.

“Teachers should be allowed to teach the gaps in evolution,” Mr. Thompson said. “As a high school student, I’d think you’d want to know there are gaps. Right now, it seems that there is a pall of orthodoxy over the school system.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Pa. School Officials, Science Groups Split Over New Biology Curriculum

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