Curriculum

And Congress Said, Let There Be Other Views. Or Did It?

By David J. Hoff — June 12, 2002 3 min read
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The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 gives clear mandates to states to begin measuring students’ scientific knowledge by 2008. But what the law means for the science curriculum is still up for debate.

The report accompanying the law includes language declaring that the members who wrote it believe curriculum “should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist” on controversial topics, naming biological evolution specifically.

Advocates for alternatives to the theory of evolution say that states should heed the language and include their ideas challenging the theory that originated with the studies of Charles Darwin in the 19th century and have been advanced by modern biologists.

“It’s a strong advisory from Congress to the states, and a lot of people will take it very seriously, and they should,” said Bruce Chapman, the president of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes a theory called “intelligent design.”

But most scientists say that such advisory language has no force of law and urge schools to teach evolution as the explanation for the world’s biological diversity because the theory is almost universally accepted in the scientific community.

“What you teach in a science classroom and what you put in a science curriculum is the scientific consensus,” said Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and an author of a widely used high school biology textbook. “Most people realize that this doesn’t have the force of law.”

How to teach evolution has been controversial ever since some schools started banning Darwin’s ideas in the early 20th century.

A Grand Plan?

Now intelligent design’s advocates, who say that Earth is too complex to have evolved without outside intervention, are challenging state standards that list evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life. Biologists say that the intelligent-design theory has little evidence to back it up.

The latest battleground is Ohio, where a recent debate between Mr. Miller and another scientist on one side and Discovery Institute officials on the other drew more than 1,000 people. (“Debate Over Teaching of Evolution Theory Shifts to Ohio,” March 20, 2002.)

The state will issue new science standards by the end of the year.

On March 15, two Ohio congressmen sent a letter to the leaders of the state’s board of education reminding them of evolution language that appeared in the congressional report describing the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law reauthorizes federal K-12 programs and requires states to assess 3rd through 8th graders in reading and mathematics, starting in the 2005-06 school year. By the 2007-08 school year, it orders states to test students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

The bill “clarifies that public school students are entitled to learn that there are differing scientific views on issues such as biological evolution,” wrote Rep. John A. Boehner, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Steve Chabot, the chairman of the House Constitution Subcommittee. Both are Republicans.

“The conference report does not mandate Ohio do anything,” Heather Valentine, the press secretary for Mr. Boehner’s committee, said in an interview. “This letter is saying what the conference report said.”

Dan Langan, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said that because the language on evolution is in the conference report, not the body of the law, the Department of Education will have no enforcement role.

Claim Called ‘Bogus’

The law’s report language only muddies the water for state and local policymakers, according to Mr. Miller. Evolution’s opponents are using it to push their agenda, he said, even though it doesn’t include any legal consequences for those who ignore it.

“They say that it’s in the law, which it is not, and that it has the force of law, which it does not,” Mr. Miller said. “Any such claim is bogus.”

But Mr. Chapman, a director of the U.S. Census Bureau during the Reagan administration, said that state and school officials should treat the evolution language as having “the effect of law.”

When policymakers have ignored congressional report language in the past, Mr. Chapman said, Congress later passed a law to force them to do what it had earlier asked them to do.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as And Congress Said, Let There Be Other Views. Or Did It?

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