Arizona’s Draft Science Standards Minimize Evolution. Many Blame the State Superintendent

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 23, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A draft of Arizona’s K-12 standards for science teaching significantly weakens the teaching of evolution—and many critics in the state attribute the new wording directly to Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of education.

Late revisions made to a draft of the state’s science standards portray evolution as less than settled fact and substitute other terms, like “biological diversity,” in some language. Here are two representative examples, one from the draft’s “core ideas” and another from the high school section of the draft. (Click to see the full size.)

The draft also deletes an earlier standard directing students to analyze and interpret “supporting evidence for the Big Bang theory and the scale of the Universe” in favor of new language directing them to “critique ... theories related to the scale and expansion of the universe.”

Where the changes came from exactly is unclear. They first showed up in a redlined copy that emerged this spring from an internal review at the Arizona Department of Education. The current draft differs substantially from the one crafted by a team of more than 100 educators, curriculum specialists, and science experts last year, and also introduces some errors, the writers said.

“We were appalled. Just appalled,” said Barbara Reinert, the science specialist for the Scottsdale, Ariz., district, who served on the standards-writing team, after she and colleagues saw the new draft. “They didn’t look anything like the ones we wrote.”

Many critics point the finger directly at Arizona schools chief Diane Douglas for the changes, especially after a video emerged last week of her remarks at a political event for Republican candidates. At that meeting, she said she supported the teaching of “intelligent design,” the idea that life is too complex to have evolved on its own without the hand of a presumably omnipotent designer.

Intelligent design, a dressed-up form of creationism, was deemed in a 2005 U.S. federal district court ruling to violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The term intelligent design doesn’t appear in the standards, and in an interview with the Capital Media Service, Douglas said her November remarks reflected her personal beliefs. But she acknowledged to the newswire that the current draft could open the door to teachers introducing that concept.

She also said that “evolution is a theory in many ways,” which confuses the scientific use of the word theory with the way people use it in everyday speech. In science, the term theory actually refers to a well-researched and empirically tested explanation—not a good guess.

A spokesman for Douglas sent this statement in response to a request for comment:

I would like to clear up the misinformation that was reported regarding our upcoming Arizona Science Standards. Evolution is still a standard that will be taught under the Arizona Science Standards. In addition, you will not find creationism or Intelligent Design included anywhere in the Arizona Science Standards. The recording of me talking about Intelligent Design was taken at a political function where I expressed my personal belief that Intelligent Design should also be taught along with the theory of evolution. Although that is my personal belief, my belief is not included in the Arizona Science Standards."

Evolution Remains a School Debate

For educators like Reinert, the evolution pieces in the standards are doubly frustrating because they bring up tired arguments long dismissed by virtually all scientists. (In a few more years, K-12 education will reach the 100-year anniversary of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee.)

“It’s not even an argument in science and not even up for debate. It’s so passé,” Reinert said.

Arizona’s debate has surprising parallels to a similar situation that emerged last year in neighboring New Mexico. Last October, that state altered language in the Next Generation Science Standards, which the state was considering for adoption, on climate change and on evolution. Those changes, as Education Week reported at the time, also appear to have been driven by political forces within the state’s education department. The reaction from science teachers in New Mexico was so strong that the state ended up reversing many of those changes, but not all of them.

In Arizona, as in New Mexico, at least one education department staffer quit over the revisions.

Lacey Wieser, until recently the science director at the Arizona education department, said supervisors told her to make the changes, which she believes were coming from the superintendent’s office. She quit the following week upon realizing that the standards writers probably would not be able to reverse the changes.

“All I knew was that this wasn’t good science, and that they broke the progressions and development of standards that the committee worked hard to build,” she said. “The way evolution has been changed makes every science teacher in the state vulnerable. [Teachers will think], ‘If I want to keep my job I have to do something incompetent in my field.’

“I don’t want to come across as a bitter ex-employee,” Wieser continued. “I’m not. I just don’t want Arizona to have bad standards and for kids to learn in an scientifically inaccurate way.”

The standards are still undergoing public comment and will be revised again by the writing committee—and potentially by the department. A final draft will go to the state board of education sometime this spring.

Arizona’s draft does not include the NGSS, which currently guide science teaching in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

CORRECTED: A previous version misstated the court that ruled on intelligent design in 2005.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.