Fla. Panel’s Evolution Vote Hailed

But compromise is seen unlikely to settle debate.
By Sean Cavanagh — February 19, 2008 7 min read
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The compromise hammered out in Florida this week over the treatment of evolution in the state’s science classrooms is winning praise from scientists and educators, though few regard it as signaling an end to nationwide discord over the issue.

New science standards narrowly adopted Feb. 19 by the state board of education will for the first time explicitly refer to evolution—specifically, the “scientific theory of evolution.” The changes replace more-general language in the previous guidelines that merely alluded to the concept.

“The standards, as approved, are a huge step forward for our Florida schools,” said Brandon Haught, a spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science, an advocacy organization that supported the new standards. “They’re light-years ahead of what’s been used in the state.”

At the same time, those who lobbied for and against the document agreed that the Florida decision was unlikely to quell the fierce debates over evolution as a topic in public school science classes.

“This controversy will never be over,” said Dennis K. Baxley, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, who supported the final document. “It’s another step in a long saga of this discussion. There will be a number of scientific perspectives put forward as the years go on, and a number of religious and other perspectives.”

Those divides were evident even in the new language adopted by the Florida board.

The science standards did not satisfy the demands of some religious advocates, who had submitted written comments in the months leading up to the vote suggesting that there are scientific doubts about evolution—a suggestion disputed by most scientists.

And some in the scientific community complained that Florida officials’ insertion of the word “theory” may wrongly imply that evolution is the subject of more doubt or uncertainty than other key scientific principles. In fact, they point out, evolution is backed by a massive amount of research across scientific disciplines.

Still, science advocates regard the new standards as far more cohesive and accurate than the former standards, drafted in 1996. The previous standards referred to evolution euphemistically as “mechanisms of change” and “change over time.”

Road to Revision

Within the scientific community, evolution is regarded as a central, unifying principle of modern biology. Pioneered by the British naturalist Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century, the theory holds that humans and other living things have evolved over multiple generations through natural selection, in which organisms with advantageous traits survive and reproduce, as well as through random mutation. The process ultimately accounts for the diversity of life on Earth.

That explanation for life’s development is almost universally accepted among scientists, who say new evidence for it emerges constantly.

The latest skirmish over evolution’s place in the curriculum came as Florida set out to revise its standards for what students should know in science, which guide instruction and content on state tests.

Florida officials began revising their standards last May. A group of 61 Florida scientists, engineers, teachers, college professors, and curriculum specialists spent about six months working on a 96-page document before it was posted online for public comment—a process that drew thousands of responses. (“Florida Gets an Online Earful on Evolution,” Nov. 7, 2007.)

In the months after a draft document was issued, at least 11 of the state’s 67 district school boards, many of them in northern Florida, passed resolutions opposing it, according to Florida Citizens for Science.

One such resolution was approved Jan. 15 by the school board of the 7,400-student Jackson County school district, in northwest Florida. It said the standards could “preclude the consideration of other theories,” besides evolution, and it argued for a more “varied, thorough, balanced, and comprehensive” approach to science education.

Approval of the standards on a 4-3 vote at this week’s state board meeting came only after the panel agreed to insert the words “scientific theory of” before various references to evolution and other major scientific concepts, such as the “big bang” in cosmology and plate tectonics in geology. A second alteration adds the words “law of” in front of other terms, such as gravity and the conservation of mass.

Those additions were suggested by a committee member who helped draft the standards, said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education. State Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith then asked state math and science director Mary Jane Tappen to consult with other committee members about the language. She then offered the proposed language as an option to the board, Mr. Butler said.

Board member Roberto Martinez, who supported the document’s strong treatment of evolution, objected to the changes, arguing that they added confusion to the document.

“Teaching the ‘scientific theory of evolution’—as opposed to what, the religious theory of evolution?” said Mr. Martinez, who later voted against the standards with that wording change. At another point he added: “I disagree with an effort to water down the proposed standards for reasons that, to me, are inexplicable.”

Board member Donna Callaway voted against the document, because, in her view, it discourages what she believes is legitimate scientific criticism of evolution.

The standards could do more “to allow expressions of academic freedom,” she said in an interview.

Those who challenge evolution’s status in public school science classes have argued in recent years it should be treated as a “theory” and “not a fact.” But scientists note that, in the realm of science, a theory refers to an explanation for some aspect of the natural world that is backed up by considerable evidence—unlike in everyday language, in which a “theory” may mean an untested idea or a mere hunch.

When scientists refer to a “fact,” they use that term to mean an observation or piece of evidence that has been tested and confirmed repeatedly—as is the case with evolution, a 2008 report of the National Academy of Sciences explains.

Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and prominent science-textbook author, said he had a mixed reaction to the “scientific theory of” language approved in Florida. He said he hoped it would solidify evolution’s place in classrooms, though he worried that some would attempt to use the wording to wrongly imply the evidence for evolution is weak.

Scientists Push Back

The Florida board’s action did not signal an end to, or even a respite from, fights over evolution, Mr. Miller said, so much as it showed a new willingness among scientists and others to stand their ground.

“The scientific and education communities have seen how organized and determined the opposition is—and have become more organized in response,” Mr. Miller said. “They are making sure arguments against evolution do not go unanswered.”

In recent decades, the federal courts have consistently ruled that teaching creationism, or the biblical view that God created all living things in essentially their current form, in public school science classes violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

See Also

In the most closely watched recent case, a federal judge in late 2005 ruled that the Dover, Pa., school district’s requirement that students be introduced in science class to the concept of “intelligent design” was religiously motivated and unconstitutional. Intelligent design, which scientists see as an ideological cousin of creationism, is the belief that living things show signs of having been designed by an unidentified architect, rather than having developed through evolution. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Backers of Florida’s new standards had argued that the state had much to gain—or to lose—in deciding whether to approve them.

Florida’s 2005 science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” were about at the countrywide average at the 4th grade level, though the state’s 8th graders scored below national norms and well below top-performing states.

Some Florida scientists also had recoiled at the idea of the state’s hosting a prolonged public debate over how to teach evolution, as occurred in Kansas in recent years. The Kansas state board of education’s decision in 2005 to describe aspects of evolution as controversial brought worldwide scrutiny. In 2007, a newly reconstituted board restored evolution’s status in the document.

A public fracas over evolution could have hurt Florida’s efforts to attract employers in bioscience and related industries, others in the state argued.

Debra S. Walker, a school board member in the 8,400-student Monroe County district in southern Florida, who served on a committee that helped draft the new standards, believes the latest document will put some of those worries to rest.

“We’ve been stymied by the E-word before,” Ms. Walker said after the state board’s vote. “With the passage of this, I think [the state] recognized that the real E-word is ‘economy.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Fla. Panel’s Evolution Vote Hailed


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