Ga. Chief Backs Down On ‘Evolution’ Stance

By Michelle Galley — February 11, 2004 3 min read
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Following a barrage of complaints from parents, educators, and politicians, Georgia’s schools chief ended her attempt to remove the word “evolution” from the state’s proposed academic standards only days after releasing the plan.

State Superintendent Kathy Cox said in a Feb. 5 statement that she originally planned to remove the word from the newly proposed state biology curriculum so that more emphasis would be placed on the content of the standards and less attention would be given to the divisive issue of evolution. Instead of avoiding an uproar, however, she said, “a greater controversy ensued.”

Ms. Cox canceled a press conference, where she was to address the issue, and instead issued the statement. Georgia education department officials refused to elaborate on the change of plans by the superintendent, a Republican who was elected to her post in 2002.

As an alternative to using the word “evolution,” Ms. Cox initially suggested that teachers use the phrase “biological changes over time.”

Putting the word “evolution” back into the standards is “a step in the right direction,” said Cynthia S. Workosky, a spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va.

But, she added, the superintendent’s office has also attempted to weaken the state’s science standards by omitting concepts related to natural selection, the age of the Earth, and genetic science. “We feel they need to be put back in,” Ms. Workosky said.

Others charge that the salvo was just the first step Ms. Cox will take to have creationism taught in the state’s schools.

“Stay tuned for round two,” said Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that advocates instruction in the theory of evolution.

The next development to come out of Georgia, Ms. Scott predicted, would be a push to have the theory of intelligent design, which posits that a higher power had a hand in designing life on Earth, added to the state standards.

Failing that, Ms. Scott said, the education leadership in Georgia could attempt to have evidence against evolution incorporated into the standards, a move she said would end up teaching children “bad science.”

Other Skirmishes

Before Ms. Cox’s announcement last week, high- ranking politicians from the state decried the idea of barring the word “evolution” from science classes.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, a fellow Republican, said that evolution should be part of the state’s curriculum, and that if educators were going to teach the subject, they should say the word, according to Loretta Lepore, a spokeswoman for the governor. She added that he supports the education department’s decision to reinstate the word.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia resident, released a statement earlier in the week saying that he was embarrassed by Superintendent Cox’s attempt to “censor” the word. “Nationwide ridicule of Georgia’s public school system will be inevitable if this proposal is adopted,” he warned.

The proposed changes to biology lessons are part of an overhaul of state standards in English/language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science.

The present set “has been failing children in our state for 20 years,” said Kurt Englehart, a spokesman for the state education department.

As part of the revisions, evolution would receive much more emphasis, even if the word itself were not used, he maintained.

Within each subject, the superintendent intended for teachers to cover fewer topics, but in greater detail, he said. “The subjects are more in depth,” Mr. Englehart said.

Ms. Cox’s plans for the history standards have also come under fire in the past two weeks for moving discussion of the Civil War out of high school and into the 5th and 8th grades, where some educators contend students are not ready to understand such provocative material fully.

“Middle schoolers do not have the same sensitivity as the older kids,” said Andy Preston, the president of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies, a membership group for teachers. He also teaches history in both the 8th and 10th grades at the 400-student Ware County Magnet School in Manor, Ga.

But Mr. Englehart said the proposed sequence made sense. Because the 8th grade is the year when students learn about the history of Georgia, “that is a perfect tie-in for students to learn about the Civil War.”

In addition, Mr. Englehart noted that recent research has shown that students can handle more challenging material at earlier grades. In high school, students need to concentrate on recent events, he argued.

“We want to bring in some of the more modern history,” said Mr. Englehart. “There is a need for our students to learn about 9/11, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.”

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