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Evolution in the Science Standards

Table of contents
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7

Part 1: How it all started

It's educational and exciting to witness firsthand the ever-twisting plot that arises in battles over evolution education. I joined with other Florida Citizens for Science (FCS) members and our associates in the Florida capital, Tallahassee, Feb. 19 when the board of education met to decide the fate of a brand new set of state science standards. There's nothing quite like sitting elbow to elbow in a room packed with your friends, your opponents, and darn near more TV cameras than can be found at a Britney Spears court appearance. I pitied the poor presenters who had business scheduled early in the agenda unrelated to the main event. You could almost hear the mental will of the audience hissing at the speakers: "Get on with it already."

The audience's fidgeting was understandable. This final clash had been a long time in coming, stretching out over the previous months and even years. The last time the science standards had been hammered together was 1996. The following decade was hit or miss as far as evolution in the classroom was concerned since those standards didn't mention the e-word. Rather, the document referred to "changes over time." Florida Education Commissioner in 2005, John Winn, issued a statement concerning the new standards revision process, during which he explained the 1996 version's phrasing choice:

While the standards for science do not specifically mention evolution, the Grades 9-12 standards do include concepts embraced by the theory, such as natural selection and mutation. The actual term "theory of evolution" was not used as it was felt "biological change over time" was both more accurate and acceptable. [October 11, 2005 Dept. of Education press release.]

That opinion was contested by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which reviews the nation's state standards on a periodic basis. In 1998 and then again in 2000 and 2005, the Foundation blasted Florida's science standards, slapping them with an F each time. The 1998 and 2005 reviews looked at the standards overall and found confusion and blatant errors throughout. The 2000 review focused strictly on states' treatment of evolution and gave 13 states, including Florida, failing marks.

Would Florida rise from the muck in 2008 and shake off the shame of being at the bottom of the class? It would seem obvious that the desire would be there since state government was pushing hard to attract a new industry to the southern sunshine: bio-tech. Research companies such as Scripps and Burnham set up shop here. But despite Gov. Jeb Bush's cheerleading for their growth, he pulled a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine:

Gov. Bush in Dec. 2005 felt that evolution didn't need to be in state science standards. Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss clarified Bush's position somewhat: Evolution "is a scientific theory and he's not opposed to it being taught in classrooms," Schweiss said. "But he doesn't think it should necessarily be dictated in the standards." [December 28, 2005 St. Petersburg Times story.]

Additionally, fears of a Kansas-style disaster were stoked when Gov. Bush filled the position of Florida's K-12 chancellor with Cheri Yecke in 2005. Yecke had angered science educators in her previous job as Minnesota education commissioner. In 2003, that state was revamping its science standards and Yecke was accused of trying various shady shenanigans to slip creationism into the public schools [source]. It was about the time when Yecke rolled into town here that FCS was born.

However, by the time Florida's science standards review process finally got out of the starting gate both Gov. Bush and Yecke were gone. The standards review had been planned for 2006, but it was pushed back by about a year due to delays in updating math and language arts standards. There were some sighs of relief since that meant the inevitable evolution conflict wouldn't explode until after that year's gubernatorial elections.

But apprehension still clouded the air. The state's seven board of education members are appointed positions, and Gov. Bush had selected all but one of them. Would they support the same views as their benefactor? An anxious public would have to wait for a while to find out.

Story by Brandon Haught

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  :: Contact us at: bhaught@flascience.org
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