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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 2: We're related to oranges

Toward the end of 2006, Florida Citizens for Science members had started work on our own proposed draft of new science standards. This effort was spearheaded by then FCS board member Phyllis Saarinen, and by April 2007 we presented the document to the Florida Department of Education. The sincere effort Saarinen and FCS put into the draft helped establish our organization as one to be taken seriously. We care about science education overall, and officials in the Department of Education now understood that.

A committee of 31 "framers" met in May 2007 to kick off the official standards review process. The Office of Math and Science -- a branch of the Florida Department of Education -- assembled these science educators, business leaders, and private citizens with the purpose of helping to decide what should be in the new document. The framers heard from nationally recognized experts and examined national and international research. They then created guidelines for the next group of 37 "writers" to use in actually creating the first draft of the new science standards. In October of that year, the writers turned in their product. During this process, there were some signs of opposition to evolution's future role in the standards. Fred Cutting, a retired aerospace engineer, was a framing committee member and stated his objections to the subject matter. His was the only such voice, which didn't have any significant impact during the writing process [source]. But he would pop up again in later months as the standards moved closer to a final vote by the Board of Education.

The draft was a significant improvement over the 1996 version in many ways. For instance, the subject matter was divided up and presented as "big ideas" that could be explored in depth rather than the old standards' method of presenting a wide range of scientific concepts that could only be given surface-level treatment in the limited time available in the school year. Various experts, including Thomas B. Fordham Foundation reviewers, praised the new draft as a huge step forward. [source] One highlight was that evolution was among the standards' "big ideas."

So far, the science standards revision process had moved along smoothly. Once public input was sought, though, the process started careening through potholes.

The Office of Math and Science posted the draft standards on a website and invited the public to rate and comment on them for 60 days. When the comment period ended in mid-December, the website had logged 262,524 ratings [source]. In contrast, there were only about 43,000 ratings of the math standards when they had gone through the same process.

The public was now in an uproar over the science standards. Five public hearings were held in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miramar. The first ones were relatively quiet affairs and didn't attract too much attention. On the other hand, that final meeting in February featured more than 70 citizens eager to voice their opinions. Despite the fact the new draft of the science standards covered every aspect of science education in the public schools, all 70 speakers focused just on evolution. News reports estimated that at least 45 speakers opposed the subject, including this sample:

One man linked Charles Darwin to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. Another said evolution sanctioned murder. Still another held up an orange and said that because of evolution, he now had irrefutable evidence that an orange was "the first cousin to somebody's pet cat" and "related to human beings." [February 12, 2008 St. Petersburg Times story.]

The general public was obviously divided and vocal over evolution, but that was to be expected. The real shocker came when several district school boards tried to influence the standards approval process. The first hint of trouble popped up in Polk County when school board member Kay Fields told her local newspaper that she would consult with her superintendent about what their district could do. "There needs to be intelligent design as well," Fields said. "You need to show both sides." [November 13, 2007 Lakeland Ledger story.] A follow-up story in the paper polled all of the school board members and found that a majority supported Fields' views. Despite all the bluster, though, the issue eventually fizzled out there, with no action taken.

Story by Brandon Haught

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