Archive for October, 2008

Tallahassee, we have a problem

Friday, October 31st, 2008

A bruising, exhausting fight centered on the subject of evolution wrapped up Feb. 19 when the State Board of Education (BoE) finally approved Florida’s new science standards for the public school system. Shortly thereafter the fight reignited in the state legislature when deceptively-named “academic freedom” bills were introduced. But once again the science standards survived the dustup. There is a good chance the academic freedom bills will arise from the dead to haunt us once more, but other than that we can get down to business using our shiny new standards, right?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. During the last legislative session, a bill that affects all school subject standards was passed: Senate Bill 1908 – Education. The bill summary states:

Requires that the State Board of Education replace the Sunshine State Standards with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. Revises the type of assessment tests reported to the Governor and the Legislature relating to the deregulated public schools pilot program. Revises provisions governing application of testing requirements for high school graduation. Revises the exceptions for a school to receive a school grade, etc.

Among other things, the bill wants the state standards in all subjects to be replaced by “Next Generation” standards. What does that mean? To find out, read through Florida Statute 1003.41, which is the new law that came out of SB 1908. There’s a very ugly glitch in there.

It came to light recently when folks at the Department of Education (DoE) coordinated with the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (JAPC) concerning some in-house rules revision. The relationship between these two agencies is at least partly as follows: The DoE is a government agency that is governed by state law. When a law is passed affecting the DoE (or any other state department), the Department must then translate that law into specific governing instructions called rules. The DoE works hand-in-hand with JAPC. The DoE drafts a proposed rule, and folks at the JAPC provide guidance as to whether the rule fits in with the applicable Florida Statutes. (That explanation of mine is very simplified; the process is quite a bit more involved than that.)  In this particular case, the DoE had asked for an opinion on a rough draft of a revised rule concerning “student performance standards.” A representative of JAPC (a reviewing attorney) took a look at the draft and compared it to Florida Statute 1003.41. Part of the representative’s response opined that the standards that were revised and approved prior to the passage of SB 1908 are not “Next Generation” as required by the new law.

Keep in mind that this determination is the professional opinion of one person and is only advisory in nature. This JAPC representative doesn’t have the authority to give a definitive thumb up or thumb down. The DoE could reject the JAPC representative’s opinion if they wish. If the DoE does so, the JAPC representative can recommend that the full JAPC committee (composed of six state legislators) vote to object to the rule. The committee can agree with the representative’s opinion that the proposed rule doesn’t fit the law. Once again, though, this opinion is only advisory and can be rejected by the DoE. But rejecting it means sailing into choppy waters since the Department has been told that the rule is essentially illegal.

So, what do we have so far? The DoE asked the JAPC to look over a rough draft of a rule revision. A JAPC representative said that some recently approved standards aren’t “Next Generation” as required by the new state law. Why?

The science standards were approved before SB 1908 was passed and became law. So, technically the standards didn’t go through the process described in Florida Statute 1003.41. However, I’m told that when the science standards were in the revision process it was understood that they and the math standards would be good-to-go as far as Next Generation. This Power Point presentation from the DoE Office of Math and Science was given back in June and indicates that the standards were thought to be Next Generation at that time. However, the JAPC representative reviewed the new law and also looked at the Next Generation bill analysis to get a feel for the intent of the law. Based on this research, the representative advised that the standards revised and passed before the law’s implementation are not in compliance with the law.

It needs to be noted that the JAPC representative is not in any way passing judgment on the content of the already approved standards. The standards could be the best in the nation, but that’s not what the representative is concerned about. Here’s the problem that JAPC points out from Florida Statute 1003.41:

(2)  By December 31, 2008, the State Board of Education shall establish an expedited schedule for adoption of the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and shall establish by rule a schedule for the periodic review and revision of the standards. The state board shall adopt the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for each subject by December 31, 2011.

Broken down point by point, here is what that paragraph of the law requires:
— Create a schedule for adoption of Next Generation standards.
— Create another schedule that outlines the reviewing and revising of the adopted Next Generation standards.
— The deadline for adopting initial Next Generation standards is by the end of 2011.

This law took effect on July 1, 2008. And so if one sticks to the strict interpretation of the new law, as the JAPC representative did, then that means that all academic subjects’ standards need to be revised as Next Generation standards between July 2008 and Dec. 2011. It’s presumed that the legislature knew about the recent revision and adoption of the science, math and reading/language arts standards. Unfortunately, the legislators neglected to make any exceptions for them. According to the new law, all standards (including science, math and reading/language arts) need to go through the Next Generation revision process. Period. What is that process?

— The commissioner submits the proposed standards for review and comment by Florida educators, school administrators, community college and state university representatives, and leaders in business and industry.
— The commissioner submits the proposed standards, as revised based on any comments received, to the renowned curricular and content experts for a written evaluation.
— The commissioner finalizes the proposed standards and submits the standards and the experts’ written evaluations to the Governor and Legislature at least 21 days before the state board’s consideration of the standards.

In an effort to summarize all of the above, I’ll do a little question and answer thing here:

Do the science standards adopted by the State Board of Education in February 2008 comply with the new state law that requires Next Generation standards? Probably not. I need to emphasize here that there has not been any official proclamation saying the science standards are not in compliance with current law. On the other hand, the professional opinion of a JAPC representative says no, because the new law stipulates a new revision schedule that includes all subjects has to be created and all standards have to go through a specific review process. The JAPC representative doesn’t think that the new law allows the DoE or BoE to bless the new science standards as “Next Generation” simply because they’ve been adopted so recently. Right now DoE representatives are taking that professional opinion seriously.

Will the science standards have to be re-approved/re-adopted? If the JAPC representative’s professional opinion is accurate, then probably yes. Experts will have to provide written evaluations of the standards. The standards would have to be presented to the governor and legislature, and then brought before the BoE for re-adoption.

Are we going to have to endure all of that evolution drama again? I have no idea. There are way too many things we don’t know right now. If the standards do have to be re-adopted, then perhaps all the affected standards (science, math, and reading/language arts) will be presented in one package and the re-adoption will just be a formality. We can only hope!

What’s up with the governor and legislature needing see the standards before the State Board of Education; would the governor and legislature be able to make changes? Good question and one worth looking into some more. Right now I haven’t been able to find anything that explains the purpose or intent of this step in the standards approval process.

If the standards do need to be re-adopted, when will it happen? Not anytime soon. The DoE has until Dec. 31, 2011 to make all standards Next Generation. In the meantime, the good folks at the DoE are neck deep in the social studies and physical education standards revision process. They’ll figure out what to do with the science, math, and reading/language arts standards in due time.

If there are so many “I don’t knows” and “maybes” and “what ifs” right now, then what are you worried about? I’m not worried. I am, however, cautious. The long evolution fight that dominated the science standards revision process, and then all the showboating over the “academic freedom” bills taught me to be vigilant. I’m going to sum up this post with my guiding philosophy: hope for the best, but plan for the worst. I hope that all of the time and effort I spent researching this was much ado about nothing. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of what is going on and to keep an eye on things.

Bugs, Mercury and Hubble

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

University of Florida scientist have compared the mitochondrial DNA of several different arachnids in an effort to map out just far back these critters’ ancestry goes.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Halloween is the only holiday when spiders and other arachnids get a little respect from humans, and a new University of Florida study suggests they deserve more, because they’ve apparently managed to survive a very, very long time.

By analyzing gene sequences in modern-day spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites, researchers have estimated that these invertebrates first appeared on Earth roughly 400 million to 450 million years ago.

Also in the news are Mercury and Hubble. New images of mercury indicate that it was an “active planet” at one time. In other words, rather than just an inert hunk of rock getting banged around by other celestial bodies, it also had volcanoes, which helped shape it. (More about the mission here.) As for Hubble, the telescope had been out of service for a little while, but is back up and running.

Just the facts, buddy

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Here is a letter published in the Lakeland Ledger today feeding the “debate” over evolution this newspaper and its readers like to keep alive.

Regarding a recent letter concerning evolution and education, the writer concluded her remarks by suggesting that one consider the difference between science and faith. Science verses faith is not the issue, what ought to be discussed is science verses fact. “If an idea cannot be tested in a manner that yields reproducible results then it simply is not part of science.” So says Tefil and Hazen, authors of “The Sciences: An Integrated Approach,” a textbook promoting evolution.

Do we have the reproducible results to prove evolution? If evolution is such an obvious fact, then where are the facts? I see theories and hypothesis, and opinions, from so-called experts, but no reproducible results. The fact is, we have never observed or proved in any way that all life “evolved” from a single common ancestor. Using the scientist definition of science, evolution does not qualify as a science.

In truth, evolutionists have no facts to argue. They adopt a position that “my scientist says it, so it must be true.” In this, they have simply exchanged the black robe of a religious figure for the white robe of a scientist and accept another’s interpretation instead of insisting that facts be brought forward.

If one really believes in evolution, I respect that. I just want people to stop the hypocrisy of deriding faith in the Bible while insisting that we accept their faith in evolution. In every consideration, evolution is a religion, and ought to be removed from our school system on the basis of separation of church and state.

LEON JENNINGS
Lakeland

I wonder if the textbook Jennings quoted might, just might, have some of those facts related to evolution buried in there somewhere? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book, but according to its website, there is a whole chapter on evolution.

Chapter 25 Evolution, includes significantly updated and enhanced coverage on the origin of life (especially chemical evolution), creationism and intelligent design, and hominid evolution.

Perhaps the book doesn’t cover the subject satisfactorily, though. That’s OK, because there is this wonderful thing called the Internet, which is full of useful information.

Since Jennings doubts that evolution is even science, let’s start right there. Some educated folks at Tufts University offer a helpful page called “Predictions – Is Evolution Science?”

PBS has an amazing, comprehensive site about evolution with a section just for students. Jennings could benefit from an online lesson there called “Evidence for Evolution WebQuest.” Heck, there is an entire library on just evidence for evolution. And one last shoutout to PBS: if reading isn’t your thing, then this short video about evidence/predictions might help.

Need more? OK, here is an article in the Washington Post titled “New Analyses Bolster Central Tenets of Evolution Theory.” And here is an article in National Geographic asking “Was Darwin Wrong?”

We can get specific if you want. Carl Zimmer wrote a great article published in National Geographic titled “A Fin is a Limb is a Wing; How Evolution Fashioned its Masterworks.” Shame on me if I don’t mention the University of California Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Evolution website.

There are these crazy places called museums out there, too. The American Museum of Natural History is a well respected intitution with all sorts of evolution related exhibits. Want to stick to Florida? That’s fine. The Florida Museum of Natural History is pretty darn good too.

With any luck, Jennings will explore this treasure trove of evolution education I’ve provided. Evolution is a fascinating subject and can easily become the focus of some folks’ life’s work. Check out the these folks at the University of Florida, Florida State University, and University of Central Florida.

Does all of this answer your questions, Jennings?

Oh, and there is a second letter right under Jennings’. Anyone care to tackle that one? It’s a doozy!

Vampire moths and evolution

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Congratulations to Jennifer Zaspel, an entomologist at the University of Florida. Her work on evolution in action was in National Geographic News yesterday.

A previously unknown population of vampire moths has been found in Siberia. And in a twist worthy of a Halloween horror movie, entomologists say the bloodsuckers may have evolved from a purely fruit-eating species.

If it turns out that Zaspel has indeed caught a fruit-eating moth evolving blood-feeding behavior, it could provide clues as to how some moths develop a taste for blood.

Here’s a little bit more info on Zaspel.

UF Debate

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Here is an Cliff’s Notes story about the debate at the University of Florida between Douglas Jacoby and Michael Shermer.

While a debate Monday at the University of Florida was billed as creationism vs. evolution, Christian lecturer Douglas Jacoby asked the audience, “Why not both?”

“The point is you can be both a scientist and believe in God,” he said.

But professional skeptic Michael Shermer said the existence of God is not testable and by definition is not science.

“No, I can’t prove there’s no God, but I can’t prove there’s no Bigfoot either,” he said.

The duo debated before an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people in the Grand Ballroom of the University of Florida’s Reitz Union.

FCS on facebook

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Prompted by some high school classmates from ~gasp~ 20 years ago, I created a facebook page for myself. While I was there, I also started up a Florida Citizens for Science facebook group. So, if you are on facebook join the FCS group and say howdy!

Tears over evolution in Georgia

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Here is a story out of Georgia (h/t to PZ) that is mighty interesting. As part of a two-day public symposium event, area teachers attended a workshop focused on the challenges of teaching evolution. There are quite a few war stories to swap out there!

Some students burst into tears when a high school biology told them they’d be studying evolution. Another teacher said some students repeatedly screamed “no” when he began talking about it.

Other teachers said students demanded to know whether they pray and questioned why the had to learn about evolution if it was just a theory.

“I’ve seen churches train students to come to school with specific questions to ask to sabotage my lessons,” said Bonnie Pratt, a biology teacher at Northview High in north Fulton County. “We need parents and the community to understand why and how we teach evolution.”

Here is the Emory University webpage about this workshop. Here is a story about what the keynote speaker E.O. Wilson had to say.

Last week a few members of Florida Citizens for Science gave presentations concerning evolution education at the Florida Association of Science Teachers. Jonathan Smith reports that some folks approached him and the other FCS presenters to ask about having an event similar to the Georgia one. No promises, but we will see what we can do.

Eugenie Scott at UCF

Friday, October 24th, 2008

I mentioned before that Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education is going to be here in Florida Nov. 3. The University of Central Florida issued a release about it today.

Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, will discuss “Florida’s Academic Freedom Bills: Creationism du jour?” at 7:30 pm in room 101 of the College of Sciences building. Her presentation is free and open to the public.

Scott is part of the UCF Department of Biology special speaker series under way this year in honor of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s work on evolution. The series tackles how the theory of evolution has influenced all aspects of human society.

Chris Parkinson and Eric Hoffman, who teach the capstone undergraduate evolution course at UCF, often find undergraduates are unprepared in evolutionary theory when they arrive at UCF.  Their goal with this seminar series is to educate the public on the importance of teaching and understanding evolution.

The series goes hand-in-hand with Florida’s new K-12 science standards and curricula, and the faculty members hope many K-12 science teachers will take advantage of this free public lecture series.

I plan on being there with a few other Florida Citizens for Science members. Come on out if you can.

(By the way, it’s her birthday!)