Clash over teaching evolution hits Orlando
Clash over teaching evolution hits OrlandoState education officials have hearings before voting on science standards.Evolution has been a cornerstone of biology for more than 100 years, but don't try to tell that to many of the thousands of people who posted comments on Florida's Department of Education Web site.
Leslie Postal - Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer - 2/11/2008 - original
"The last time I went to the zoo, the monkeys weren't evolving into man," read one comment.
"Evolution is not proven and we should not brainwash our children with this concept," stated another.
The State Board of Education is to vote Feb. 19 on controversial new science standards that for the first time would require teaching evolution in Florida's public schools. The new standards are intended to beef up lackluster science education in schools.
The standards list evolution as one of 18 "big ideas" students must understand by the time they graduate. They call evolution the "fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and say it is "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."
But those academic phrases have ignited a theological controversy across the state.
Since the standards became public in October, more than 10,000 people logged on to the Florida Department of Education's Web site to denounce, and in some cases, praise the new blueprint for science education. An additional 450 sent letters. State education officials added more public hearings to their schedule, with the last taking place today in Orlando because so many people were clamoring to share their views.
Opposition in North Florida
The outrage has been the loudest in North Florida, where school boards blasted the standards, parents threatened to boycott state tests or pull their kids from public schools, and state lawmakers vowed to push for a new law requiring evolution to be taught as theory.
These opponents argue that evolution -- the idea that all living things evolved from a shared common ancestry -- is not a fact and conflicts with their religious faith.
"I have no problem with them hearing about evolution. I just don't want them to hear a one-sided fact," said LeVon Pettis, a Panhandle father who may look for private schools for his daughters if the standards are adopted as is. "If you're going to teach evolution, then also throw in creationism and intelligent design," said the pastor of Evangel Worship Center in Marianna.
The idea makes educators who helped devise the new standards cringe.
They argue that creationism, the biblical story of how God created living things, and intelligent design, an argument that an "intelligent cause" better explains living things than evolution by natural selection, are based on religion.
Those beliefs, educators say, are not scientific explanations and cannot share space in a curriculum with evolution.
Science education lagging
The educators who framed Florida's new science standards worry that the old argument over evolution is overshadowing a more important issue: the sorry state of science education in Florida's classrooms.
Updated standards, they say, would bring focus and depth to science instruction.
"I think it's a tremendous improvement over what we have now, and I hate to see it rejected on the basis of how evolution is treated," said Alice Winn, a biology professor at Florida State University who helped write them. "That would be a complete travesty."
Many students who enroll in state universities are unprepared to tackle college science or math classes, Winn said.
Florida high-school students typically struggle on national science tests, and fewer than half are proficient on the science section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The current teaching standards, adopted in 1996, avoided controversy by avoiding the word, though they require teaching the concepts of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin in 1859.
That timidity is part of the reason Florida earned an F in a 2005 national standards review.
"You have to really deal with it or you're not teaching it properly," said Lawrence Lerner, one of the national reviewers and a retired physics professor at California State University, Long Beach.
Lerner called the new standards a "giant step in the right direction" -- almost an A.
The Florida Department of Education calls its push for better math and science instruction "solutions for Florida's future," and the state revised its math standards without controversy last year.
But with science, the conflict is widespread and deeply felt. It can be seen on the state board, in dueling legal memos and in the public comments left on the Education Department's Web site.
State board member Donna Callaway told the Florida Baptist Witness in December that she planned to vote against the standards because evolution would be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life.
Board member Roberto Martinez wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Sentinel that he supports the new standards.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sent the state board a memo praising the new standards and citing court cases that have made teaching "creationism and all its variants" illegal.
A Pinellas County law firm sent the board a memo warning that the new standards could become part of a "government sanctioned, anti-religious movement."
Argued since 'Monkey Trial'
Evolution has long been controversial in the classroom and in the courtroom. The 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee saw a biology teacher charged with a crime for teaching Darwin's theories. Eighty years later, a federal judge ruled against a Pennsylvania school board that mandated teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.
State Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who represents nine Panhandle counties, said her part of the state is "very conservative" and that the revised standards clash with many residents' beliefs.
Coley has urged the state board to ensure evolution is taught as a theory, not a fact. She said she and other lawmakers will push to make such a requirement state law if the board approves the standards as is.
"I think it would be irresponsible to present it like that in our public schools," Coley said.
Florida Citizens for Science, which favors the changes, says 10 school boards in North Florida have passed resolutions opposing the new standards. The association keeps track on its Web site under a headline that reads, "Those not in favor of a good science education, raise your hand."
Touchy in Central Florida
In Central Florida, where many public schools have taught evolution for years, the outcry has been muted. But in a sign of how touchy the topic is, the Seminole County school district last week asked its teachers not to publicly discuss evolution -- then later said they were free to voice their personal opinions.
"I support evolution," said Diane Smith, a Volusia County School Board member. "It's what belongs in a science classroom."
Bonnie Mizell, the science coach at Howard Middle School in Orlando, agreed. She helped write the new standards and wants them approved as is. To her, the big news isn't evolution but the new focus on in-depth, hands-on lessons that will help students "really see the wonders and the possibility of science."
Susan Jacobson of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Leslie Postal can be reached at 407-420-5273 or email@example.com.