Science standards reviewed
Science standards reviewed

Revisions in the state's standards for teaching science get a thumbs-up from a former critic.
BY RON MATUS - St. Petersburg Times - 12/1/2007
Two years ago, an influential national think tank concluded in a scathing report that Florida's science standards that outline what students need to know to be well-grounded in the subject were sprawling, superficial and deserving of a big, fat F.

Amazingly, the Fordham Institute noted, the standards didn't even mention the word "evolution."

Fast-forward to now.

Proposed standards are more focused and better organized. They not only mention evolution, they dub it a "big idea." And this time, they get a thumbs-up from the chief author of the Fordham report.

"Much better," said biologist Paul Gross, a former provost at the University of Virginia, who reviewed the draft at the request of the St. Petersburg Times.

Supporters say good science standards are key to turning around the dismal performance of Florida students on state and national science tests and making them more competitive in a technology-driven global economy.

Gross agreed to review the standards as an individual and not as a Fordham representative. But as a scientist, he was impressed.

"Clearly, the writing committee, whoever they are, have taken to heart all the arguments that have been made about lousy standards," he said.

That's the reaction state education officials were hoping for.

The current standards were adopted in 1996, when some education officials were concerned that direct mention of Darwin's theory of evolution, the keystone of modern biology, would spark a cultural firestorm.

This time, state officials haven't flinched. And though it remains to be seen how much of an uproar there may be from religious conservatives, the proposed standards are garnering strong support from teachers and scientists.

"Nothing like that is ever perfect," said Gerry Meisels, a University of South Florida chemistry professor who directs the state's Coalition for Science Literacy. "But they are a very big step forward."

"They're good science," said Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science.

Meisels was among more than 50 scientists, teachers and business people who helped rewrite the standards, which were released in October and can be found on the Department of Education website: The public has until Dec. 14 to comment. The Board of Education is expected to vote on them early next year. If passed, the new standards would take effect next fall.

As of Monday, 7,069 people had posted 11,622 comments.

The review of Florida's standards spawned anxiety even before it began.

In the summer of 2005, the Department of Education hired K-12 chancellor Cheri Yecke, who had become embroiled in a controversy over the teaching of intelligent design in Minnesota. A few months later, it postponed the standards review, which originally had been scheduled for 2006. And then, in December 2005, confusion emerged when Gov. Jeb Bush said there should be a "vigorous discussion of varying viewpoints in our classrooms," a position that some took as a nod to creationism.

"Oh, boy," Meisels said at the time.

Judging by the draft, those fears have not been realized.

"The organization of the plan is entirely respectable, and it pays attention to all the national models,'' Gross said. ``There's not a lot of fluff in it."

That's not to say passions aren't still running strong on evolution.

"Evolution is not science," one person wrote after reviewing the standards on the Internet.

On the other hand, one supporter wrote: "It is very promising that you intend to introduce this concept at such an early age."

Comments on the evolution language appear to be running more than 2-to-1 in favor.

Teachers and scientists like other changes, too.

The current standards have been slammed for trying to teach too much. So the proposed standards cut away some detail but better wrap what's left around a handful of central themes like Earth structures, heredity and energy transfer.

"It focuses more on big ideas and pursues them," Meisels said.

"They're more precise, and they're absolutely world- class," said Janet Acerra, a fifth-grade teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar and another member of the revamp team.