Students ‘biggest losers’ in evolution debate

Students ‘biggest losers’ in evolution debate
By DONNA CALLAWAY - Florida Baptist Witness - 2/22/2008 - original
On Nov. 19, a battle took place in Tallahassee. Those of us involved in that skirmish walked away with different versions of what had taken place. Even members of the news media had conflicting views of what had actually been decided. As to who won and who lost this battle – everyone lost something, but the biggest losers were the students in Florida’s public schools. They lost some privileges and they lost some rights. To better understand what was at stake, it is essential that one understand the power of the Sunshine State Standards.

Some years ago the SSS became the basis for the curriculum in the various subject areas in K-12 schools. The Standards were written so that teachers throughout the state would have an in-depth outline of what children should learn in each subject and in each grade. Textbook publishers used the SSS in the development of their various texts to the extent that teachers had at their fingertips the text, lesson plans, a myriad of resources each designed to move students through learning and on to the assessment of that learning. That assessment would come in various forms, but most importantly via the FCAT. If a student successfully navigates through this procedure great things will happen both for the student and for the school.

The SSS are on a schedule to be updated in certain years and this year the revision occurred in science. A team of writers and developers worked on a complete revision of the Science Standards with the product due to be adopted by the State Board of Education in January.

Even though I am one of the seven members of the SBOE, I was unaware of the inclusion of evolution in those standards until I was sitting in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Gainesville last fall with my dad, the patient, and my mother. She was reading from a local newspaper and in her own special way pointed out an article stating that evolution would be taught in Florida’s public schools.

I contacted the Department of Education and requested an immediate copy of the new standards with every mention of evolution tagged. The notebook arrived and the bright yellow tags were many. I remember thinking that if I, being on the SBOE that would adopt or deny these standards, was unaware of the extent and the wording, so also would those who would be impacted by this adoption – namely the students, parents, and communities around the state.

Why did this set off alarms in my mind? Not because the entire body of the Standards was questionable, for that is not the case. The magnitude of the revision is tremendous, and exciting, and needed. Considering the fact that we had been teaching science in a mile-wide, inch-deep manner, these Standards with their in-depth consideration of selected Big Ideas opened the possibility of imparting world-class science knowledge to the minds of our children.

Drawing my attention and setting off alarms were several references to evolution, but none were as alarming as Standard 15: “Diversity and Evolution of Living Organisms. A. Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.

I contacted the executive editor of this publication because I felt that this standard needed to get out to Christian parents, children and churches throughout the state. I further agreed to make a statement regarding my concerns which was published in December and now has been credited with opening the “floodgate” causing the controversy, creating the tension that has since occurred.

Interestingly, the battle lines were drawn, not between religion and evolution, but between those who wanted fairness for our children and those whose single goal was to keep “religion” out of the standards.

As so often happens in matters of educating children, many enter that area with preconceived ideas about how children learn and process information. In the ensuing debates the one consideration that was constantly excluded by the proponents of the Standards was “what is fair to our children.”

The proponents exhibited the “closed mind” status that we try to teach our children not to have. How many of us learn much, if anything, from those who agree with us? So much more is learned, especially by children, when there is a fair and open debate, when controversy and conflict occur over ideas. This is what was advocated so carefully and kindly by those who wanted this one Standard to just include wording that allowed an open, fair, and transparent debate over an issue that is not settled when many do not agree, including scientists and teachers. The vote was taken. Evolution won.

If there is a victory for those who oppose the evolution standard as written or amended, it is that they stood shoulder to shoulder, not in a fanatical, demanding way as many may have expected. Rather, they stood kindly with a sense of calm assurance, with open and transparent reasoning that confused their opponents who expected a religious battle. This was never that battle; it was a battle over student rights. Those rights were not recognized.

I left the SBOE meeting emotionally drained but reaffirmed by the love for children and the respect for others that I saw in those who hold beliefs with which I can identify. And, speaking of identity, I began my comments to the SBOE with an acknowledgement that I have a religious identity. That identity urges me to use the Master Teacher as my example.

The model He set for us 2,000 years ago is so appropriate for today. He allowed Himself to be questioned. He never thrust his belief on anyone. He allowed both Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman to question Him, each from an opposite end of the human spectrum. It was as if He said, “Ask me questions. I will answer. It may not be what you want to hear, but there is more. I invite you to come and see. Decide for yourself.” Learning took place under those circumstances.

We very much want that kind of learning experience to occur for our children. When they are not just allowed, but encouraged to debate issues, they explore them, search for evidence, think critically, and then have an ownership of the knowledge they gain. Adults have a right to do this. How can we deny that to our children?

Donna Callaway, a retired educator, is a member of the Florida Board of Education and member of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee.