Florida's failing the science test
Florida's failing the science testOcala.com - 12/14/2007 - originalHow would you react if someone reviewing your work described it as "sorely lacking in content," "disappointing, due to a prevalence of errors in fact and presentation," "naive," "scanty," "nebulous" and "vague"? Presumably, most of us would get back to work, and work harder, to locate our shortcomings and fix our deficiencies. That was exactly how researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that focuses on education reform, described Florida's public school curriculum for science instruction in a report released in May.
In response, and to their credit, the state Board of Education appointed a 45-member task force to rewrite the standards to make them more detailed and more rigorous.
Now, however, with the Board of Education expected to vote in January on the new standards, a controversy has erupted because the task force dared to propose that the revised Sunshine State Standards mandate that evolution be taught in public schools as the "fundamental concept underlying all of biology."
Christian fundamentalists are objecting to specifying evolution as such - it's now broached in state standards as "changes . . . occurring over time" - and at a minimum are lobbying for the inclusion of the alternate explanation of Intelligent Design, or ID.
The impetus behind ID is the Discovery Institute, which denies their concept equates to Creationism or is specifically Bible-based, although it does hold "that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection," the central tenet of Charles Darwin's work. To the religious faithful, that "intelligent cause" is God.
The anti-Darwin advocates have an ally on the state education board, Donna Callaway, a former principal from Leon County. Callaway recently told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper that she will vote down the new standards. As she explained, "I agree completely that evolution should be taught with all of the research and study that has occurred. However, I believe it should not be taught to the exclusion of other theories of origin of life."
The Fordham Institute's review, though, makes us wonder exactly what Florida's schoolchildren have been taught about that origin.
Their report noted, "Life sciences and evolution are given shorter shrift than any of the others (sciences). The E-word is sedulously avoided. There is little in the way of useful guidance for teachers or others toward appropriate content in the biological sciences and especially in the history of life and the basic mechanisms of change."
"The superficiality of the treatment of evolutionary biology alone justifies the grade 'F,' the researchers added, noting the overall grade they handed down for Florida's science standards.
That's a pretty strong condemnation, so it seems we didn't need to debate Darwin versus ID to learn we've been cheating our students of a thorough, well rounded science education. The good news is that the Board of Education can put them on the road to improving their understanding of science - an important consideration for a state that desires to be a national leader in high-tech and biomedical research - by adopting the proposed standards.
That is, if the board can summon the will to do that.
It's difficult to see why this conflict remains so controversial. As much as fundamentalist Christians want to dismiss Darwin's "theory," which demonstrates a misinterpretation of the word as it's understood by the scientific community, they offer no proof that natural selection is not God's method for the creation and furthering of life. There simply is no reason for evolution and creationism to be mutually exclusive.
Nor is anyone asking children to disavow their religious beliefs by accepting instruction in Darwinism. If in fact the new standards cause that, it says more about the roots of their faith than the science.
Ultimately, Darwin is supported by 150 years of fact-based, time-tested research, and some evidence to back his position can be seen at the Silver River Museum in Silver Springs, while the Darwin foes want children to make a leap of faith that lacks similar underpinning.
The Board of Education should approve the new standards, and then turn their attention to fixing the more weighty problems in our schools.