Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences
Evolution Grades for the States
By David Applegate
For geologists, plate tectonic theory is the central organizing principle and framework for studying and understanding Earth. Evolutionary theory serves the same role for the biological sciences, including paleontology and other geoscience subdisciplines. But many parents, teachers and religious leaders view evolutionary theory as the single most inflammatory notion ever produced by science, and they do not want it taught in schools.
Most scientists — and indeed most people in general — are unaware of how active this cultural debate is until it flares up where they live or erupts on the national stage, as it did in Kansas last year. The debate manifests itself in many ways: textbook disclaimers, legislation and the lesson plans of individual teachers. In Kansas, the State Board of Education last August passed state science education standards that removed all mention of evolution or the age of Earth and the universe.
How has the evolution debate affected science education standards in other states? After all, what fueled the intense national interest in the Kansas story was a sense that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
A new report attempts to measure how well state science education standards address evolution and, by extension, how much the swirling debate has affected the quality of science education in the United States. Its findings are both heartening and troublesome. All but a few of the state standards show the scars of opposition to the teaching of evolution, but most do a fairly good job of addressing geologic evolution and a majority do at least an adequate job of addressing biological evolution. However, a sizeable minority of the states received unsatisfactory to failing ratings.
The report, called Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States, was written by Lawrence S. Lerner, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. An active participant in developing science education standards in California, Lerner is the author of two previous reports assessing state science education standards across the nation. All three reports were sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on K-12 education reform.
Lerner’s first two reports found that a failure to adequately address evolution weakened many state science education standards. The latest report, Fordham officials write in a foreword to Good Science, Bad Science, follows up on this finding. Another Fordham report, called Politicizing Science Education and written by University of Virginia professor Paul Gross, also found that opposition to the teaching of evolution inhibited the overall quality of science education. The Gross report places the evolution debate in a broader political context, where standards are often the battleground for differing ideologies — such as how American history should be taught.
Grading the states
Since nothing serves to focus people’s attention better than a report
card, Lerner takes that approach in assessing the 49 states that have science
standards (Iowa does not have any), and the District of Columbia. Lerner
based his ratings on the typical ways that school standards yield to creationist
pressure, such as discussing some evolution-related concepts without ever
using the “E-word” itself. The criteria focus on the three “historical”
sciences: biology, geology and cosmology. They include:
Use — or lack — of the word “evolution” in the standards.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia are doing at least a satisfactory job of teaching evolution, receiving at least a C, and 10 states did well enough to score an A. Of the remaining 19 states, six received D’s and 12 received F’s. The standards adopted by Kansas in 1999 earned that state an F-. The minus sign is for ignoring virtually all historical aspects of biology, geology and cosmology. The grades do not fall into a geographic pattern. Both good and bad marks are found in all regions of the country.
How Good a Measure?
The Lerner report provides a useful baseline for judging the present and future impact of the debate over the teaching of evolution. Its utility, however, is limited by how well state standards reflect the quality of teaching in individual science classrooms.
As supporters of the 1999 Kansas standards were quick to point out, removing evolution from standards only meant that statewide tests would not include it — the teaching of evolution was not banned but simply left to local school districts.
But such an assessment fails to consider the many ways, both direct and indirect, that standards influence how and what children are taught. With an increasing emphasis on performance, standards and state tests often become the mark by which individual schools will be judged, thus discouraging deviation from the the subjects standards prescribe. State standards have a major impact on textbook writing, particularly in large states, as well as on standardized tests and curriculum design. Finally, standards play an important role in establishing the environment in which subjects will be taught, casting an official imprimatur on subject matter, whether history, language or, in this case, science. Voluntary national standards, such as those developed by the National Academy of Sciences and AAAS, seek to accomplish exactly that — a stamp from the scientific community on what subject matter is most important.
Given that the most politically effective attacks on evolution have come from the right, the added value of the Lerner report is that it comes from an organization with conservative credentials. Although nonpartisan, the Fordham Foundation is affiliated with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute think tank, and foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr. was an education official for the Reagan administration. Consequently, this report should be a valuable tool for officeholders seeking to defuse conservative opposition to evolution.
Point of reference
State standards are a moving target, continually being updated and revised. Scientists and science educators successfully kept evolution in South Carolina standards last year (Geotimes, September 2000) but face an uphill struggle in Alabama. The recent electoral victories of pro-evolution candidates in Kansas appear to ensure a return of standards that include evolution. The original team of scientists and educators released standards in early 1999 that received an A from Lerner. Those standards could replace what the board passed last year, as the results of the Nov. 7 elections created a board that favors evolution 7-3. Kansas may move from the back of the bus to the head of the class. And if it can happen there, it could happen everywhere.
Applegate is Director of Government Affairs
for the American Geological Institute and is Editor of Geotimes. E-mail:
Good Science, Bad Science is available on the Web at www.edexcellence.net
The largest obstacle to public acceptance for the teaching of evolution is the perception that science and religion conflict. And the attitudes of scientists are at least partly to blame, according to several of the speakers at a Sept. 26 forum in Washington, D.C. accompanying the release of Lerner’s report. Sponsored by the AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the forum was called “The Teaching of Evolution in U.S. Schools: Where Politics, Religion and Science Converge.”
A recurrent theme at the forum was that scientists can be their own worst enemy if they project an anti-religious attitude in a nation where over 90 percent of the population identify themselves as believers, the vast majority as Christians. The report itself states that “scientists, alas, can be as intolerant of religion as creationists are of evolution.”
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution watchdog group, stated that if evolution is presented as a two-sided choice with faith, science loses. She encouraged teaching evolution with sensitivity, teaching the nature of science, and distinguishing between the scientific method of naturalism, or accepting only natural explanations, and philosophical naturalism, which claims there is nothing besides the natural world.
Ted Davis, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, cited examples of how prominent scientists have used science to advance their own philosophical views. An example he cited was Carl Sagan’s opening statement for his television series “Cosmos”: “The universe is all there is, all there was, and all there will ever be.”
Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction, credited University of Arizona scientists with showing her serious deficiencies in her state’s science education standards and helping to correct them (Arizona’s current standards received a B from Lerner). But she too cautioned that some scientists came across as anti-religious, presenting a major political obstacle for her to overcome.
Also attending were representatives of the two largest U.S. Christian denominations: the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches. David Byers, who works for the U.S. Catholic Conference, noted the Pope’s statements supporting evolution and his belief that the separate truths of science and religion cannot be opposed. But he added that science should observe its proper limitations and not seek to disprove religion.
Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention, on the other hand, stated that an impasse between science and religion is imminent. He laid partial blame for the nation’s moral decay on what he called the devaluation of humanity caused by the teaching of evolution. The shift in the Southern Baptist church toward more conservative evangelism is here to stay, he said, “so we had better find a way to co-exist.” He urged scientists not to lose touch with their souls.
State and Grade
How the Fordham Foundation report graded evolution
teaching in each state’s science standards.