Last night, the second largest school district in Georgia unanimously voted to allow teachers to discuss alternatives to biological evolution in the classroom. The Cobb County school board came to its decision after a 30-day review period of its policy on teaching "theories of origin." The new policy has evoked passionate debate over whether alternative views belong in a science class.
"We do not expect teachers to teach creationism. Our intention is to promote a broad-based science curriculum which will acknowledge that there are differences of opinion about the origin of life, and to encourage students and others to be tolerant and respectful of those who may have different beliefs," said Curt Johnson, Chairman of the Cobb County school board.
The old policy, adopted in 1995, acknowledged that "some scientific accounts of the origin of human species as taught in public schools are inconsistent with the family teachings of a significant number of Cobb County citizens," pledging both respect for those family teachings and separation between church and state.
Supporters of the new policy say that it will allow students to better reach their own conclusions about the origin of life. Critics of the board's decision, however, say that the decision opens the door for teachers to include faith-based ideas on the origin of life in their biology or earth science classes.
The National Science Teachers Association (NTSA) wrote to the Cobb County school board, asking them to reject any policy that allows teachers to promote nonscientific viewpoints related to the origin of life. National Academy of Sciences President (NAS) Bruce Alberts also weighed in on the issue, urging the board not to move forward with the new policy. NTSA and NAS will undoubtedly continue their fight against the school board's decision as the debate surrounding teaching evolution in the Georgia county will likely continue for months, ultimately being resolved in court.
While science does encourage inquiry-based learning, the leading alternative theories to evolution, such as intelligent design creationism, have not undergone the scientific review process and do not belong in the classroom, says Ken Miller, a biology professor at Brown University. "Creation science is afraid of the scientific process and so is turning to the government to do an end-run around the scientific method," he says.
Miller also is author of Prentice Hall Biology, one of the textbooks in which Cobb County has placed disclaimers stating, in part, that, "evolution is a theory and not a fact." That decision by the school board earlier this year has recently come under legal attack from a Cobb County parent, Jeffery Selman, working with the American Civil Liberties Union. In response to last night's vote, Selman told the school board, "I'll see you in court." He plans now to broaden the scope of the original law suit filed in August in U.S. District Court.
The disclaimers, Miller says, undermine the entire scientific method, by improperly communicating the nature of a scientific theory. Indeed, "theories are the substance of science," says Keith Miller, a geology professor at Kansas State University. Everything in science is theory, both Millers point out. Facts are merely repeatable, verifiable observations; theories explain fact.
And both Keith and Ken Miller say that Cobb County's struggle mirrors those of Kansas, Alabama and a number of other states, in which a grassroots effort of scientists and local citizens succeeded in maintaining high science standards that include teaching biological evolution, and not alternatives. In Ohio, debate continues as the state school board considers including intelligent design creationism in life and earth science curricula for tenth through twelfth grade.
Also an evangelical Christian, Keith Miller suggests that teachers field questions about alternatives to evolution in the context of the history of science and not science itself. "History can be a very effective way of communicating that there is no conflict between science and religion."
But, at least for now, under the new district-wide policy, it looks as though Cobb County teachers will have the right to teach alternatives to evolution in any context they choose.
Read the upcoming November Geotimes for a more detailed discussion of
the evolution controversy in Cobb County, Ga., which is located just to the
northwest of Atlanta.
Lisa M. Pinsker
Political Scene, September 2002, Federal Law Misused in Ohio Education Debate
Cobb County School District
Atlanta Journal Constitution coverage, including the full text of both the Cobb County evolution policy and the disclaimer