Florida Schools Will Teach Evolution, but with ‘Theory’ Caveat

The board voted 4-3 Tuesday to approve a broad set of changes to Florida’s 1996 science standards, including new goals for student learning in a variety of subjects. But a debate emerged on one of the 18 “big ideas” in the new standards: evolution.

In a last-minute wording change to standards that had met the approval of authorities such as the National Academy of Science and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the board affixed a qualifier, “the scientific theory of,” to evolution and other scientific phenomena.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection says that life on Earth, including humans, rose from common ancestry. It’s widely accepted in the scientific community, but the idea can conflict with the religious version of human history, which seeks to incorporate theological beliefs into the teachings of human development.

Florida is one of the few large states with state-level textbook adoption, giving it disproportionate clout with publishers and importance in the national fight over the treatment of evolution in the classroom. The school board’s debate is the latest in a string of battles that have been playing out across the country for decades. Most recently, in 2005, a federal judge in Pennsylvania found that “intelligent design,” which says the universe is too complex to be explained by science alone, was a religious theory, and therefore could not be taught in science classes.

A February St. Petersburg Times poll found that 50 percent of Florida voters wanted creationism or intelligent design to be taught exclusively in schools; a national poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2005 found that fewer than half of Americans, 48 percent, believed in some form of evolution.

Roberto Martinez, an attorney and one of the three board members who voted against the last-minute change, chided the education board’s commissioner for giving in to pressure from conservative groups that sought ways to bring creationism into curricula.

“These optional standards were not proposed by the panel of experts,” Martinez said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The whole process of drafting these proposed standards began last year and it was done in a very deliberate, a very objective process involving a panel of experts. And then it appears that these optional standards came into existence — ‘evolved’ — very quickly, if I can use that word,” Martinez said.

At the board’s request, Florida’s Office of Math and Science conducted a brief internal review with a small group of writers and staff. It released the new language one business day before the vote.

Mary Jane Tappen, the office’s executive director, quickly sought feedback from the 61 standards writers. Twenty-nine of the 38 who responded in time recommended adoption of the earlier, unaltered standards.

Other Florida education board members defended the change as being in keeping with the tradition of critical analysis in science, an argument often cited by creationist proponents. One member, Phoebe Raulerson, pointed to the use of “cell theory” as an accepted term in another section of the life science standards.

The new Florida standards strengthen the scientific definition of a “theory,” calling it “the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer,” but evolution proponents still took offense to the late addition of the word “theory” — because the word’s non-scientific interpretation could open up evolution to criticism.

Some proponents of the change, both in the public and on the board, denied a religious motive.

“If we’re going to have ‘theory’ in one place, we need it in both places simply because it encourages more study, not because it’s wrong,” Raulerson, a former Okeechobee teacher and administrator, said Tuesday. The board’s approved standards will now call cell theory “a” fundamental organizing principle of life on Earth, not “the” fundamental organizing principle.

Tappen fielded responses from the standards’ writers after the board’s decision. “There are still a few that say ‘I wish that politics hadn’t come into play,'” but she added that the writers, save one, “fully embrace” the adopted standards.

Observers also agreed that the new standards were a leap forward for the state. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education policy think tank, gave Florida an F in 2005 for its science standards citing thin and vague guidelines and noting that the word evolution had been “sedulously avoided.” Lawrence Lerner, a co-writer of the Fordham report and emeritus professor at California State University-Long Beach, put the writers’ version of the standards in the “A range.”

“The state’s exams will be based on these standards, so students will have to study evolution if they want to get a good grade,” Lerner said.

Teachers will begin learning the new instructional methods this summer for use in the fall semester, but the impact of the board’s decision may continue to reverberate throughout the state and the southern U.S. Eight of Florida’s 74 school districts have passed anti-evolution resolutions, and Texas, which has its own textbook clout, is now reviewing state science standards with plans for approval by the end of the year. Its education board chair has taken a stance against evolution, and the state’s science education head resigned in November after she sent an e-mail showing an apparent bias against intelligent design.