February 17, 2008

Florida Science Standards Come to a Vote on Tuesday

This coming Tuesday, the Florida State Board of Education will vote on whether or not to approve new science education standards for the state. As everyone knows by now, those new standards include explicit reference to evolution for the first time in the state's history. As has also been pointed out, elements of evolutionary theory have been present in the curriculum for some time now, although the unifying principle is referred to only obliquely as the nebulous "biological change over time." That objections have been raised by religious activists upon the introduction of the word "evolution" demonstrates both their motivation on the issue and their ignorance of evolutionary theory itself. Because they aren't themselves educated about evolutionary biology in the slightest, it took the explicit mention of the e-word to get their attention and, even though they didn't know well enough before this point what evolutionary theory comprised they now imagine themselves knowledgeable about everything from paleontology to molecular biology. It's a travesty, really, but the fear and fundamentalism borne out of ignorance always is. Religious literalism and ignorance give rise to travesty at best, tragedy at worst.

Having been responsible for more than a year for teaching chemistry and biology to at-risk students at Florida State University who were products of the state's public school system, I can say from experience that it is far past time that new and rigorous standards were put into place. Most of the students I taught had gone to school in the very school districts whose board members have now passed anti-evolution resolutions. They came to the university at a tremendous disadvantage. Being required to take science classes, even as part of a liberal arts degree, they floundered and struggled. They had, for all practical purposes, no knowledge whatsoever about the basics of biology, chemistry or physics. It was as if those subjects simply hadn't been taught where they went to school. I was educated long ago in the public school systems of New York City and Nassau County and had the benefit of solid education in these subjects, and that made all the difference. In a nutshell, current science standards in Florida are a disservice to students passing through that system. The state simply has to do better if they care whether the children of the state receive a thorough and modern education that gives at least those who want to be competitive in the modern workforce a chance to do so. How many good scientific minds have been lost because of the shortcomings in Florida's science education curriculum? From my experience in bringing students up to speed, I think there are a good number of them. In my time teaching these students, I met very few who couldn't get it and a great number who could but never had the opportunity. A couple of them even decided to switch majors to one of the physical sciences; they discovered that they not only could learn the material but that they enjoyed it and that they got a charge out of gaining the tools that unlock the "secrets" of how life, the universe and everything work. I should note, too, that not once while I taught did a student proclaim his or her conversion to atheism upon coming to an understanding of evolutionary theory, the motion of projectiles, or valence shell electron pair repulsion theory.

At its best, that's what science is. It is an extension of man's mind and man's senses that allows us to work out that which was a mystery to our ancestors. I submit that the students of the state of Florida deserve to wield these tools just as much as does every person on the planet. To fail to give them access to them in an honest manner is nothing less than enforced deprivation. It is neglectful and irresponsible to do anything less than to lay the full scope of science before these young minds and give them the opportunity to pursue them further if they so desire.

The parents of Florida, religious or otherwise, and the county school board members of Florida, religious or otherwise, must allow real science to be taught. Unfortunately, many of them are themselves the product of sub-par education. It is human nature, however, to insist that one is knowledgeable, even when one is not, when a challenge to what one believes in arises. We've seen any number of revealingly ignorant statements now, from Beverly Slough's insistence that there is no evidence that men and fish share common ancestry to Dallas Ellis' nonsense about animals and oranges. It's time for the products of poor education to get out of the way and let that education improve, and part of that is simply acknowledging that having read a book or two, or having listed to a sermon, doesn't constitute any knowledge of science at all. These people would, one hopes, not consider for a moment performing surgery on their sick children based on such experience because it doesn't make them experts. It is no different with this aspect of their children's education, save that death by ignorance takes longer and is more insidious, destroying opportunity and leading to circumstances that eat away slowly at the spirit. It is time that the children of Florida learned the truth about science, not some watered-down version concocted to assuage religious sensibilities that don't stand up to examination on their own.

Various newspapers from Florida are publishing editorials today that appear to agree with my way of thinking on this. Here's a small sampling:

That evolutionary theory is not already an integral part of public-school science education is a travesty that has hurt generations of Florida students. They perform far below average on national science tests. When the science component of the FCAT was counted for the first time last year, school grades based on the state's standardized test plummeted...

These embarrassments were only magnified in Orlando last week when public meetings were held on this way-belated curriculum plan. Opponents, several of them school-board members from around the state, argued that evolution is "just a theory" and therefore should not be taught as fact...

The approach to this important scientific evidence in Florida's schools has been a cop out. Students have learned elements of this theory, but the word "evolution" doesn't appear in the standards.

That was a silly compromise aimed at avoiding the religious and political battle over whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution as science.

It was a mistake. This debate over teaching evolution should have ended decades ago.

It's time -- past time -- for the state Board of Education to end the debate.

Orlando Sentinel

We hear lots of talk about world-class education, about our state's children keeping up with other states and other nations, and preparing them for a future in which science and technology play key roles. The new standards in math and science will be critical to our progressing in that direction.

Suddenly, though, some school districts — including Jackson, Madison and Taylor counties here in the Big Bend — are passing formal resolutions against the inclusion of evolution in the standards. Suddenly, there is grave concern over holes in the fossil record. Suddenly regular citizens are experts in entropy and in what constitutes scientific "theory."

Curiously, these same opponents aren't demanding that we not teach atomic theory, even though Einstein attacked one of the philosophical problems of quantum mechanics by saying, "God does not play dice with the universe." Nor are the critics too worried about gravity, despite incomplete knowledge of how that works.

Evolution, though, is a line in the sand for those who see in science a challenge to the Bible. That's why, more than 80 years after the Scopes "monkey trial," the skeptics are still fighting this battle. And it's why those challenges must not affect the science curriculum in our public schools...

Tallahassee Democrat

With mountains of empirical evidence bolstering evolution, we believe that students should learn this important scientific information in school.

We believe the faith-based alternatives - creationism and intelligent design - should be taught in the home and church. Those concepts are the province of parents and clergy.

Today, schoolchildren do not hear the word "evolution" in class, just a hazy reference to "biological changes over time." That science standard was adopted in 1996.

The proposed new science standard states that evolution is the "fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." The standards also require more in-depth teaching of evolution and other topics in order to improve students' poor performance in science and prepare them to be more competitive in the global marketplace.

Our children deserve that higher education...

Bradenton Herald

Evolution is about how species in this world change. The evidence is irrefutable, and understanding that scientific theory is essential to understanding science as a whole.

That's why the State Board of Education, when it votes to adopt new science standards on Tuesday, should specifically include evolution as a part of the categories children should learn in public schools.

The very reason that new science standards are before the board is because Florida's schoolchildren, on average, perform poorly in science when compared to those in other states or nations...

f Florida wants its children to be competitive in science fields, if they want to have a future work force capable of attracting science and high-tech jobs, the state board should adopt the new standards in whole.

The opposition's argument -- that evolution conflicts with the biblical teaching that God created the Earth in six days -- is based on spiritual belief. That belief should be respected, but it is not science, and it should not be the guiding principle for what children are taught in public schools...

Daytona Beach News-Journal

The people of Florida must have no illusions about the consequences of the success of this movement. It is criminal to interfere with the scientific education of the next generation of young scientists, and if these people get their way they will seriously impede scientific progress and in particular the ability of the next cohort of young scientists to create the defenses we shall need in the fight against debilitating diseases over the next century.

...I hope the people of Florida are intelligent enough to recognize that the present campaign is as detrimental to their interests as it is misguided, and as fundamentally anti-humanitarian as it is intellectually dishonest.

Sir Harold Kroto in the Palm Beach Post

In a move that could endanger Florida's flaky backwater reputation, the state Board of Education is poised to endorse the teaching of evolution as a science.

This is a dangerous idea -- not the presentation of Darwinism in schools, but the presentation of Florida as a place of progressive scientific thought.

Over the years the Legislature has worked tirelessly to keep our kids academically stuck in the mid-1950s. This has been achieved by overcrowding their classrooms, underpaying their teachers and letting their school buildings fall apart.

Florida's plucky refusal to embrace 21st century education is one reason that prestigious tech industries have avoided the state, allowing so many of our high-school graduates (and those who come close) to launch prosperous careers in the fast-food, bartending and service sectors of the economy...

This battle is about pride and independence; about boldly going against the flow, in defiance of reason and all known facts.

In recent weeks, the Board of Education has been swamped by e-mails and letters from religious conservatives who advocate teaching creationism or intelligent design, and who believe evolution should be discussed strictly as a ``theory.''

For those who wish to see Florida standing still, if not sinking, this is a fantastic strategy. In fact, it could be expanded to revise other educational doctrines...

If snubbing is to be done, Florida should be the snubber, not the snubee. Keep your elite biotech payrolls up North and out West -- we've got hundreds of thousands of low-paying, go-nowhere jobs that require little training and minimal education.

Should state officials vote this week to put evolution on the teaching agenda, it will be a small yet radical step out of Florida's backwarding-thinking past.

Resistance is not futile. We've worked hard to keep ourselves so far behind in education, and we must stay the course...

Miami Herald

It's time to end multigenerational ignorance in Florida. Those who have already had the misfortune of inadequate education in the sciences should not have the opportunity to insure that the generation after them faces the same deprivation. It's time to let the light of knowledge shine through in the Sunshine State.

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