Revolution in evolution? The evolution vs. creationism controversy continues to influence public school curriculum.
The famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, ignited the modern day debate of teaching evolution in public schools. In a Tennessee courtroom, teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in the classroom, then a violation of state law. The contentious value-ridden debate lay practically dormant, however, until the 1987 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that creationism is a religious belief and cannot be taught in public schools alongside evolution.
That historic ruling, stemming from a court case in Louisiana, subsequently paved the way for adopting new evolution-based science curriculum policies across the nation. Two states recently received national attention when their local school boards voted to modify their science curriculum to offer an alternative explanation to the scientific theory of evolution. Consequently, both the Cobb County School District in Georgia and the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania are battling it out in court.
COBB COUNTY, GEORGIA
In 2002, the Cobb County School District, nestled in the suburbs of Atlanta, adopted the policy of placing disclaimer stickers in 13 middle and high school science textbooks. The disclaimers read: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."
The stickers originated from Marjorie Rogers, a creationist who collected more than 2,000 signatures that led the school board to adopt the policy.
In response, a handful of parents, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district arguing that the stickers promoted religion in public schools and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution's principle of separation of church and state. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled in January that the disclaimers are unconstitutional and ordered the stickers removed at the end of this school year. The judge said that although the disclaimers do not directly mention or support religion, a reasonable person would interpret its message as endorsing religion. He said the religiously motivated stickers imply that the school board condones the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and creationists. Furthermore, Judge Cooper wrote that muddying the definition of "theory" is dangerous as it misleads students into thinking that the theory of evolution is based on a "hunch" rather than a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world.
The legal battle over the stickers continues as the Cobb County school board decided, by a vote of S-to-2, to appeal Judge Cooper's ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The school board claims that it is not endorsing religion, but instead encouraging students to think critically in all subject areas.
The Dover Area School District, located in rural south-central Pennsylvania, is thought to be the first school district in the nation to require teachers to read a statement about intelligent design to their high school biology students. Intelligent design is a concept that holds that the universe is so complex, it had to be created by an unspecified guiding force. A portion of the statement reads: Because Danvin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is trot a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.
The controversy stems from the school board's 6-3 vote last fall to include an alternative to the theory of evolution in the science curriculum.
Two board members resigned and a half dozen families, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the school district. They alleged that presenting the concept of intelligent design in public school science classrooms violated their religious rights by promoting particular religious beliefs to their children under the guise of science education.
Similar to the lawsuit filed against Cobb County, the lawsuit against the Dover district argues that teaching students that there are gaps or problems in the scientific theory of evolution, while failing to present any such gaps in the concept of intelligent design, would ultimately lead students to believe that the theory of evolution is false while implying that the truth lies in the religious beliefs advocated through intelligent design. The lawsuit cites violations to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which calls for the separation of church and state.
The district has run into resistance among teachers and parents alike. Seven teachers signed a letter objecting to the policy on grounds that it violates the professional standards and practices code for teachers. Consequently, the district has agreed to temporarily exempt science teachers from reading the statement. Instead, administrators are reading it to ninth grade biology classes.
Additionally, the district has allowed students whose parents object to the policy to be excused from listening to the statement. The Dover Area School District maintains that the adopted biology curriculum policy does not advance religion, but instead informs students about the existing scientific controversy surrounding the theory of evolution.
Like it or not, public school science curriculum standards are changing. Proponents cite a national trend in restoring moral values and view the evolution-based science curriculum as biased. Critics cite a growing presence of religious voters in politics as the catalyst to placing creationism back into public school science curricula.
RECENT POLICY TRENDS
In Kansas, those who favor changing the state's science curriculum to include an alternative to evolution, have won a majority on the state Board of Education, again. Kansas reignited the evolution debate when, in 1999, the state Board of Education voted 6-4 to reject evolution as a scientific principle, virtually removing all references to it from the state's science curriculum. The board reversed the policy in 2001, when the membership changed.
With the verdicts from two of the nation's most recent court battles still out, other states are re-examining their science curricula to expose questions about evolution and alternative views. In 1995, Alabama's state board of education approved the nation's first state-sanctioned sticker to be placed in biology textbooks, warning students that evolution is a "controversial theory" that should be questioned. There seems to be no organized effort to oppose the curriculum, which has been revised by a committee of mostly science educators over the past year.
The Ohio Department of Education passed a measure encouraging teachers to hold classes that question the theory of evolution. In Grantsburg, Wis., the school board voted to incorporate a critical approach to evolution, without identifying specific alternatives.
And in legislatures this session, at least nine states have been discussing how to teach evolution in public schools.
BILLS IN DISCUSSION
Legislators in at least nine states this session have been looking at legislation that relates to teaching evolution in public schools.
* Alabama: Would allow teachers to challenge the scientific validity of the theory of evolution.
* Georgia: Would require teachers to present scientific evidence challenging evolution.
* Kansas: Would promote objectivity in science education.
* Missouri: Would require public school textbooks to have one or more chapters containing critical analysis of origins.
* Pennsylvania: Would allow school boards to add "intelligent design" to any curriculum containing evolution and allow teachers, subject to board approval, to present "supporting evidence deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of intelligent design."
* South Carolina: Would revise how the state selects textbooks and establishes a committee to study the origins of species and determine whether alternatives to evolution should be offered.
Bills in Arkansas, Mississippi and Montana died in committee or were not formally introduced.
Sara Vitaska tracks education policy for NCSL.