Ohio science standards
Science standards set, but the teaching is still evolving
Scott Stephens - Plain Dealer Reporter, 12/29/2002 - original story
To Ron Stewart, the new standards for teaching science in Ohio's schools offer an endorsement of evolution and a rebuke of intelligent design.

"I feel very strongly that we need to teach evolution in the biology classroom and that we probably do not need to talk about intelligent design," said Stewart, a biology teacher at Stow-Munroe Falls High School in Stow.

"If we were to teach a controversy, it would be a controversy about such things as the pace of evolution, rather than whether evolution did occur."

To Bryan Leonard, those same science standards give him the green light to teach ideas critical of Darwin's theory.

"The idea is to increase students' knowledge of evolution," said Leonard, a biology teacher at Hilliard Davidson High School near Columbus.

"Showing them the controversies of evolution can help us achieve this goal.

"I've often found that students are more interested in the controversy."

Two high school biology teachers. Two interpretations.

Despite the State Board of Education's Dec. 10 adoption of the new set of science standards, the question of how best to teach Ohio's 1.8 million public-school students about the origin and development of life on Earth is far from settled.

It took the board 12 months to fashion a compromise that strikes a delicate balance between teaching evolution and teaching concepts that are opposed to the scientific theory. Wary that their words would be misread, the board members added a caveat stating that they did not endorse intelligent design - the idea that life is too complex to have developed by chance and must have been guided by a higher power.

But it may take a little longer to see how those carefully crafted words play out in Ohio's classrooms.

It's true that the state's standardized academic-proficiency tests, including the new Ohio Graduation Test students will soon take in 10th grade, are predicated on uniform academic standards statewide. But it's important to remember that schools are controlled locally, and the 612 individual boards of education have great say about what is taught, how it is taught and what textbooks are used in classrooms.

"It's a local-control state, and local districts reflect their community," said Lynn Elfner, who heads the pro-evolution group of educators and scientists called the Ohio Academy of Science.

The standards identify subjects that students should learn and establish the grade levels at which those subjects should be taught. The state board's adoption of them was the first step in revamping classroom instruction.

The next step - writing a science curriculum - will give teachers guidelines on how to teach those subjects in accord with the demands of the standardized tests. A committee appointed by the state Department of Education will begin that process early in the coming year.

"This will be very controversial - maybe even more so [than the standards]," predicted state board of education member Martha Wise of Avon.

Some of her board colleagues said they will keep a sharp eye on the team that is assembled to write that curriculum.

Among them is Michael Cochran of the Columbus suburb of Blacklick. Cochran favored including ideas contrary to evolution in the science standards and said the team put together to write the science standards was stacked with pro-evolutionists. He wants to see more diversity of opinion on the curriculum team.

As the state board wrestles with the next step, students and teachers are already beginning to examine how the new standards will affect them. Just before Christmas, scores of student debaters from across Northeast Ohio gathered at Shaker Heights High School for a two-day tournament. This year's debate subject: intelligent design.

Earlier this month, Case Western Reserve University sponsored a workshop for high-school biology teachers on teaching life's origins in the classroom.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, told the teachers not to be fooled by anti-evolutionists who have attacked science textbooks as being biased and factually incorrect.

"They want to deprive teachers of some of the best teaching tools," Scott told the group. "Don't hesitate to use them."

Intelligent-design advocates are also encouraging teachers to exercise academic freedom and challenge the tenets of evolution.

Already, the American Civil Liberties Union has said it is prepared to take to court local districts that teach intelligent design because it is a form of creationism, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled can't be taught in public schools because doing so blurs the separation of church and state.

"They don't have a leg to stand on," retorted Bruce Chapman, founder and president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation's leading intelligent-design proponent. "There's no religion in this. But it's easier to tell a teacher not to teach this kind of thing than to have a lawsuit. That's called intimidation."

The debate, of course, will not end in Ohio. In 2003, Texas will be ordering a half-million new biology textbooks. Pro- and anti-evolution forces are expected to duke it out this summer over what those textbooks say about teaching origins of life.

Then there is Kansas. The state made headlines across the world in 1999 by largely deleting evolution from its science standards. Although a state education board later restored evolution, anti-evolution forces reclaimed several board seats in the last election.

As was the case in Ohio, educators and policymakers in those states will have to wrestle with the ageless balance between science and religion, faith and knowledge.

"I believe that God created life," said Wise, the Ohio board member who strongly opposed including intelligent design in the standards. "But there is also a set of processes identified with the study of science. I can meld the two theories."