Standards keep focus on evolution

Standards keep focus on evolution
By Joe Dejka, Omaha World Herald - 6/13/2010
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution would continue as a cornerstone of science classes in Nebraska's public schools if proposed new state science standards are adopted this summer by the Nebraska Board of Education.

Intelligent design, meantime, would remain the province of philosophers and theologians.

Although advocates of intelligent design enjoyed fleeting success the past decade in Kansas, they have not found Nebraska science classrooms so welcoming.

Three members of the Nebraska Board of Education say they're not aware of any effort by board members or the public to include intelligent design in Nebraska's new science standards.

“I've had zero contact from anyone,” said board member Robert Evnen of Lincoln, who is on a committee reviewing the standards.

The standards would be adopted by the state board in August. Standards identify what students should know and what teachers should teach.

Nebraska's 253 school districts would have to adopt the state standards, or more rigorous ones, or risk losing accreditation.

The standards take on added importance this year because education officials will use them to design for the first time a statewide science test. That test will be piloted at some schools next spring and implemented at all public schools in 2012.

Intelligent design proposes that the world's incredible diversity can only be explained as the work of a supreme being. Evolution attributes the world's diversity to organisms inheriting different traits over time that make them more or less fit to survive.

Nebraska's proposed standards would continue to refer to evolution as theory. California's standards, among the nation's most detailed, do not qualify evolution as a theory. Oklahoma's standards, on the other hand, make no mention of either intelligent design or evolution, but children are taught “biological change over time.”

Jim Woodland, director of science education for the Nebraska Education Department, said state officials chose to continue to refer to evolution as a theory rather than “stir the hornet's nest.”

In common usage, the word theory has come to mean “a hunch,” suggesting a conclusion reached based on incomplete evidence. However, the American Association for the Advancement of Science defines a scientific theory as “a well-substantiated explanation . . . based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed.” Gravity, for example, is often referred to as a theory.

In Iowa, evolution also is included in state standards.

The Iowa Core, adopted by Iowa lawmakers in 2008, requires high school students to “understand and apply knowledge of biological evolution.”

Iowa high schools must adopt the Iowa Core by 2012; elementary schools by 2014.

Under Nebraska's proposed standards, high school students would be asked to “describe the theory of biological evolution” and recognize how it explains such things as genetic variations in offspring and the diversity of life over time. Except for slight wording changes, that's the same requirement as the 1998 standards they would replace.

“We're treating evolution the way that we have it now,” Woodland said. “We expect the students to develop an understanding of biological evolution. There's no reference to intelligent design at all.”

The proposed standards do not specifically address another controversial topic, global warming, but they do ask students to examine the impact of human activity on the Earth's resources.

“We're not getting into what you have to believe, one side or the other,,” Woodland said. “We're giving you the tools and the content so you can make up your own mind about what's going on.”

Dan Sitzman, a curriculum specialist at Omaha North Magnet High School who helped develop the standards, said science teachers debated how to address global warming and after a long discussion decided to “leave that door open” for science teachers to address it as they see fit.

In 2005, scientists criticized Kansas after a narrowly split State Board of Education revised the state's science standards to include intelligent design. Two years later, a newly elected Kansas board removed any reference to intelligent design, where the the standards are today.

In 2002, the Nebraska board rejected a push to include intelligent design in state standards. Then, in 2006, three candidates for the board who favored including intelligent design or creationism in the standards were defeated — though after respectable showings at the polls.

Woodland said a Nebraska school district would risk a lawsuit if it chose to teach intelligent design. He noted a 2005 federal court ruling that found a Dover, Pa., school board violated the U.S. Constitution when it approved teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.

Creighton University biology professor Chuck Austerberry reviewed Nebraska's draft standards and found them “appropriately neutral” on philosophical and theological matters.

Austerberry belongs to the Nebraska Religious Coalition for Science Education, a loose coalition that believes religion and science are compatible but opposes teaching intelligent design in science classes.

Austerberry said he was “appalled” when Kansas included intelligent design in its standards.

“We just want them to learn the science,” Austerberry said. “And also to learn it in a neutral, respectful environment that would give the students the confidence to know that they should feel free to develop their worldview based on input from all kinds of sources at home and at church.”

Although Kansas' standards no longer refer to intelligent design, an introduction to the standards includes a reminder to teachers not to “ridicule, belittle or embarrass a student for expressing an alternative view or belief.”

The National Science Teachers Association opposes mandating the teaching of intelligent design. The association endorses teaching evolution, viewing it “as a major unifying concept.”

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