Creationism concerns shadow Florida's new top educator

Creationism concerns shadow Florida's new top educator
By Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, Sunday, Oct 09, 2005
Cheri Pierson Yecke began her job as one of the most powerful educators in the state last week with little fanfare, receiving her office keys and e-mail address and meeting in a two-day retreat with Department of Education staff.

But the reputation of Florida's new chancellor for kindergarten through 12th grade, second only to Education Commissioner John Winn, preceded her with more flourish and fear from some.

Yecke, 50, who served most recently as Minnesota's top educator, is a conservative, a believer in creationism, a critic of teachers unions and a strong proponent of President Bush's education reform programs, some of which she helped write.

She was forced out as Minnesota's education commissioner last year by a Democrat-controlled Senate.

She then worked as a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, where she wrote articles blaming childhood obesity on the "liberal media" and said "liberal criminal sentencing laws" make streets unsafe for kids.

Yecke's supporters said her ouster in Minnesota was not her fault.

She was caught in a political perfect storm forced to dismantle the state's traditional education program to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act while dealing with a dwindling Democratic majority less concerned about her performance than about sending a message to the Republican governor.

"All of my research on Cheri's nonconfirmation tells me that it had little to do with education substance and a lot to do with partisan politics and payback," Winn said.

But it's Yecke's belief in creationism, and criticism that she subtly tried to infuse it into Minnesota's science curriculum, that concerns some Florida educators.

Science guidelines in the Sunshine State are up for review and revision next year.

Gov. Jeb Bush said last week that neither evolution, Darwinism nor creationism were in the current standards.

The standards for middle school and high school, however, do include evolution, although the word itself is never mentioned. Eighth-graders are expected to know that the fossil record provides evidence that changes in the kinds of plants and animals have been occurring over time.

And high school students are expected to understand genetic mutations and how natural selection ensures that those who are best adapted to their surroundings survive to reproduce the two fundamental concepts underlying evolutionary biology.

When told this, Bush responded: "Well, that's different from what the (education) commissioner told me and what he's said publicly. I like what we have right now. And I don't think there needs to be any changes. I don't think we need to restrict discussion, but it doesn't need to be required, either."

But as the debate about adding creationism and intelligent design the belief that a higher power is responsible for the evolution of life heats up across the nation and in a Pennsylvania courtroom, education watchers say Florida, with Yecke at the helm, is ripe for the discussion.

Scripps, creationism at odds

Already, state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, has waged a preemptive strike with a newspaper editorial against using creationism or intelligent design in science classes.

University science professors and a national group that had concerns about how science curriculum was rewritten in Minnesota say it's ironic that Florida would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to woo The Scripps Research Institute to the state, yet hire a top educator who does not accept Darwinian evolution something Scripps scientists say they prove every day in their experiments.

"It's inconsistent," said Wesley Elsberry, information project director for the National Center for Science Education and a critic of Yecke. "Essentially, if a creationist curriculum passed, the people graduating from Florida public high schools will be at a disadvantage to get into colleges and into programs that would help them get jobs at Scripps."

Yecke said she has no plans to introduce creationism into the curriculum revision and will follow the lead of Gov. Bush and the commissioner. Winn said he would make recommendations on the science curriculum "that further student learning and achievement in science."

Rewrites drew critics

Other state Republican leaders may be more willing to bring up the ideas of creationism and intelligent design.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the House Education Council, said that although he does not expect legislation this year dealing with religious theory on how life was created, he believes "different schools of thought" should be discussed in the schools.

That sentiment also was expressed by President Bush, who said earlier this year that intelligent design and evolution should be taught in school "so that people can understand what the debate is about."

Yecke, the new chancellor, said her personal beliefs have nothing to do with what she advocates teaching in the schools. The best way she's heard about teaching evolution was from a teacher in Minnesota who tells his students the following: "Today we are going to learn about evolution, and I know you have many different beliefs, and I will respect them. I'm asking you to learn about it, not believe it."

Yecke said her priorities in Florida include middle school reform, closing the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and finding solutions to the teacher shortage.

Yecke said that in Minnesota she had to institute controversial standardized testing and rewrite state curriculum in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act. Rewrites of the social studies and science curriculums drew criticism from people who said Yecke was putting her own political and religious beliefs into the coursework.

In social studies, Yecke said Christopher Columbus did not make a deliberate decision to destroy native peoples. She followed by saying that some current social studies standards follow a "hate America agenda."

Elsberry, of the National Center for Science Education, said that during the science rewrite in Minnesota, drafts of curriculum included "maybes" and "possibles" whenever evolution was mentioned. Elsberry said Yecke also gave the committee assigned to rewrite the curriculum a version of the No Child Left Behind Act that included a failed amendment referring to alternative theories to evolution.

Yecke said she gave the committee versions of the science curriculum given high ratings by the Fordham Foundation and Achieve. The Fordham Foundation is a conservative-based education think tank. The Web site of Achieve, an education improvement organization formed in part by state governors, says it is nonpartisan.

"While wondering why the Florida reporters are so obsessed with creationism, this thought hit me: My confirmation hearing was nine hours long over two days, and the issue never came up," Yecke wrote in an e-mail to Winn. "It was a nonissue here, except for a few vocal folks, and wasn't even addressed by the Senate."

States test high court ruling

Claes Wahlestedt, a researcher at The Scripps Research Institute who studies the human genome, said he does not understand what the debate concerning intelligent design and creationism is about.

"I'm European, and these are not issues we deal with in Europe," he said. "All of our work at Scripps constantly gives evidence of the existence of evolution. Evolution is so firmly established, it's not even questioned in Europe."

The biggest debate in the schools now is being waged in Pennsylvania, where a group of parents is suing a school district to stop science teachers from referring students to the book Of Pandas and People, which includes intelligent design.

Intelligent design holds that life on Earth is so complex that it must have been the product of some higher force. It has been pushed to the forefront of the evolution debate since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that states could not force schools to balance the teaching of creationism and evolution. Opponents of the concept say intelligent design is simply creationism stripped of overt religious references.

Last year, Georgia school officials restored evolution and other key scientific concepts to proposed curriculum standards after initially taking them out. In Missouri, a bill was proposed that would require equal treatment for intelligent design and evolution, starting next year.

In Florida, Rep. Baxley's failed Academic Freedom Bill attempted to keep university professors from "persistently" introducing controversial subject matter into the classroom. Baxley said too many conservative college students were being demeaned by liberal college professors.

But Rep. Gelber said the bill would have "clearly brought intelligent design into the classroom."

"(Baxley) talked about intelligent design when he presented the bill," Gelber said. "I asked him about it, and he said, 'Freedom is a difficult thing, Mr. Gelber.' "

Not in science class

Nathan Dean, dean of Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, said he's concerned about Florida's getting sucked into the intelligent design debate.

The idea of intelligent design and creationism may have a place in schools, he said, just not in the science class. Science is what can be proved through scientific theory. Ideas are tested and confirmed or dismissed.

The idea of God's creating the universe cannot be tested scientifically, Dean said.

"God is, by nature, not measurable or testable," he said. "Somehow, you have to keep God and science separate. Science should be taught in a science class. Creationism can be taught in a religious class, not biology."