"Critical Analysis" Defeated in Ohio

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
"Critical Analysis" Defeated in Ohio
Glenn Branch
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The Ohio Board of Education voted 11–4 at its February 14, 2006, meeting to remove both the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" model lesson plan and the corresponding indicator — which called for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" — in the state standards. Board member Martha Wise, who spearheaded the drive to eliminate the anti-evolution material, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer (2006 Feb 15), "I’m ecstatic ... It’s a win for science, a win for students and a win for the state of Ohio."

The genesis of "critical analysis"

The "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan corresponds to a similarly controversial indicator in the Ohio state science standards, which called for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." When the indicator was introduced, it was widely feared that it would provide a pretext for the introduction of creationist misrepresentations of evolution. The lesson plan proved these fears to be justified. As originally submitted, entitled "The Great Macroevolution Debate", it was riddled with scientific inaccuracies and pedagogical infelicities, and it even explicitly relied on a number of creationist publications.

Facing such criticisms, the proponents of the lesson plan revised it, but only cosmetically — removing the references to creationist publications and eliminating a number of the glaring errors, but leaving intact the basic structure, the choice of topics (which is indebted to Jonathan Wells’s notoriously misleading book Icons of Evolution), and the overall goal of instilling scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. Even as revised, the lesson plan was condemned by the National Academy of Sciences and the Ohio Academy of Sciences, which told Ohio governor Bob Taft (R) that it was "defective because it is not science and has no place in the science curriculum."

Nevertheless, the revision was enough to satisfy a majority of the members of the board. On March 9, 2004, a motion to reject the lesson plan failed by a vote of 10–7, and the whole model curriculum, including the flawed "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, was then adopted by a 13–5 vote. Although teachers were not required to use the model curriculum, it was expected to be widely used because it is based on the standards that also provide the basis for statewide testing. Although there was talk shortly after the March 2004 vote of the possibility of a lawsuit over the lesson plan, the public discussion of the plan subsided for a time.

A related controversy surfaced, though, involving a primary author of the lesson plan, Bryan Leonard. In addition to teaching biology at a high school in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard, Leonard was also pursuing a doctoral degree in science education from the Ohio State University. Testifying at the "kangaroo court" hearings on evolution in Kansas in May 2005, Leonard told a subcommittee of the Kansas state board of education, "the way in which I teach evolution in my high school biology class is that I teach the scientific information, or in other words, the scientific interpretations both supporting and challenging macroevolution."

Leonard's testimony in Kansas aroused the curiosity of three OSU professors, who ascertained the topic of Leonard's dissertation: "When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?" They consequently wrote in a letter to the interim dean of the graduate school, "We note a fundamental flaw: There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise" (quoted in The Lantern 2005 Jun 23).

The composition of Leonard’s dissertation committee was also disputed. Inside Higher Ed (2005 Jun 10) reported, "Under Ohio State rules, two members of Leonard's dissertation committee should have been in the science education division. But the three members of the committee were in the fields of technology education, entomology and nutrition." Two of those three are supporters of the "intelligent design" movement. After the graduate school representative on the committee that was to hear Leonard's defense of his dissertation resigned and was replaced by the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, the defense was postponed, apparently at the request of Leonard’s advisor.

A spokesman for the university was eager to disavow Leonard's dissertation research, telling Inside Higher Ed, "It's a mischaracterization to say that the university was about to award a degree supporting 'intelligent design' or anything else. What we had was a dissertation defense scheduled," adding, "The university was not anywhere close to legitimizing anything that was not close to the caliber for which we give doctoral degrees." Nevertheless, the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan to which Leonard contributed was still in place, with the board’s imprimatur, and it was unclear whether it would be challenged.

"Critical analysis" challenged

Then, on December 20, 2005, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, the decision in Kitzmiller v Dover was issued: teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was found to be unconstitutional. Subsequently, the prospect of a lawsuit over the lesson plan was re-ignited in Ohio. Robin Hovis, a member of the board, told the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Jan 8), "I think the ruling is a wake-up call to our board that we are out of compliance, at least in that judge's opinion," adding, "I think it would be very unfortunate of us to subject the state of Ohio to costly litigation."

Adding to the pressure on the board was the revelation that the lesson plan was adopted by the board despite warnings from the Ohio Department of Education, whose experts described it as wrong, misleading, and even manifesting "fringe thinking". A marvelously detailed article in the weekly Cleveland Free Times (2006 Jan 31) reported, "at least one unnamed ODE staff scientist debunked all eight arguments Leonard had used to challenge evolution. The scientist's comments run the gamut of 'the challenging answer oversimplifies' to 'the challenging answer is wrong' to 'off-topic' to 'the underlined sentence about transitional fossils is a lie.'"

These warnings about the flaws in the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan were contained in documents obtained by Americans United for Separation of Church and State pursuant to a public records act request. Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, told the Dispatch (2006 Jan 8), "We've only gotten part of what we’ve asked for, but we see much of the same pattern of introducing religion through a backdoor means." Patricia Princehouse, a philosopher and evolutionary biologist at Case Western Reserve University and a leader of Ohio Citizens for Science, added, "The documents demonstrate this board had a religious intent and that board members who said they had no idea this was bad science lied."

The state’s major newspapers editorially urged the board to take the opportunity to remove the lesson plan and even the corresponding standard. The Dispatch, for example, observed (2006 Jan 10), "It's misleading for the standards to require that Ohio students describe how 'scientists today continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.' The not-so-subtle suggestion is that evolution is on shakier scientific ground than all other theories," and concluded, "The board should do Ohio children a giant favor and, at the same time, spare taxpayers the risk of costly litigation. Drop this bogus standard and its 'disclaimer'."

At the January 10, 2006, meeting of the board, however, a proposal, introduced by Martha Wise, to remove the lesson plan from the model curriculum was narrowly defeated in a 9–8 vote. The meeting was reportedly acrimonious; the Dispatch (2006 Jan 11) reported that after Wise observed that it had been the intention of at least two members to introduce "intelligent design" into the state science standards, her fellow board members Michael Cochran and Deborah Owens-Fink — both firm supporters of the lesson plan — took umbrage. Robin Hovis reminded the board that Owens-Fink had, in fact, introduced a proposal to teach "intelligent design" previously.

The acrimony was not confined to the members of the board. After reviewing videotapes of the meeting, the Dispatch (2006 Jan 20) described a number of board members — particularly Cochran and Owens-Fink — as "badgering and berating" the witnesses who testified about the flaws in the lesson plan. At one point, Cochran began to read a newspaper while Brian McEnnis, a professor of mathematics at the Ohio State University, was speaking; when McEnnis remonstrated, Cochran interrupted both McEnnis and then the president of the board when she sought to intervene. Interviewed by a Dispatch reporter, Cochran and Owens-Fink offered no apology (although they reportedly did later, at the February board meeting).

Both the vote to retain the lesson plan and the behavior of the board members who supported it received criticism from the state’s newspapers. The Toledo Blade"s editorial (2006 Jan 14) was especially outspoken, describing the nine board members who voted in favor of the lesson plan as "right-wing ideologues" and the board as a whole as "a painful carbuncle on the posterior of state government." The Dispatch (2006 Jan 15) noted that "[r]egardless of how board members cast their votes, they owe the people who come before them their attention and respect" and recommended that voters bear it in mind at the next election.

The demise of "critical analysis"

During the January meeting, Cochran tried to defend the lesson plan by referring to the grade of B that Ohio’s science standards recently received in a report conducted by the Fordham Foundation, as if to imply that the authors of the report approved of the lesson plan as well. In response, the authors, led by the eminent biologist Paul R Gross, issued a statement reading, in part, "Any suggestion that our ‘B’ grade for Ohio’s standards endorses sham critiques of evolution, as offered by creationists, is false. ... If creationism-driven arguments become an authorized extension of Ohio’s K–12 science standards, then the standards will deserve a failing grade."

The furor over the meeting evidently sparked the interest of Governor Taft, who told the Dispatch (2006 Feb 3) that there should be a legal review of the lesson plan to ensure that the state is not vulnerable to a lawsuit. "The governor also said he should have asked his previous appointees to the State Board of Education more questions about their position on the controversial issue and that he will be asking about it before making future appointments," the Dispatch also reported. Eight of the seats on the board of education are appointed by the governor, and four of these are due to be vacant at the end of the year; Governor Taft’s term expires in 2007.

Meanwhile, in a letter addressed to Governor Taft dated February 7, 2006, a large majority (75%) of the members of the Science Content Standards Advisory Committee, which helped to develop the Ohio state science standards in 2002, protested the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, describing it as "a pointed attempt to insert old and discredited creationist content in Ohio’s science classrooms," "wholly without merit," and "a disservice to Ohio’s children and an insult to the intelligence of its good citizens".

A further hopeful sign, in addition to the remarks of Governor Taft and the letter from the members of the advisory committee, was that one of the two members of the board who were absent from the January 10 meeting, Virgil Brown, told the Dispatch (2006 Jan 12) that he was ready to "withdraw or amend" the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan, encouraging defenders of evolution education in the Buckeye State. Although consideration of the lesson plan was not on the agenda for the next meeting, it was clear that pressure was mounting on the board to take action.

At the February meeting of the board, Colleen Grady presented a proposal, seconded by Carl Wick, for the board to ask the state attorney general to conduct a legal analysis of the standards and the lesson plan. Martha Wise then introduced a motion, seconded by Robin Hovis, to amend Grady’s proposal by substituting her own, which called for the removal of both the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" model lesson plan and the corresponding indicator in the state standards. Wise’s proposal included a provision to reinstate the Ohio Academy of Science’s definition of science in the standards; Eric Okerson introduced a motion, seconded by Sam Schloemer, which substituted a charge to the board’s Achievement Committee to consider whether to replace the removed lesson plan and indicator.

After a protracted discussion, the president of the school board called for a vote. First the Okerson amendment was approved by a vote of 14–1, with only Deborah Owens-Fink opposed, and then the Wise amendment to the Grady proposal was approved by a vote of 11–4, with Grady, Owens-Fink, Cochran, and Sue Westendorf opposed. The Grady proposal as amended (see sidebar, p 10) was then approved by a vote of 11–4, with Grady, Owens-Fink, Cochran, and Westendorf again opposed. Voting for the removal were Lou Ann Harrold, Martha W Wise, GR "Sam" Schloemer, Virgil E Brown Jr, Jim Craig, Jennifer Stewart, Jane Sonenshein, Robin C Hovis, Stephen M Millett, Eric C Okerson, and Carl Wick; absent from the meeting were John W Griffin, Richard Baker, Emerson J Ross Jr, and Jennifer L Sheets. (Minutes of the meeting are available on-line at http://www.ode.state.oh.us/board/meetings/february06/minutes.asp.)

Reactions and prospects

Anti-evolutionism was no longer enshrined in Ohio’s public education system, and groups that contributed to the victory were gratified. Foremost among them was Ohio Citizens for Science, which commented in a press release, "The Directors and members of Ohio Citizens for Science applaud the Ohio State Board of Education for removing the creationist material from the State Standards and Model Curriculum. We are pleased that Members of the Board have affirmed the importance of honest science education in Ohio public schools, and we stand ready to assist the Board however we can in advancing that effort."

Additionally, NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C Scott described the vote as "a stunning triumph for the students of Ohio’s public schools and a stunning repudiation of the all-too-successful attempts of creationists to undermine evolution education in the Buckeye State. Let’s hope that all such attempts to introduce creationism by the back door meet the same fate." The Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State similarly commented, "This is a great victory for Ohio public school students."

The state’s newspapers also hailed the vote editorially. The Cincinnati Enquirer (2006 Feb 18) described it as "a wise, pragmatic move that could save Ohio money from lawsuits, save schools from the distraction this debate has brought, and preserve students’ best interests in receiving a sound scientific education," and the Toledo Blade (2006 Feb 20) argued that "Ohio school children owe a majority of members on the Ohio Board of Education their gratitude. By a vote of 11–4, board members eliminated a disputed evolution lesson plan, that, like the barred Pennsylvania plan, was really religion masquerading as science."

Patricia Princehouse told the Chicago Tribune (2006 Feb 15) that although the anti-evolution materials would be removed immediately, Ohio Citizens for Science plans to monitor board meetings to ensure that the material is not re-introduced in a new form. "The one thing we learned about creationists," she explained to the Tribune, "is that they never give up." That was a sentiment echoed by the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Feb 23), which observed, "Ohio is not out of the woods yet," warning, "Intelligent-design supporters surely will be back to take another shot at evolution."

The board’s Achievement Committee was charged with the task of deciding whether it is necessary to provide a replacement for the controversial indicator in the state standards. The Dispatch (2006 Feb 20), noting that it was the same committee that approved the controversial indicator in the first place, quipped, "Meet the new committee, same as the old committee." Commenting that on the committee "opinions differ, with both sides accusing the other of being motivated more by politics than science," the Associated Press (2006 Feb 22) concluded, "The debate is likely to take months."

Meanwhile, Steve Rissing, a professor of biology at Ohio State University, prepared a lesson plan on speciation, to illustrate how "current areas of active inquiry and discussion in biology can be presented with grade-appropriate rigor in a pedagogically effective manner." The lesson plan (which is available on-line at Ohio Citizens for Science’s website http://www.ohioscience.org) presents the current controversy over sympatric speciation, referring in the process to the evolutionary biology of two pests (apple maggot fly and corn root worm) that damage Ohio agriculture.

The broader significance of the board’s vote was in its repudiation of the strategy of undermining evolution education by calling for the "critical analysis" of evolution. Although the language of the indicator calling for students to be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" was innocuous on its face, it was twisted in the service of the creationist agenda. Not only was the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan developed under the aegis of the indicator, but it also proved to be grist for the creationist propaganda mill, which constantly claimed that Ohio was in the vanguard of a movement to challenge evolution in the public schools. (For a discussion of such claims with respect to New Mexico and elsewhere, see RNCSE 2005 May–Aug; 25 [3–4]: 4–8.)

Will the creationists who have cited Ohio’s embrace of "critical analysis" as precedent for their own efforts elsewhere now follow Ohio’s lead in repudiating it? It is unlikely: the board’s vote was characterized by representatives of the Discovery Institute as "an outrageous slap in the face" and as a triumph of "censorship" (United Press International 2006 Feb 15; Cincinnati Enquirer 2006 Feb 15), rather than as a necessary corrective. But certainly it is open to the defenders of the integrity of science education across the country to applaud the Ohio board of education’s repudiation of "critical analysis" and to recommend that policymakers elsewhere emulate it. NCSE will be there to help them to do so.

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
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Berkeley CA 94709-0477