"Critical Analysis" in Ohio

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
"Critical Analysis" in Ohio: The Return of the Zombie
Glenn Branch
NCSE Deputy Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Like a zombie in a horror film, the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" effort returned to haunt the Buckeye State, despite a series of stakes through its heart. In 2002, Ohio adopted a set of science standards including a requirement that students be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" (see RNCSE 2002 Sep/Oct; 22 [5]: 4–6). When the indicator was introduced, it was widely feared that it would provide a pretext for the introduction of creationist misrepresentations of evolution. In 2004, those fears proved to be justified, when, over the protests of the state's scientific community, the board adopted a corresponding model lesson plan that clearly sought to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution (see RNCSE 2004 Jan/Feb; 24 [1]: 5–6, 8–9).

Following the decision in Kitzmiller v Dover and the revelation that the board ignored criticisms of the lesson plan from experts at the Ohio Department of Education, the board reversed its decision, voting in February 2006 to remove the "critical analysis" indicator from the standards and to rescind the lesson plan (see RNCSE 2006 May/Jun; 26 [3]: 7–11). At the same time, however, the board charged its Achievement Committee to "consider whether the deleted model lesson, Benchmark H and Indicator 23 should be replaced by a different lesson, benchmark, and indicator, and if so, to present any recommendation to the entire State Board for adoption." Since it was the Achievement Committee that approved the controversial indicator in the first place, the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Feb 20) remarked ruefully, "Meet the new committee, same as the old committee."

The Achievement Committee, like the board as a whole, was divided over issues concerning evolution education, and thus was expected to take months to decide whether a replacement indicator was necessary. The first development occurred in July. According to the current science standards for the tenth grade, students are expected to be able to "[d]escribe that scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretation of data or about the value of rival theories, but they do agree that questioning response to criticism and open communications are integral to the process of science." At a meeting of the board's Achievement Committee on July 10, 2006, board member Colleen Grady proposed the addition of, "Discuss and be able to apply this in the following areas: global warning; evolutionary theory; emerging technologies and how they may impact society, e.g. cloning or stem-cell research."

The fact that evolution and global warming were the only areas of science cited as examples where scientists disagree was of immediate concern. (A similar pairing occurred in Michigan, where House Bill 5251 called for students to "use the scientific method to critically evaluate scientific theories including, but not limited to, the theories of global warming and evolution"; see RNCSE 2006 May/Jun; 26 [3]: 12–16.) Before the meeting, Steve Rissing, a biology professor at the Ohio State University, told the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Jul 9), "This is so transparent ... These are not controversial areas of science," and in reaction to Grady's proposal, Patricia Princehouse of Ohio Citizens for Science told the Dayton Daily News (2006 Jul 11), "We knew they wouldn't just give up and go home. We didn't think they'd come back so soon."

The Dispatch (2006 Jul 11) reported, "Education Department staff will put Grady's proposal into draft form for consideration at the board's September meeting. It is not clear whether there is enough support among committee members to recommend any proposal to the full board." Meanwhile, the Dispatch (2006 Jul 13), took a strong stand against the proposal on its editorial page, declaring, "This fight should have been dead and buried in February ... But a few dogged members still insist on 'teaching the controversy' about evolution, even though the controversy has been manufactured by disingenuous people who wish to introduce the supernatural into science classrooms. ... These few wily board members are the best possible evidence that evolution exists; their tactics mutate every time the public catches on to what's happening."

As the board's September meeting approached, the Campaign to Defend the Constitution — a new organization "fight[ing] for the separation of church and state, individual freedom, scientific progress, pluralism, and tolerance while respecting people of faith and their right to express their beliefs" — urged supporters of the integrity of science education to lobby school board members to reject Grady's proposal should it be introduced. The Toledo Blade (2006 Sep 7) reported that during a teleconference on September 6, 2006, members of the Campaign described the proposal as "a Trojan horse carrying religion into the science curriculum." The Blade added, "Patricia Princehouse, a lecturer in philosophy and evolutionary biology at Case Western Reserve University, who joined the Campaign to Defend the Constitution group, said treating evolution and other topics as though they are somehow different from the rest of science is a way to sneak creationism back into the science curriculum."

A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Education told the Blade that no specific topics would be mentioned in a draft of the proposal, and the Akron Beacon-Journal reported (2006 Sep 7), "The nine-page document itself is evolutionary. Earlier this year, a proposal was to encourage debate of specific issues: Evolution, global warming and stem cell research. Now, it encourages students to conduct research and have open discussion in the classroom." Nevertheless, board member Martha Wise (a strong voice for the integrity of science education in Ohio; see RNCSE 2006 May/Jun; 26 [3]: 11) commented that the proposal "is a lot of gobbledygook — it's just another wedge into the teaching of ID in science classes." Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University worried, "When they teach history, are they going to say some people say the Holocaust never happened?"

The new version of the proposal, now dubbed the "Framework for Teaching Controversial Issues" template, became public before the Achievement Committee's September meeting, and was quickly the subject of — appropriately — a critical analysis of its own. Ohio Citizens for Science issued a statement (available on-line at http://www.ohioscience.org/Controversial_Issues_Response.pdf) regarding the framework, describing it as "incoherent if, as its major proponent has stated, it will have teachers and students 'challenge everything.' It is impossible to challenge everything in each school class; to even attempt such a thing would result in chaos and no learning" (emphasis in original). The statement added, "Clearly the template is in fact the latest step in ongoing efforts to orchestrate a religiously motivated attack on the theory of evolution ... While science relies constantly on genuine critical analysis, it does not use denigrating debate tools based on political propaganda and ill-informed by evidence."

Additionally, Alan Leshner — the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the publisher of its journal Science — forcefully criticized the framework in his op-ed for the Akron Beacon-Journal (2006 Sep 11), writing, "ID advocates who in the past were concerned only with critical analysis of evolution are adding scientific concepts they oppose on religious grounds, including embryonic stem cell research, as subjects where the scientific consensus would come under attack in Ohio's classrooms. Although the advocates have crafted their arguments carefully, a critical analysis of their version of critical analysis suggests it's an old product in a new wrapper — and that it poses clear and palpable threats to the education and future of Ohio's children."

At the September 11, 2006, meeting, the Achievement Committee declined to consider the "Controversial Issues" template. James L Craig, co-chair of the committee, said, "We've run out of time," according to a report in the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Sep 12), and peremptorily adjourned the meeting. The decision not to consider the template was surprising, since, as the Dispatch reported, the board received "national attention and thousands of e-mails" concerning it in recent weeks, owing in part to the campaign organized by the Committee to Defend the Constitution. It was speculated that the committee was dragging its heels in the fear that the board would vote against any replacement.

Although the Achievement Committee decided not to consider the framework at its September meeting, the Beacon-Journal (2006 Sep 13) observed that "the issue could come up for a vote at next month's regularly scheduled board meeting" in October. The Dispatch reported (2006 Sep 12), "Privately, several board members say they support an immediate vote so debate can end. The proposals, they say, are unnecessary and divisive and draw attention from more important topics." Meanwhile, the Beacon-Journal (2006 Sep 17) editorially commented, "Continuing this very political debate promises to harm the quality of education for Ohio students."

At the committee's October 9, 2006, meeting, however, the template was not even on the agenda and so "critical analysis" was still alive, despite a reported promise from Craig to kill the "critical analysis" effort. Patricia Princehouse of Ohio Citizens for Science told the Canton Repository (2006 Oct 10), "He sandbagged all of us." Confiding "I really don't care for the template," Craig cited the committee's inability to arrive at a consensus as the reason for the failure to vote on the template. Steve Rissing offered a different explanation: Craig "probably feared he would lose the election if he openly moved the template forward, so he made reassuring noises to scientists while claiming ignorance of the progress the template was making."

On October 10, 2006, the second day of the board of education's monthly meeting, supporters of the integrity of evolution education turned out in force, armed with copies of the Repository's article printed on bright yellow paper to catch the attention of members of the board and those attending the meeting, and prepared to use the public comment period to criticize the board for its inaction. As it happened, however, board member Martha Wise, who led February's effort to remove the "critical analysis" language, proposed to discharge the Achievement Committee from any further responsibilities concerning possible replacements from that language. Seconded by Rob Hovis, the motion passed 14–3.

After the vote, Wise told the Columbus Dispatch (2006 Oct 11), "It was time to move on." Princehouse thanked the board, saying, "I'm deeply impressed by the leadership and courage of the board with making a clean break from creationism." Similarly, the Dispatch seemed to assume that the controversy over evolution education in Ohio was finally over, headlining its story, "State education board drops evolution debate," and describing the board as having "pulled the plug on its seemingly incessant debate over Darwin's theory of evolution." But the zombie may not be out of action yet: angered by the board's vote, Achievement Committee co-chair Michael Cochran assured the Dispatch, "I will guarantee you that as long as I am chair [sic] of the committee, it's gonna be on the agenda next month."

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477