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Evolution no longer parenthetical in Alaska


by Nick Matzke

On June 11, 2005, the Anchorage Daily News reported that the treatment of evolution in Alaska's state science standards had been strengthened at the last moment by the Alaska State Board of Education. On June 10, the Board voted 9-0 to include the standard,
"A student should ... develop an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection and biological evolution."
In previous drafts of Alaska's Science Content Standards, evolution had been omitted or mentioned only parenthetically (see Appendix I). A group of educators, scientists, and citizens was credited with convincing the board to include evolution, after they testified at a June 9 meeting allowing public comment on the draft science standards. The recent controversy over the status in evolution in Alaska schools first garnered widespread attention in September 2004, when Anchorage Daily News reporter George Bryson published a detailed, two-part article entitled "War of the Word: Alaska educators join national debate over use of 'evolution'" (Part 1, Part 2). The story detailed the history of the treatment of evolution in Alaska's science standards. Avoidance of the "e-word" in state science standards is historically a common phenomenon, reviewed in detail in Lawrence S. Lerner's (2000) report, "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States." Lerner used eight criteria to rate the treatment of evolution in each state's science standards. Lerner gave Alaska's science standards a "D" -- although the standards mentioned evolution, he considered the treatment weak on other criteria. In 2000, ten states avoided the word "evolution" completely in their state science standards. Currently, only four states -- Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma -- do so; a 2004 proposal to omit "evolution" from the state science standards in Georgia was withdrawn amid criticism and ridicule (see NCSE's previous news stories on Georgia).

Bryson's article reported on a controversy over whether or not the "e-word", evolution, was going to be included in the revised version of Alaska's Science Content Standards. In September 2003, Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development held a workshop in Anchorage where 75 scientists, educators, and citizens considered a draft of Alaska's Content Standards. At the workshop, disagreement arose between many of the participants, who favored including evolution in the Content Standards, and officials at the state Department of Education and Early Development, who seemed to favor minimizing mention of evolution.

Standards revisions in Alaska follow a two-part process. First, general Content Standards are proposed by the state Department of Education and reviewed by science educators. Then, detailed Performance Standards are composed by a writing committee, and the Combined Content and Performance Standards are voted on by the State Board of Education and Early Development. The original controversy reported by Bryson arose at the first stage, when educators noticed that the word "evolution" seemed to be missing from the draft Content Standards, in comparison with [Link broken] the relevant portion of the National Science Education Standards as well as Alaska's previous Science Content Standards. [Link broken]

After Bryson's 2004 Anchorage Daily News articles, the e-word was returned to the standards, but in parenthetical form:
"A student who meets the content standard should: ... 1) develop an understanding of changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, and the process of natural selection (evolution).
However, this glancing mention of evolution still did not sit well with scientists and educators, or with the Anchorage Daily News. On June 9, 2005, the day before the final vote on whether or not to formally approve the draft science standards, the Anchorage Daily News published a strongly-worded editorial entitled, "Start with science":
Teach science, not religion, in the public schools. Leave religion to the churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and especially the homes of Alaskans.

Religion will be strong in those places and weak in science classrooms -- not because it is unimportant, but because it is a different subject. To demand that religion invade the science classroom is as inappropriate as to demand that Einstein's theory of relativity be taught in Sunday School. Watering down science education or expressing religious views that wish to compete for attention in the science classroom is a disservice to both.
The Anchorage Daily News kept up the pressure, with a June 10 story entitled, "Testimony calls state guidelines soft on evolution." The story reported on the public comments of scientists and science educators made to the Board of Education and Early Development on June 9. Evolution was the major topic of discussion.

Gail Raymond, the science curriculum director for the Anchorage School District, reportedly told the Board, "There is no longer a debate among scientists over whether evolution has taken place." Alaska citizen Bruce Shellenbaum, a former vice president for the Anchorage Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, recommended that the Board "[p]ut evolution in bold type at the top of the page in the natural sciences where it belongs ... Don't water it down to please political masters or allies. It's too important for that." Geophysicist Jackie Caplan-Auerbach noted that the statement that evolution is "only a theory" is misleading, calling a theory in science "an exalted title." She explained, "We talk about the theory of gravity ... We talk about the theory of relativity. We talk about the theory of plate tectonics. This is not because these things are in question. This is because, after repeated testing, we can confidently state that these are the best models to describe the ways these systems work."

On June 10, board member Shirley Holloway of Anchorage called the public comments of the previous day "respectful, professional and very helpful." Board member Esther Cox, also of Anchorage, proposed a strengthened standard on evolution, which read,
"A student should ... develop an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection and biological evolution."
The strengthened standard was adopted on a 9-0 vote. The Board then unanimously adopted the full draft science standards.

After the board vote, the Anchorage Daily News complimented the Board on its decision. In its editorial, "Good call: Alaska Board of Education reinstates evolution in standards," the Anchorage Daily News thanked those who gave public comments to the Board, writing, "Speakers on Thursday did a good job of sorting through the history of the debate, the evidence for evolution and the role of scientific theory and state educational standards in the teaching of science. That gave the state board on Friday a good occasion and plenty of public credibility for doing the right thing." The editorial went a step further, criticizing the national creationist promotion of the "teach the controversy" strategy. Characterizing the strategy as a sham attempt to insert otherwise illegitimate topics in science classrooms, the editorial remarked,
But to teach the "evolution vs. intelligent design" controversy in science classes would give too much weight to ideas that haven't earned their scientific keep. ... That does not mean evolution is only a hypothesis. As speakers at last week's Alaska Board of Education hearing on state science standards pointed out, the theory of evolution is as sound scientifically as the theory of gravity. Both raise unanswered questions, but they are generally accepted in the world of science, acted upon in real life and, most of all, supported by the preponderance of evidence.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, the weak treatment of evolution in Alaska's science standards dated back to 1993, when a proposal to insert a creationism requirement in the state science standards barely failed on a 3-3 vote. Although the proposal to require creationism failed, creationists dominated the public comment period and convinced the board to favor compromise language on evolution. The Anchorage Daily News quoted Education Department spokesman Harry Gamble saying, "Almost to the person, the only people who came out for the (1993) public hearing were people who testified one after another on behalf of creationism ... There must have been a few others who came out, but they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. And the board moved with that, you know, compromise language (on teaching evolution)."

The strengthening of the treatment of evolution in Alaska's science standards happened to coincide with the Evolution 2005 [Link broken] meeting, held in Fairbanks, Alaska. Reporter Margaret Friedenauer of the Fairbanks News-Miner interviewed [Link broken] three attendees, who all agreed that "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."


Appendix I: Comparison of evolution standard in different versions of the Alaska Science Content Standards
Alaska Science Content Standards [Link broken] (adopted 1995) A student who meets the content standard should:...
13. understand the theory of natural selection as an explanation for evidence of changes in life forms over time (Evolution and Natural Selection);
Draft Alaska Science Content Standards, 2004 C1) Students develop an understanding of changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, and the process of natural selection.
Draft Content and Performance Standards for Alaska Students, 2005 [Link broken]
(Science Content Standards, p. 13)
A student who meets the content standard should:...
1) develop an understanding of changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, and the process of natural selection (evolution).
Content and Performance Standards for Alaska Students, 2005 [Link broken]
(change adopted 9-0, June 10, 2005)
"A student should ... develop an understanding of how science explains changes in life forms over time, including genetics, heredity, the process of natural selection and biological evolution."


Links

George Bryson (2004). "War of the word: Alaska educators join national debate over use of 'evolution'." Anchorage Daily News, September 5, 2004.
http://www.adn.com/life/story/5510310p-5448476c.html

George Bryson (2004). "Educator's Dilemma: Teachers try to explain evolution without offending religious students" Anchorage Daily News, September 6, 2004.
http://www.adn.com/life/story/5514111p-5451979c.html

Editorial. "Start with science." Anchorage Daily News, June 9, 2005.
http://www.adn.com/opinion/story/6585949p-6469605c.html

George Bryson (2005). "Testimony calls state guidelines soft on evolution." Anchorage Daily News, June 10, 2005.
http://www.adn.com/news/education/story/6590802p-6474520c.html

George Bryson (2005). "Science teaching standards evolve." Anchorage Daily News, June 11, 2005.
http://www.adn.com/news/alaska/story/6594942p-6478760c.html

Margaret Friedenauer (2005). "Evolutionists gather at UAF for conference." [Link broken] Fairbanks News-Miner, June 12, 2005.
http://www.news-miner.com/Stories/0,1413,113~7244~2917363,00.html [Link broken]

Associated Press (2005). "State Board of Education adopts revised standards." Associated Press, June 12, 2005.
http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/061205/sta_20050612013.shtml

Editorial. "Good call: Board restores reason to evolution studies." Anchorage Daily News, June 12, 2005.
http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/061405/opi_20050614001.shtml

National Science Education Standards
http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/html/

Alaska Science Content Standards, [Link broken] adopted 1995
http://www.eed.state.ak.us/contentStandards/Science.html [Link broken]

Comparison [Link broken] of originally approved Alaska Science Content Standards (later modified to include the word "evolution" in the biology section), and the National Science Education Standards
http://www.eed.state.ak.us/tls/assessment/ScienceCommittee.html [Link broken]

2005 Draft Content and Performance Standards for Alaska Students [Link broken]
http://www.eed.state.ak.us/regs/ [Link broken]

Lawrence S. Lerner (2000). "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States." Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, September 1, 2000.
http://www.edexcellence.net/detail/news.cfm?news_id=42