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Evolution "Too Controversial" for Illinois Schools

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Evolution "Too Controversial" for Illinois Schools
Author(s): 
Molleen Matsumura
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
2
Year: 
1997
Date: 
March–April
Page(s): 
6–7
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

A large, industrial Northern state may be about to banish the word "evolution" from its science curriculum standards. Acting on a mandate from the state legislature, the Illinois Board of Education has developed new Learning Standards for a number of subjects, including science. Learning Standards are supposed to define appropriate content for meeting a number of goals, including the expectation that students will come to "Understand the fundamental concepts, principles, and interconnections of the life, physical, and earth/space sciences" (State Goal 12). Yet evolution, which has been listed as one of the major unifying concepts organizing the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Science, is never specifically mentioned in Goal 12 or anywhere else in Illinois' proposed learning standards.

NCSE members who contacted Board of Education staff learned that there had been no mention of evolution in the first public draft of the Standards, but revision teams added a reference in response to extensive public comment, as well as the recommendations of expert reviewers. However, according to a letter from the Superintendent of Education that was released with the final "Proposed Learning Standards", members of "an External Review Team consisting of parents, educators, business people, civic leaders, and representatives of family groups ... recommended... that no controversial content which was not included in the draft previously disseminated for public review would be included"... (italics in original). Goal 12, Standard A now reads, "Know and apply concepts that explain how living things function, adapt, and change."

As NCSE member David Bloomberg commented at the June 11 meeting of the Board, the vague wording of the standard can refer to individual or short term changes "like my blood pressure changing during the day." While "benchmarks" expanding upon the standards refer to evolutionary processes and supporting evidence, the fact is that the "e" word never appears. Teachers who use the most accurate term to describe what they are teaching are given no protection from parental complaints. Worse, the External Review Team's report says only that the state "could provide examples and support materials to assist local districts in deciding when, where, and how to teach these [omitted, "controversial"] subjects. Since evolution is one of the topics omitted from the revised "Draft Standards" before they were submitted as "Proposed Standards", districts that choose to teach it could be forced to rely on limited, local resources.

At press time, the Board of Education is again receiving comments from the public. It is impressive that there had been so much public support for evolution, and if there is more such support, the Board could decide to override the Review Team’s recommendations. If they do not, it is likely that evolution education will become a local option, and many Illinois students will be denied the opportunity to learn about the major theory unifiying biological knowledge.