Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Ohio Reflections

The Ohio State Board of Education (OBE) voted to adopt new academic content standards for science on December 10, 2002. The vote, 18-0 with one member absent, brought to a close a year-long process of writing and revising that sparked debate across the state about how evolution should be presented. Supporters of science education have welcomed the new standards as a great improvement over Ohio's previous guidelines, which avoided the word "evolution" entirely and referred only vaguely to "change through time". (For previous reports on 2002 events in Ohio related to the new standards, see "Ohio overthrows Scopes legacy", RNCSE 2002 Sep/Oct; 22 [5]: 4-6.)

Final adoption of the standards had been expected following the unanimous OBE vote in October of "intent to adopt" a revised draft received from the board's Standards Committee. As required by state law, the new standards were also presented to a joint meeting of the Ohio General Assembly's House and Senate Education Committees in mid-November. However, the legislature played no direct role in approving or adopting the standards. Two proposed bills introduced early in 2002 would have required votes by both houses to approve new science standards (but not standards for any other subject). These bills, which were seen by some as an attempt to influence the standards-writing process by legislators opposed to evolution, never progressed out of committee during the 2002 General Assembly session.

Opponents of evolution education worked hard all year to diminish or delete its role in the new standards, which will now form the basis on which a curriculum guide and required statewide tests will be written. The most publicly active opponents were associated with the American Family Association of Ohio, Intelligent Design Network (headquartered in Kansas), and the Discovery Institute (in Seattle). However, the great majority of the teachers, scientists, and others selected by the Ohio Department of Education to advise on and actually write the science standards were not swayed by the now-common tactics and arguments of those who lobbied either against evolution or in favor of including "intelligent design theory" (which in practice consists almost entirely of "evidence against evolution"). During the year, the OBE's Standards Committee made some minor changes to the standards which were seen by evolution supporters such as Ohio Citizens for Science as unnecessary or potentially encouraging to anti-evolutionists. Following the October OBE meeting, attention was focused on a sentence added by the Standards Committee to the 10th-grade Life Sciences section: "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."

Why single out evolution?

Those who follow the creation/evolution controversy know that we at NCSE are opposed to any special singling out of evolution from among other scientific theories in this way. Scientists continue to investigate and analyze critically all scientific theories, every day. Why make such a point of critically analyzing only one such theory, unless the intention is to raise doubts about evolution's central place in biology and its overwhelming acceptance among biological scientists? It is possible that such language, mentioning only evolution by name, may be taken by some in local districts as an endorsement of "evidence against evolution" or support for "teaching the controversy". These are rhetorical code phrases frequently used by anti-evolutionists.

In response to the expression of such concerns by Ohio residents following the October meeting, the Board of Education (OBE) in December amended the relevant life science indicator and benchmark to add one more sentence: "The intent of this indicator/benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design." Board member Michael Cochran, one of its most vocal questioners of evolution, was quoted in a December 11 Department of Education press release as saying, "It was never our position nor our intent to mandate the teaching of 'intelligent design'. But if a teacher or local board wants to explore alternatives to evolution, they can."

Anti-evolutionists continue to do their best to portray the Ohio standards as some sort of victory in their efforts to remove the topic from America's public schools. Somehow the single sentence "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory" has been transmuted in some accounts into "Students will criticize evolution" (emphases added in each). Any objective reading of the entire standards document shows its clear intent of having students in science classes study and understand the natural world from a scientific perspective. This includes learning the basics of modern biology and evolution as understood by the scientific community. As always, what actually happens in individual classrooms will be a function of teacher, students, school, district, community, and so on. State standards are important in influencing the process, but hardly all-controlling. Standards are positive, not negative, documents. They do not prohibit subjects or list what will not be covered; they establish only what will be expected.

Students in Ohio and elsewhere remain free, as they always have been, to criticize whatever they wish. It is probably better, however, if they have some knowledge and understanding of a topic before embarking on criticism. Ohio students will now have the opportunity to learn about the science of evolution, thanks to the efforts of the educators, scientists, and others who wrote and supported the new standards.

Coming soon to your neighborhood?

Other states that are creating or revising science standards may expect similar attacks on evolution to occur. Check with your state department of education to find out if you may be in line behind Kansas and Ohio for a future public conflict. And please keep NCSE up to date on challenges to evolution education in your region.

By Eric Meikle, NCSE Outreach Coordinator
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.