How did the 2002 state curriculum standards debate influence Ohio teachers’ decisions to emphasize evolution and counter-evolutionary concepts in biology classrooms?
From January to December 2002, the debate about the role of biological evolution and alternatives to evolution (specifically, “intelligent design”) in Ohio’s life science curriculum standards was intense. The controversy surrounding the place of evolutionary theory and alternative “theories” is consequential inasmuch as the science curriculum standards were being revised as part of the state accountability structure under No Child Left Behind (US DOE 2002). These standards would provide the basis for the high-stakes, state-level Ohio Graduation Tests. This debate has occurred in other states as special interest groups and others have argued that evolutionary theory is plagued with weaknesses and that science standards should have a requirement to “teach the controversy”.
The argument against evolution tends to be rejected because evolution is widely accepted by scientists and science educators as a central, unifying theme in science and as the cornerstone of the biological sciences (AAAS 1990, 1993; NRC 1996). Evolutionary theory provides an explanation for the changing patterns and diversity of life on earth. The evidence that life on earth has changed and continues to change is substantial and there is no “controversy” to teach. Furthermore, the tenets of “intelligent design” are not plausible as alternative explanations because they are derived from philosophical and logical arguments rather than cumulated scientific evidence. As such, the design arguments lack explanatory power.
While the resolution to the debate came out — arguably — in favor of evolution (see RNCSE 2002 Sep/Oct; 22 : 4–6), the grades 9 and 10 Life Science curriculum standards included the statement:
Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory. (The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.) (Ohio Academic Content Standards, Standard H, p 138).
Because Life Science Standard H includes a parenthetical that mentions “intelligent design”, the standard could be construed as an invitation to teach (but not test) “intelligent design”, thus formally introducing non-scientific tenets into the public biology classroom. With the ambiguously stated life science standard, and with the March 2004 Ohio State Board of Education’s approval of a model lesson plan promoting counter-evolutionary tenets, the decision is now left to the Ohio biology teachers to interpret the Life Science standard and to translate their interpretation into classroom instructional practice.
In an effort to understand better the effects of the controversy in Ohio biology classrooms, a state- wide descriptive survey study was conducted in spring–summer 2003. In April 2003, 900 Ohio biology teachers received a 62-item paper survey that included questions about the classroom emphasis they place on evolution and counter-evolution concepts in the classroom. The instrument also collected information about the teachers’ academic preparation, certification status, regional location, school type, and perceptions on the role of evolution in science.
By June 2003, 210 of the surveys were returned (23.3% return rate), and of these 189 were entered into the analysis of data. The teachers were academically well prepared, professionally qualified, and experienced. A majority of the teachers were certified to teach biology in Ohio (94%), and 55.5% had taken a course in biological evolution as part of their academic training. Thirty-one percent (30.6%) of the teachers had obtained a bachelor’s degree, and 65.6% earned a master’s degree. The teachers were experienced with a median 13 years of teaching experience (mean = 15 years).
Eighty percent (80.2%) of the teachers were teaching in public schools, and of all responding teachers, 55.1% were located in suburban regions, 30.8% from rural, and 14.1% from urban areas. All were teachers of secondary school science, with 82.8% located in high school, 14.5% in middle school, and 2.7% in both middle and high school. Written comments were made by 81% of the respondents on an optional section of the survey instrument. The large proportion of surveys with written comments was interpreted as evidence that this issue was significant to these teachers.
Data indicated that the responding sample of teachers gave little to no emphasis to counter-evolutionary concepts (“intelligent design” and creationism); whereas they gave moderate to strong emphasis to evolutionary concepts (diversity, human evolution, pace and rate of evolution, evidence for evolution, speciation, descent with modification, and natural selection). With the advent of the new standards for life science, teachers reported that they would not decrease emphasis on evolution (88%), nor would they change the content that they would use to teach evolution (71%). When asked about emphasis on counter-evolution concepts, however, the responding teachers demonstrated less unanimity. Thirty-one percent (31%) of the teachers agreed that they would give some emphasis to “intelligent design” and creationism in their classes, and an additional 11–16% were undecided about their emphasis on anti-evolution content.
The study also demonstrated that certain specific factors influence teachers’ emphasis on evolutionary and counter-evolutionary concepts. These factors: professional and academic preparation (certification status, college degree, and having a course in evolution), personal beliefs about evolution in science, and perceptions of support from principal and from the community.
The Bottom Line
Because biology teachers are left to interpret the confusing parenthetical statement about “intelligent design”, and as a result of the model lesson for Standard H, the door to the inclusion of non-scientific tenets in the science classroom is now open. The results from the small sample responding to this survey seem to indicate that the teachers will not change the emphasis they place on evolution in their classrooms; however,one third of the teachers intend to include counter-evolutionary concepts in their classroom curriculum. Furthermore, 11–16% of the responding teachers were undecided about their emphasis on counter-evolution concepts, leading to the possibility that one half of the responding teachers could potentially address “intelligent design” and/or creationism in their classrooms.
Who is Affected?
Most proximally, this survey speaks of a select sample of teachers in Ohio; however, as the nationwide debate over “intelligent design” and the perceived need to “teach the controversy” continue to spark flare-ups in other regions, the information provided by Ohio teachers in the context of their state debate may illuminate the actions and activities of educators, administrators, and state policy boards in other states.
As with any survey research, the power of the study rests largely in the ability of a small portion of responding individuals to represent the positions of individuals across a larger population. In studies with very large populations, such as all biology teachers across the state of Ohio, achieving a substantial representation becomes very difficult. Because the return rate was substantially lower than anticipated but not entirely unexpected, the researchers, in an abundance of caution, decided that the data in this study were not necessarily representative of all Ohio biology teachers. Instead, the data could only be interpreted from within the responding sample, a group who are likely energized and interested in the Ohio debate. Still, the value of the data rests in the ability to voice the concerns of the teachers who otherwise were not specifically considered in the state curriculum debate.
This study was conducted by Kim Bilica, State University of New York at Buffalo, and Gerald Skoog, Texas Tech University. A manuscript is currently in progress for potential publication.
[*The research summary format is based upon a ASCD ResearchBrief (http://www.ascd.org/cms/index.cfm?TheViewID=887). Used with permission. The findings of this study were originally presented at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 1–3, 2004.]