Panel Approves Science Guidelines

Columbus — A State Board of Education committee yesterday approved a set of science standards that struck a delicate balance between teaching evolution and allowing for classroom debate of the theory.
The nine-member standards committee has been struggling for 10 months to find the best way to teach Ohio’s 1.8 million public school children about the origin and development of life on Earth. The full board will vote on the standards in December.

Not since Kansas in the 1990s has a state education board been under such a scorching spotlight on how it deals with evolution, the scientific theory by Charles Darwin and others that living things share ancestors but change over time. The Kansas board eliminated some references to the theory for more than a year but restored them.

Yesterday, the Ohio standards committee took only an hour to add a one-sentence requirement to the list of what 10th-graders should be able to do.

“Describe how scientists today continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”

Some scientists said the change, however subtle, singles out the principles of evolution – but not the theories of gravity, atomic structure, light or color – as an area of controversy. That’s a notion most scientists hotly dispute.

By implying scientific disagreement over evolution, the board has left a back door open for alternative theories, such as “intelligent design,” to be taught, they charged.

“It’s obviously a political compromise,” said Lynn Elfner, who heads the Ohio Academy of Science. “At this point, my board is divided on whether to accept this.”

Some scientists vowed to continue to press the full board to get rid of the new language. While praising the standards as a whole, they said they were worried the new language would give school districts a green light to teach intelligent design, the idea that living things are too complex to have arisen without some guiding, supernatural force.

“If you can’t get it in the standards, the next best thing is to get a loophole that allows people to get it in at a local level,” said Steve Edinger, an Ohio University physiology instructor and president of Ohio Citizens for Science.

Proponents of intelligent design applauded the board for listening to public comment and hailed the change as a victory for academic freedom.

“All along, we’ve been pressing for a ‘teach the controversy’ approach,” said Jody Sjogren, Ohio director of the Intelligent Design Network. “I think these changes are very good in the sense that the definition of science moves beyond a naturalistic bias.”

Deborah Owens Fink of Richfield, one of three board members who suggested the language change, said overwhelming public interest in questions regarding evolution merited special attention to the theory.

“I think it was very clear from the response from the public that it should be treated differently,” she said. “Other aspects of the standards did not get 20,000 responses.”

Standards committee Co-chairman Joseph Roman, of Fairview Park, said the debate over origins should not obscure a 75-page set of standards that should give the state one of the strongest sets of science education guidelines in the nation. A final public hearing on the standards will be Nov. 12 in Columbus.

“I think we have a set of science standards that have a very good chance of getting kids excited about science, rather than afraid of it,” he said.

Edinger agreed that the standards, as a whole, were strong.

“If my incoming freshmen at Ohio University knew all the stuff in these standards, I’d be pretty happy,” he said.