Science Curricula Under Threat?

The problem, according to those who think there is one, is in the first sentence of Florida House Bill 989.

“…allowing a resident of a county to challenge the use or adoption of instructional materials …”

This bill – and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law – will allow any adult, in any school district, even if he or she doesn’t have a child attending school in district – or, for that matter, any school district in the state – to lodge a complaint over the teaching methods or materials in Florida’s public schools.

And while it could potentially pertain to any subject – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” for instance, has been called pornographic by some Florida parents who want it removed from public school curricula – the intent, critics contend, has to do with curtailing scientific inquiry, namely with regard to evolution and global climate change.

Sponsored by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, whose website construes the fight in nothing less than biblical proportions, casting itself as David against the state’s Goliath, the organization purports to “advance a rebirth of liberty in Florida” and claims the bill is simply about choice and academic freedom.

Not all agree.

Jonathan P. Smith, president of Florida Citizens for Science, an advocacy group opposed to the measure, said HB 989 has ominous implications for education in the state.

“This bill will allow anyone – and I mean anyone – to object for any reason to current text books used in the state,” he said.

All Time Low

To Smith, that’s chilling, not just for the quality of science education, but because students’ familiarity and mastery of science skills, which are already sub-standard, will clearly get worse.

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The problem, according to those who think there is one, is in the first sentence of Florida House Bill 989.

“…allowing a resident of a county to challenge the use or adoption of instructional materials …”

This bill – and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law – will allow any adult, in any school district, even if he or she doesn’t have a child attending school in district – or, for that matter, any school district in the state – to lodge a complaint over the teaching methods or materials in Florida’s public schools.

And while it could potentially pertain to any subject – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” for instance, has been called pornographic by some Florida parents who want it removed from public school curricula – the intent, critics contend, has to do with curtailing scientific inquiry, namely with regard to evolution and global climate change.

Sponsored by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, whose website construes the fight in nothing less than biblical proportions, casting itself as David against the state’s Goliath, the organization purports to “advance a rebirth of liberty in Florida” and claims the bill is simply about choice and academic freedom.

Not all agree.

Jonathan P. Smith, president of Florida Citizens for Science, an advocacy group opposed to the measure, said HB 989 has ominous implications for education in the state.

“This bill will allow anyone – and I mean anyone – to object for any reason to current text books used in the state,” he said.

All Time Low

To Smith, that’s chilling, not just for the quality of science education, but because students’ familiarity and mastery of science skills, which are already sub-standard, will clearly get worse.

“In a nut shell, Florida’s K-12 science education is at a all time low with around 52 percent of all students failing the unrevised (since 2008) standards,” he said.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said the legislation, which is not unique to Florida (more on that to follow), will have more of an effect on material and overall content than actual leverage on what a teacher says in the classroom, mitigating the Orwellian nightmares somewhat.

“So, yes,” Branch said, “I think that there’s good reason to believe that the mere introduction of such legislation tends, to some degree, to deter teachers from presenting the targeted topics – usually evolution and climate change – accurately, honestly and completely.”

And that’s because teachers will get spooked.

Branch cites a study done by his organization and Penn State University, which shows a connection between such bills and pedagogy.

“It was found, unsurprisingly, that what these teachers taught about climate change was correlated with the public attitudes toward climate change in their states and their counties, even holding their own attitudes constant. The introduction of such legislation tends to create the misimpression, both among teachers and administrators and among members of the public who may then pressure teachers and administrators, that evolution, climate change, and so on, are scientifically controversial and should be presented as such or should even be ‘balanced’ with supposed alternatives.”

This is a story, he insists, that’s been going on for decades.

“It’s a little difficult to describe it as a trend,” Branch said, “though, since it’s been going on, in fits and starts, since 1921, when the first anti-evolution bill was introduced in the Kentucky legislature.”

Proponents, like Rep. Byron Donalds (Republican, Florida District 80), who sponsored the bill, do not think it is anti-science.

“One of the key things about this bill and why I think it passed, is that we didn’t target any one subject matter,” he said to a local news outlet.

Branch isn’t buying it.

“NCSE – along with the scientific and science education communities in general – is not swayed by the argument that these bills and resolutions aim only to broaden the horizons of students, to improve their critical thinking skills, to afford academic freedom for science teachers, and so on; these are all clearly mere rhetorical legerdemain intended to distract,” he said.

Nationwide Trend

At the moment – and Branch said this is a moving target – there are about a dozen or so similar “academic freedom” bills at various stages in their respective state legislatures.

He said the problem with all these bills is not just the plain reality, but the unknown consequences.

In Florida, for instance, Branch explained, they will have formal proceedings – the state requires school boards to hire the Orwellian-sounding “unbiased hearing officers” – to govern instruction materials, text books and curriculum. But, when it comes to something a teacher said in the classroom, any parent can fire off an email or make a telephone call.

And then it’s anyone’s guess how far the matter escalates.

There are approximately 15,000 local school boards across the country, so this can get unwieldy. Florida, however, only has 60 or 70, and most are large professional organizations. Branch, then, is more worried about states like Ohio, which has over 600 such boards, many in small communities, and may be more prone to intimidation.

At the moment, the two piñatas in the wheelhouse of these so-called “academic freedom” bills are global warming and evolution.

“In many cases, legislation – including non-binding resolutions – is introduced to satisfy some legislators’ core constituency, so when it passes, it has something of a calming, numbing effect on those voters,” said Branch.

They are intended to send a message and they do – to like-minded voters.

“These academic freedom bills,” he said, “originally started off just targeting evolution, but then a parish school board in Louisiana came up with policy that listed evolution, biological evolution, chemical evolution/origins of life, global warming/climate change and human cloning,” even though nobody really teaches cloning.

Branch calls the past 100 years of fighting science in public classroom, “a long, rich, inglorious tradition.”

The anti-evolution bills come, as you’d expect, from religious groups, whether they admit it or not, and the anti-climate change groups come largely from what Branch calls “extreme free-market ideologies.”

Branch thinks the two should be kept separate.

“The future of science, not to put too fine a point on this,” said Branch, “depends on the younger generation getting a clear idea of scientific methods and results, un-compromised and uncontaminated by anti-science ideologies, so it’s in the interest of petroleum geologists, as well as all scientists, to resist attacks on the integrity of scientific education.”

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