Panel OKs Strengthening of Science Curriculum

Times Staff Writer

A special committee of the state Board of Education on Thursday endorsed a new policy that scientists and educators hope will lead to more forthright classroom instruction about evolution and other politically sensitive scientific material.

Christian fundamentalists had lobbied against the policy, saying it could cut off their ability to present a creationist view of human development in science courses.

The controversy now moves to the full state board, which, after postponing action for months, is scheduled to make a decision next week.

Both sides say this latest in a long series of clashes between creationists and scientists could have far-reaching implications for how science will be taught in the state’s classrooms.


And because the lucrative California textbook market is a driving force in the industry, the outcome of the debate is likely to influence how science texts across the country will address controversial material. If adopted by the full board, the policy will guide the board in its selection of science textbooks to be used in state elementary and middle schools through much of the next decade.

Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said the proposed revision in science teaching policy is part of a “nationwide effort to strengthen the quality of instruction” and improve the accuracy of textbooks that now deal confusingly or not at all with sensitive scientific subjects.

The current dispute centers on revisions proposed by panels of scientists and educators to a long-standing board “anti-dogmatism” policy on science teaching. That policy, adopted in 1972 after an earlier battle mounted by creationists, calls for “conditional” language to be used in discussions on origins of life and the Earth.

The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Orange County-based Traditional Values Coalition, said the anti-dogmatism policy is “one of the good things” about state education policy because it opens “a small window” of opportunity for creationists to get their views into science classrooms.

But many educators and scientists believe the policy is confusing and has led to a watering-down of the science curriculum. Scientists point out that, despite a state board effort to improve textbooks three years ago, some widely used books still avoid using the word “evolution,” substituting less familiar and less precise terms such as “organic change.” Critics also note that some widely accepted and tested scientific theories are misleadingly qualified with phrases such as “some scientists believe.”

“ ‘Some believe’ is a wording that is unknown in science,” said Kevin Padian, a UC Berkeley professor of paleontology and member of the state Board of Education’s science curriculum committee. "(It) suggests that it is like a vote. . . . (But) science is not a matter of beliefs, it is a matter of evidence.”

Honig and other advocates of the new policy say that the ambiguity of the existing policy and the vague treatment evolution receives in textbooks has caused some teachers to avoid dealing with evolution altogether. In other cases, some science teachers are using the policy as a rationale for presenting creationism on an equal footing with evolution.

Under the new policy, instruction about scientific theories, such as evolution, would be clearly distinguished and segregated from instruction about beliefs, such as religious views of creation. Only science should be taught in science classes, the policy says. Discussions of competing philosophies, religious beliefs and moral values should be dealt with in social studies courses, it says.

Many mainstream Christian churches support that view and have had no major problem reconciling scientific theory about evolution with biblical teachings. The Catholic church, for example, in its schools has long taught evolution in its science classes and Bible studies in its religion classes. “The Bible is trying to define the relation between us and God, not . . . how things are related to one another, as science attempts to do,” said Father John Wright, a professor of systematic theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

Sheldon, who said his Traditional Values Coalition represents thousands of churches, said his group has lobbied and written letters to board members. He said after Thursday’s session that the latest draft of the policy is improved, but his group still will push for language that permits alternative theories to evolution to be presented in the science classroom.

The most common alternative is “creation science,” a theory constructed by fundamentalists in recent years to rival evolution. Its principal premises, that the Earth may be only a few thousand years old and that man was created in his present form, have not been accepted by any major scientific organizations.

Board member James Robinson, who said he had received hundreds of letters from both supporters and opponents of the policy, cited the controversy and argued Thursday that the 1972 anti-dogmatism policy should be left intact.

But other board members supported the view of Honig and others that the policy is confusing and is not providing teachers and textbook publishers the support and guidance they need.