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Don't Leave Georgia's Children Behind
At a time when educators and legislators across the nation are trying to find the best ways to guarantee that no child is left behind, Georgia's youth now risk receiving an inadequate education that will make them stragglers in this age of science and technology: The Georgia Department of Education has scrubbed important concepts about evolution from the proposed science learning standards for high-school students.
Fear of debate over "the man-monkey thing," as one local teacher described it, could leave Georgia's students lagging behind their peers from other regions. The current situation is sadly ironic, given Georgia's heritage of discovery and innovation-from the pre-historic days of North Georgia's native mound builders, to the Spanish exploration of South Georgia some 500 years ago.
Erasing evolution from the science curriculum may stave off controversy with creationists, "intelligent design" advocates and others with differing viewpoints. But, it also will mean Georgia's students don't understand the full range of core scientific concepts.
The Department of Education's initial goal was commendable. By revising the curriculum to emphasize deeper, more meaningful knowledge of key concepts, they sought to improve students' performance. The need for such reform is clear: Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores by Georgia high-school seniors in 2002-2003 were the lowest among all 50 states, averaging 984 out of a possible 1,600 points, better only than the District of Columbia, and much lower than the national average of 1,026.
In preparing draft standards, Georgia officials sought permission from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general science society, to draw upon our national Project 2061 benchmarks-- so named because all students should understand basic science principles by the year Halley's Comet reappears.
Imagine our surprise to find that the resulting Georgia text omits large portions of the Project 2061 evolution benchmarks for grades 9-12, whereas other sections on life-science goals, from heredity to the diversity of life, remain intact in their entirety. Curiously missing from the proposed Georgia standards are our benchmarks dealing with such basic concepts as the origins of life on Earth; common descent; mechanisms of natural selection; information on how natural selection and common descent provide a scientific explanation for evidence in the fossil record; and the similarity within the diversity of existing organisms.
Moreover, one section of the Georgia draft could open the door for teaching non-science based concepts such as creationism or intelligent design theory in science classrooms, and that would be wrong. The scientific community respects diverse viewpoints, and we have no problem, of course, with teaching philosophy and moral concepts in non-science courses. But, such concepts should not be taught as equivalent to scientific theories in science classrooms, lest we mislead students about the criteria for something to be considered scientific. To reap the full benefits of science and technology, it is just as important to know what is and isn't science-based, as it is to know the scientific content itself.
We can understand why state officials may have preferred to side-step evolution: Nobody loves controversy when it's pointed at them, and Georgia's education officials have seen more than their fair share of the stick's sharp end lately. Less than two years ago, debate erupted in Cobb County when the District School Board affixed "disclaimer stickers" to science textbooks, erroneously alerting students that "evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things." Though the Board's position softened somewhat following a lawsuit, it's clear that Georgia educators are challenged to navigate many complex sensitivities concerning evolution.
But, sticking our heads in the sand-or sticking disclaimers on textbooks-- won't make evolution go away: It will only place Georgia students at a disadvantage in the race to secure slots at top universities, and later, in the workforce and the global arena.
From Atlanta's Olympic Village to Valdosta's Spanish moss and red-clay roads, Georgia is rich in natural and cultural diversity, built on a heritage of discovery. We urge state officials to honor Georgia's legacy of learning, by restoring the fundamental concept of evolution, now universally accepted within the scientific community, to the science learning standards for high-school students. Georgia students deserve no less than youth throughout the rest of the United States.
Alan I. Leshner
10 February 2004