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Florida science standards evolved in time for Board of Education vote

On Feb. 12, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith stepped into a conference room at Department of Education headquarters in Tallahassee for a 10-minute meeting. Two Florida State University biologists who had been urgently summoned were waiting there. Another was on the phone.

Smith had a question about the state's proposed science standards.

Conservative Christians were amping up outrage over the sections that embraced evolution. Lawmakers were threatening to intervene. Even support from the Board of Education appeared to be in doubt.

So Smith wanted to know: Could the word "theory" be added to the evolution sections in a way that was still scientifically defensible?

With important caveats, "we said yes," said Joe Travis, an evolutionary biologist who is dean of the FSU College of Arts and Sciences.

Three days later, the department unveiled a last-minute "option" for the standards that included the term "scientific theory" to describe evolution — a compromise that initially outraged many of the scientists and science teachers who wrote the draft standards but ultimately won approval from a sharply divided Board of Education on Feb. 19.

The Feb. 12 meeting surfaced in about 200 e-mails released by the Education Department this week in response to a public records request from the St. Petersburg Times last month.

The e-mails shed light on several developments in the still-simmering evolution debate that were never fully reported.

In the days leading up to the Feb. 19 vote, Smith and other department officials were scrambling to find a compromise, the e-mails show. And while they did not want to undermine the integrity of the standards, they were willing to push a politically driven alternative — or were themselves driven into pushing one — over the passionate objections of those who crafted them.

The urgent tone of many of the e-mails also sheds more light on just how close the Board of Education came to rejecting scientifically acclaimed science standards, and how key the compromise may have been to saving them.

"We wouldn't have gotten it without it," board member Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa said Friday. "There were too many constituencies who were opposed."

It remains to be seen whether the change was compromise enough.

Some opponents, including two key lawmakers, said immediately after the Feb. 19 vote that they were pleased with the wording changes and the board's responsiveness. But other lawmakers, led by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, are pushing bills that would give teachers "academic freedom" to deviate from the standards.

The idea of inserting the word "theory" into the standards had been floating around for at least two months before the compromise was crafted. But two weeks before the vote, the e-mails show, it quickly took root.

In a Feb. 6 e-mail, FSU physics professor Paul Cottle, a member of the 60-odd-member committee that helped write the standards, told Mary Jane Tappen, the Education Department official overseeing their development, that "there is a small group of us (at least — I've only talked with a few), who think 'theory of evolution' is just fine. I know you were looking for a peaceful path on this."

A few hours later, Tappen wrote back: "In the event we do this, I need recommendations for a 'small' group of scientists that would be able and willing to meet with the commissioner sometime next week on this issue."

On the morning of Feb. 12, a Tuesday, one of the FSU biologists told Tappen she and a second biologist would be driving to the department's Turlington Building together.

"Great," Tappen wrote back, "this has become huge &"

All three biologists invited to the meeting had participated in some way in crafting the proposed standards. Smith and Tappen asked them whether adding "theory" made "scientific sense" and whether it "was that honest and straightforward," Travis said in an interview. "It seemed very clear to me that if the answer was, 'No way, no how,' that would be the end of it."

The biologists told them "scientific theory" (rather than "theory" in the layman's sense) would be acceptable if it was added throughout the standards, and not just to evolution, Travis said.

Education Department officials quickly revised the draft standards.

On Friday, Feb. 15, the department's communications office publicly announced the language change in mid afternoon, a few hours after the St. Petersburg Times began asking members of the writing committee if a compromise was in the works. That evening, copies were delivered to Gov. Charlie Crist's office and e-mailed to committee members.

An attached note told them they were being presented with "an optional document" for review. It mentioned "a great deal of public attention" on the standards and the Office of Mathematics and Science's "continued efforts to be responsive to our customers."

The committee, dominated by scientists and science teachers, had spent months crafting the standards, using national and international models as guides. Many of its members were not happy with the turn of the events — and said so in a barrage of
e-mails to Education Department officials over the weekend.

"I recognize that the public unrest with the standards we have written may be disconcerting, however, to create an alternate version simply to please the masses, does not make the final result world class," wrote Janet Acerra, a science teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar.

"By caving in now, we are basically allowing majority vote to override facts, observation and evidence," wrote University of South Florida chemistry professor Gerry Meisels. "We will never win a fight if we don't fight. We may not win, but we owe it to our children and Florida's future at least to try."

Meisels signed off, "Gerry, a.k.a. Don Quixote."

Ron Matus can be reached
or (727) 893-8873.

Florida science standards evolved in time for Board of Education vote 03/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 1:28pm]
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