Three years after it first pushed science teachers to raise doubts about evolution, the Ohio Board of Education reversed course Tuesday, voting 11 to 4 to drop a much-disputed curriculum standard that became a model for several other states.
In 2002, the board voted to require Ohio's 10th-graders to learn how "scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The theory of evolution -- which holds that all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor -- was the only scientific discipline singled out for critical analysis.
Mainstream scientists opposed that curriculum standard at the time. But they did not threaten a lawsuit or publicly force the issue.
"It was a compromise people could live with," said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which promotes evolution.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Evolution -- An article in Section A on Feb. 15 about Ohio's curriculum said students in New Mexico and Minnesota were required to "learn criticisms of evolution." In fact, New Mexico requires students to "critically analyze" evolution and to "understand that reasonable people may disagree about some issues that are of interest to both science and religion (e.g., the origin of life on Earth)." Minnesota requires students to understand that new evidence can emerge to challenge various scientific theories, including evolution.
In the last two months, however, opposition to the standard reemerged.
First, Ohio board members took note of a federal judge's pro-evolution ruling in Dover, Pa., in December. The judge declared that it was illegal for the school board to require teachers to introduce "intelligent design," the concept that life is too complex to have evolved by random mutation.
Then, a group opposing Ohio's standards obtained documents showing that state Department of Education staff and outside scientists vigorously condemned -- even ridiculed -- a model lesson plan that was supposed to train 10th-graders to critically analyze evolution. These experts described the lesson plan as grounded in religious accounts of the world's creation, rather than in science.
As newspaper editorials across Ohio raised questions about the curriculum, Gov. Robert A. Taft, a Republican, publicly voiced concern that it might have illegally opened the door to intelligent design being taught in public schools. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, citing the Dover case, demanded a tighter rein on teachers who raised alternative ideas in science class about human origins.
Taken together, these events prompted the board to reconsider the 10th-grade science standard and the model lesson plan.
"I'm very pleased that the board acted decisively," said board member Robin Hovis, who has opposed the critical analysis requirement from the start.
Hovis and others who support teaching evolution alone predicted that Ohio's decision would affect science standards in several other states. New Mexico, Minnesota and Kansas also require students to learn criticisms of evolution; South Carolina and Michigan are considering a similar measure.
"This becomes another arrow in the quiver for board members across the country who are trying to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum," Hovis said.
But opponents of evolution cautioned that the debate was far from over.
"This was an unfortunate decision based on false fears," said Casey Luskin, an attorney with the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design. "These people want to censor information from students."
He said he was not afraid that other states would shy away from critical analysis of evolution. In fact, Luskin expressed confidence that Ohio would revisit the issue; the board referred the matter to a committee for further study.
The Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, long has cited the Ohio standards as a model for the nation. The institute argues that critical analysis is an ideal way to bridge the debate over science teaching because it does not bring religious views into the classroom but presents both sides of the issue and lets students decide.
Evolution backers respond that there are not two sides to the issue -- or at least not two equally valid sides, because the vast majority of scientists find no convincing evidence against evolution. They contend that critical analysis grossly misleads students.
For instance, Ohio's model lesson plan calls for students to research the fossil record and explain why it could support or undercut evolution.
The teacher guide offers a sample answer: Evolution cannot be supported by the fossil record because there are very few, if any, "transitional fossils" proving one species evolved into another.
That sample answer infuriates mainstream scientists, who have documented thousands of fossils that they believe show a steady progression over millions of years. There is no single fossil that's precisely half-ape, half-man, but they say there are many that, taken together, tell the story of various branches of the ape family evolving to stand erect, walk on two feet and grow in brain size.
"They're trying to get teachers to tell the kids lies about science," said Patricia Princehouse, who teaches evolutionary biology and the history of science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Critical analysis is just another name for creationism."