Does Science have a place in Florida?
What does an F in science mean to you? That was the grade given to the Florida state K-12 science education standards by the national education review nonprofit the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in their 2005 national review. The Fordham Institute found that the state standards were "sorely lacking in content" and the handling of physics was marred by a "prevalence of errors in fact and presentation." Moreover, the biology standards assiduously avoided mentioning the word "evolution" even once.
In the 2008 science FCAT, only a little over a third of the tested 11th graders scored at or above their grade level. That means nearly two-thirds of Florida high school juniors clearly demonstrated they lack a basic understanding of science. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress of the US Department of Education, a 2005 assessment found that 49 percent of Florida 8th graders could not perform at a basic science proficiency level and that Florida students did not understand concepts involving the solar system or have a grasp of cause-and-effect relationships.
In its 20-year cyclical review of science education standards begun in summer 2007, the Florida Department of Education made a significant effort to correct these failings. The Department invited a broad range of outstanding science educators at all levels, business leaders and citizens to serve on two committees, one to devise the approach and methodology of revising the standards, and the other to write the standards. The forty volunteers involved in the effort met for at least three days each month over the next six months to hammer out a new set of standards, using as a guide highly rated science education standards in effect for several years in other states such as Virginia, New York and North Carolina as well as some of the most educationally successful countries around the world. Throughout this process, Florida Citizens for Science and other nonprofit groups played an integral role.
The product of thousands of hours of volunteer effort is a new set of standards for teaching science, which was applauded by reviewers from the Fordham Institute and educators around the country. The Florida standards are now scientifically accurate, more teachable, more focused on experimentation, observation and understanding rather than rote memorization. Evolution is addressed head-on as the central organizing concept of life on this planet, reaffirmed over and over by observation of nature through the disciplines of zoology, botany, paleontology, microbiology, genetics, medicine and even geology and chemistry.
Despite these wonderful steps forward, Florida's decision-makers and leaders seem to want to take several steps backward. Our state government is actively developing and attracting medical, biological and other science-based industries to the Sunshine State and yet teaching modern science in our schools is still controversial. We question whether our labor force will be able to support these industries if our politicians and educational infrastructure won't support teaching foundational scientific theories such as Germ Theory, Cell Theory, and Evolution Theory. The Florida Board of Education barely passed the new science standards in February by a 4-3 vote following a hearing made contentious by groups advocating the teaching of blatantly unscientific concepts in our public school classrooms. That hearing was an embarrassment to science professionals and educators across the state.
At least a dozen county school boards in North Florida passed resolutions opposing the new standards, while only the Monroe County School Board passed a resolution in support. Surprisingly, the Alachua County School Board declined a citizen request for a resolution supporting the new standards, refusing even to discuss the issue. At an Alachua County School Board candidates' forum in August 2008, when the four candidates were asked if they supported teaching biological evolution, only Eileen Roy responded affirmatively.
While newspapers around the state regularly covered the development of the standards and the controversy with creationists, the Gainesville Sun declined to cover the issue in detail despite repeated requests. The Gainesville Sun published only one out-of-date AP article from Tallahassee and one editorial despite the obvious newsworthiness of this public battle as evidenced by the extensive coverage of other news outlets.
It's perplexing that in a community that supports and is supported by the University of Florida -- a major science research institution with many science spin-off businesses -- that people who set education policy are apparently scientifically illiterate and confused about the difference between science and religion. Our county has the highest per capita education level in the state. But as can be seen in the above clear examples, we nonetheless have a low priority for K-12 science education.
What is stranger, and even frightening, is that the politically driven state legislature came close this past session to passing an "Academic Freedom Act," which would negate the new science standards by allowing some teachers to introduce their own antiscientific, narrow religious beliefs in the science classroom. It should be noted that local state Senator Steve Oelrich did not answer a letter asking for his position on this bill. Fortunately, the bill failed, but it will be brought up again in 2009.
It is critically important to the future economy of Florida and its status in the world that forward-looking citizens proactively support science education.
Phyllis Saarinen, Florida Citizens for Science
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