The evolution of a sensitive lesson
Educators find ways of handling The Theory. Some skip it. Others hunt for a balance point.
By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writers
Published February 3, 2008
Sometimes, Allyn Sue Baylor doesn't teach evolution in her science class, even though the state requires it. She knows of other teachers who duck the issue, too.
They fear a backlash.
"There are cases when parents have gotten really upset," said Baylor, who teaches at Palm Harbor Middle School in Pinellas County. "It's scary. You can lose your job."
Meanwhile, David Campbell, a science teacher at Ridgeview High in Clay County, near Jacksonville, heads off conflict by telling students what may seem obvious: There's a big difference between science and faith.
"The student needs to know, 'I'm not asking you to believe this. I'm just asking you to understand it,'" said Campbell, a 14-year veteran.
Which teacher is more representative of what happens in Florida classrooms?
As an emotional debate continues to unfold over Florida's proposed new science standards -- standards that students will be tested on next year -- it's surprisingly unclear how often kids raise concerns about evolution, how teachers respond, and how many avoid the topic altogether.
To answer those questions, the St. Petersburg Times attempted to contact more than 50 science teachers in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. Most did not respond.
A science supervisor in one district suggested teachers may be gun-shy given recent headlines. A spokeswoman in another district told principals to instruct their teachers not to talk to a Times reporter.
Of the 17 teachers who did respond, most said the controversy burns with far more fury outside their classrooms than it does within. Their collective take: Students and parents don't raise concerns often. And when they do, teachers try to answer respectfully and sensitively, stressing the science without stomping on faith.
"It may not satisfy them," said Charles Lassiter, a biology teacher at Fort White High School near Gainesville. "But it makes them comfortable enough to get through the unit."
* * *
Can it be that easy?
Officials at the Department of Education, the Florida Association of Science Teachers, the Florida Coalition for Science Literacy and the Florida Citizens for Science said as far as they know, no one has surveyed Florida science teachers on their concerns about teaching evolution.
But a suite of surveys outside Florida offer a nagging counterpoint, suggesting that many teachers avoid the subject.
"In short, there are too many biology teachers who won't, or don't, or can't teach evolution properly," according to an editorial in the January edition of the American Biology Teacher.
Some may be glossing over the subject because of their faith. A 1999 survey of biology teachers in Oklahoma, for example, found that 12 percent wanted to omit evolution and teach creationism instead. A similar survey in Louisiana found that 29 percent of biology teachers believed creationism should be taught, while in South Dakota, it was 39 percent.
Others may fear being dragged into a battle over belief. In a 2005 survey by the National Science Teachers Association, 31 percent of respondents said they had felt pressured by students, parents, or administrators to include creationism, intelligent design or other faith-based alternatives to evolution in their curriculum. Thirty percent said they felt pressure to de-emphasize or omit evolution.
Some teachers say the numbers ring true in Florida, too.
There is a "large subset of teachers out there who flat don't teach it because they're afraid," said Campbell, the Clay County teacher, who also is a member of the committee that helped write the draft science standards.
Once, when he and another teacher were coordinating lesson plans, they got to the part on evolution and she said, "I'm going to skip that one," Campbell said. Baylor, the teacher at Palm Harbor Middle, said she knows of two teachers who have avoided evolution because they're unsure how parents will react.
They get away with it because "virtually no one complains when a teacher does not teach evolution," said Randy Moore, a University of Minnesota professor who has edited several science education journals. "There is not an outcry for, 'Teach us evolution.'"
Would the proposed standards, which include the word "evolution," make teaching the subject any easier?
On the one hand, some say, teachers would be less likely to avoid the subject because their students would be tested on it on the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The Department of Education also is expected to conduct training on the new standards once they're rolled out.
On the other hand, if more teachers teach more evolution, classroom conflicts might increase.
"Eventually, you'd see less (conflict)," said Jason Wiles, who manages the Evolution Education Research Center at McGill University in Montreal, "The more students understand about evolution, the less likely they are to reflexively reject the scientific evidence."
* * *
The freshman in Dan McFarland's Advanced Placement biology class at Durant High had a thoughtful question.
He had read about a rock formation where radiometric dating found the layers on top appeared to be older than the layers on the bottom. How could that be, he wanted to know? And didn't that put a dent in evolutionary theory?
McFarland, a 24-year veteran, knew the student was a young-earth creationist -- somebody who believes God created the Earth a few thousand years ago -- and hardly a lone wolf at Durant in Plant City.
So, McFarland did what he always does in these situations. He told the student he didn't know the answer. But he suggested there may be scientific explanations. Perhaps the type of dating mechanism used wasn't appropriate, or maybe the formation had been affected by a geologic event that resulted in layers being switched topsy-turvy.
The student wasn't buying it. But he appreciated how McFarland handled his questions.
"He explained everything to the very best of his ability, but he didn't convince me," said Dan Barousse, now a senior who plans to study mechanical engineering in college next year. "It's three years later and I'm still a young-earth creationist."
Convincing the student, though, wasn't McFarland's goal.
"I'm not trying to disavow anyone of their religious beliefs," he said. "I'm trying to offer scientific explanations for natural phenomena. That's my job."
Many of the science teachers interviewed by the Times echoed that sentiment.
In 20 years of teaching science, Rena White, a teacher at Challenger Middle School in Cape Coral, said she has never dealt with a parent upset about evolution. (But frog dissection? That's a different story.) She tells them that their beliefs and values are important, and that they should hold on to them.
But if she asks them how old the Earth is on a test, she says, "the answer is 4.65-billion years."
* * *
It's unclear how often science teachers veer into the realm of faith, even if it's simply to make clear faith's distinction from science.
Nothing in the state science standards, either in the current version or in the proposed draft, bars teachers from doing that. But nothing explicitly tells them they can, either.
If students raise the issue, some teachers shield themselves by saying the state requires them to teach evolution. Others just say they don't have the expertise to answer. "I tell them I'm not equipped to answer their questions about creationism because I'm not a theologian," said Clifford Wagner, a 29-year veteran at Springstead High School in Hernando County.
So, some teachers don't go there. But some do. And given the importance of faith to some of their students, they say it's necessary to do so.
Some students "say they don't believe in evolution, they don't believe people came from monkeys," said Steve Crandall, an eighth-grade science teacher at Inverness Middle School in Citrus County and president of the Florida Association of Science Teachers. "You see their eyes perk up and you sense that it's an important question (to them). They deserve to be heard."
So, Crandall said, he listens. And then he tells his students this: There are some questions science can't answer.
"To me, there's room for the question of who created the universe and why," Crandall said. "But that's separate from how."
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.
What educators are saying
- "Teachers teach what they're expected to teach and they teach to the standards that they're given. They also use the state adopted textbook. Our teachers use the state adopted materials and the state standards to present the science they are expected to present." Nancy Marsh, Hillsborough County science supervisor
- "I am one of the teachers who is willing to talk about evolution in the classroom. But I've been advised by other teachers, 'Don't touch that subject.' They say, 'I'm afraid the parents will be angry. I'm afraid of the feedback I'll get.'" Michael Simmons, a biology teacher at Osceola High School in Largo
- "Some of the kids will say, 'I heard that God directed evolution.' We talk about it. We definitely don't shy away from the idea of God having something to do with it. I want kids to explore. I never teach them one way or the other, or that they are mutually exclusive." Allyn Sue Baylor, a seventh-grade science teacher at Palm Harbor Middle School
- "I've only had one student question evolution. He was pretty adamant that God made the world and that was the true story. I said, 'Well, some people believe that, but in science we don't deal with that. We deal with evidence and experiments and observations. That's what we're going to talk about in this class." Mary L. Watkins, a science teacher in Pinellas County Schools' hospital homebound program
- "I can honestly say that I have never had either a parent or a student who in any way objected to any sort of evolutionary ideas. There's nothing extreme being thrust upon them. It's a theory that is being taught. There are a lot of scientific principals behind the theory, and that's all that's being shared with them." Randy McGonegal, a biology teacher in the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School
Results from a teachers survey
A 2005 survey conducted by the National Science Teachers Association gauged how much pressure science teachers felt about evolution instruction in their classroom. Here are some results:
- 31 percent said they felt pressured to include creationism or Intelligent Design in their science classroom. Most of the pressure came from students (22 percent) and parents (20 percent).
- 30 percent said they felt pressured to de-emphasize or omit evolution or evolution-related topics from their curriculum.
- 85 percent said they felt well-prepared to explain the reasons why it's important for students to understand evolution; 11 percent said they did not.
- 19 percent said they de-emphasize or omit the term "evolution" in their lessons so as not to draw attention to it.
- Darwin's theory of evolution: Says species have changed over millions of years, driven by their ability to adapt and survive in changing environments.
- Creationism: The belief that a god or gods created the Earth, the universe and life.
- Intelligent design: The belief that some systems found in nature, such as the human eyeball, are too complex to have formed without the intervention of an unnamed designer.