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Anatomy of an Evolutionary Struggle


During the past school year, the Roseville Joint Union High School District, in Roseville, CA, a suburb of Sacramento, experienced an alarming challenge to the teaching of evolution. At the forefront of responding to this challenge was Chet Dickson, a biology, zoology, and sport medicine teacher at Granite Bay High School, one of four schools that comprise the Roseville District. CSTA invited Chet to recount his experience in helping to organize the effort to maintain the integrity of science and the teaching of science in his district. What follows is Chet’s story. Our hope is that his story will provide inspiration as well as practical advice to fellow teachers, alerting them to the fact that we need to be forever vigilant and proactive to ensure that the scientific basis for the teaching of evolution is not compromised.
Mark Stefanski,
CSTA High School Director

It was in my very first year as a full-time science teacher, in 1984, that I first became aware of attempts to “educate” people about “the inaccuracies of evolutionary theory.” I remember reading an article attempting to explain that radiocarbon dating is a hoax and that, because it is unreliable, the age of the Earth is much younger, and consequently evolution did not occur. It was easy for me to see that this argument was based on non-science and was a weak and only slightly veiled attempt to dislodge evolution from the curriculum. The article stayed with me as my first ‘discovery’ that not all families and their children agree with what I teach in terms of evolutionary thought. Over the years I developed an increased awareness and sensitivity to this fact, and I followed news reports of attempts to inject creationism into schools in other states. Yet I never envisioned the battle that would ensue in my own school district in 2003-04.

I learned from my local paper that at a June, 2003, school board meeting, a parent would voice opposition to the adoption of the biology textbook that eventually would be used throughout the district. The article indicated that the parent wanted to include ‘intelligent design’ (ID) in our curriculum. I was stunned. This was something that I expected might occur in Kansas or Montana, but not in upscale, high tech, albeit conservative Roseville, CA.

At the June meeting the parent indicated that it was inaccurate that he wanted ID in the curriculum; he just wanted the inclusion of a “balanced, accurate, objective” examination of evolutionary theory. He was concerned that the textbook provided ‘only one side’. He even had a real scientist (a PhD in biophysics) support this view by writing an evaluation of the book. The parent wanted to include two videos as supplements to the text, ‘Icons of Evolution’ and ‘Unlocking the Mysteries of Life’, so that students would get ‘both sides’ of the issue and be allowed to ‘critically think’ about problems in evolution. The board was persuaded to postpone further discussion on this matter until September when teachers would be back from summer break and could present their views.

Between June and September I became a part of a communication network consisting primarily of parents. It was clear that the majority of parents in our community supported teachers and the scientific basis for teaching evolution. The network was established as a part of an electronic listserv hosted by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). This communication network was absolutely key to our efforts. NCSE provided talking points that could be included in letters to the editor from parents, teachers and scientists. In July, I began to contact scientists and educators that might support us in defending the integrity of science in our district. In addition to local contacts, I wrote to some high profile scientists, and two of these who were especially generous with their time were John McCosker of that California Academy of Sciences and Donald Johanson (of ‘Lucy’ fame) from Institute of Human Origins. Both of these scientists sent letters and corresponded with members of the board. I contacted the biology departments at Sacramento State, UC Davis, Sierra JC, and American River JC. All were very generous throughout the year in providing valuable information to me and to the board.

Faculty Awareness
I felt that it was important for the board receive a statement from the science department of my school. Prior to the September meeting I wrote a letter that I felt would indicate to the board the science teachers’ position on 1) the possibility of being requested to include ID in the curriculum, and 2) the manner in which the request would be made – that is, not as an internal, teacher-driven curricular matter. Unfortunately not all of my colleagues signed the letter. Although this was a disappointing, I understood why. For some, there was an issue of not having tenure; for others they didn’t share the sentiments that what was being proposed was non-science. There was also a suggestion that the board might see the letter as somehow insubordinate, with employment consequences involved. Regardless, the majority of the department members did sign, and I submitted the letter as being from those individual teachers.

Also during this time, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum met with each school’s science department (primarily the biology teachers) to make sure the district office understood how the theory of evolution was dealt with and whether there may have been a need to include some manner of supplement. The district office found that our schools treat evolution in a non-dogmatic manner and that we are sensitive to the belief systems of some students for whom evolution is discomforting. The bottom line was that the manner in which our district addresses evolution did not require any changes.

Frustration 9/2
The September, 2003, board meeting included a discussion of whether supplemental materials were needed, whether the suggested materials were appropriate, and whether a change in the policy by which we taught evolution was necessary. For a while there was an air of disorganization in the discussion, and only after several parents voiced concerns about this did the board president reestablish protocol, allowing teachers, students, parents, college professors, and other community members to speak in a more organized fashion. A majority of the comments opposed the possible adoption of supplemental materials, and favored the continuance of the policy of teaching science in accord with the state framework and the state board’s policy on the teaching of natural sciences. In the end, the board decided that it would not take any action on the matter. The board maintained that it was not empowered to act on curricular matters of this type, and that any supplemental materials proposed for use should be handled at each school site. Board members commented on the fact that it certainly appeared that the district’s teachers were doing an excellent job in promoting critical thinking and teaching evolution in a non-dogmatic manner. But if anyone thought that the results of this meeting brought the issue to a close, they were wrong.

A bastardized approach to a parent/teacher conference
In our district, the way in which parents provide input into curricular matters is to discuss any issues or concerns with individual teachers and/or with the site administrators. Because the proposed supplemental materials and curriculum policy change was to affect all schools in the district, a ‘meeting with the teacher’ was scheduled for late October between the concerned parent and his ‘science expert’, and as many science teachers as could attend. That meeting allowed the parent, presumably on behalf of all parents who wanted the proposed changes, to describe what was of concern to him and to describe his proposed solution to the problem. In front of about 20 teachers who attended the meeting, his expressed a concern that the textbook adopted in June only dealt with evolution in a very orthodox manner and did not present any ‘problems’ with the theory. According to the parent, the textbook did not meet the state requirement that materials be “accurate, objective, and provide the most current information.” His primary solution was to include the use of the video ‘Icons of Evolution’. (it may be useful at this point to briefly describe the contents of the video and its producers). The teachers took the video and written materials he supplied and, in addition to performing our own analysis, we sent them to several universities for evaluation in terms of the materials’ scientific accuracy and objectivity. We selected universities that were close by and/or were attended by many of our district’s students, including UC Davis, Sacrament6 State, and Brigham Young University (?). Without exception, the evaluations came back stating that the materials were scientifically inaccurate and misleading.

Some ‘surprise’ emails
After the October meeting I received a couple of interesting emails that helped to clarify for me the motivations behind the parent’s concern. An example was an email that stated “why it is important the way we teach evolution to our students (sic?)” Attached to the email was a document written by a parent of one of the Columbine victims. The document essentially stated that the teaching of evolution was a reason Kleibold and Harris committed the Columbine shootings. I felt like I was being told that the teaching of evolution was a reason for the moral decline in our society.

Taking advantage or taken advantage
After receiving the university feedback and discussing the materials the parent had given us, the teachers at the October meeting all agreed that the materials and proposed changes to the curriculum should be rejected for lack of scientific merit. We put our conclusions in the form of a letter and submitted it to the board and to the parent. The parent was summarily dismissed on scientific grounds (Does this mean that the Board sent a letter to the parent that his request was rejected?).

The parent seemed not to be denied. He changed his strategy and filed a formal complaint to the effect that the board violated his rights when it failed to put an item on a board meeting agenda at the request of a parent. The item that he now wanted on the agenda was a proposal for policy on the teaching of science that he called the “Quality Science Education Policy (QSE)”. (is this the parent’s title for the policy, or was he attempting to modify one that had already been in existence?). On the surface, the policy seemed like a positive an d constructive approach to the teaching of science. But, it singled out evolutionary theory for special treatment, and the proposal stated that the only manner in which the policy was to be implemented was to include his materials that we already had rejected.

At the same time the parent requested me to submit all of the materials (supplemental and otherwise) that I use to teach my biology classes. The district helped him to see that that was an unreasonable request – legal, but unreasonable, especially considering that none of his children are enrolled in any of my classes. His request was changed so that all biology teachers at our school would submit only those materials we use to teach evolution. His request was made so that he could examine our materials and decide if he had any concerns with what we were teaching or how we were teaching the subject. Inasmuch as any of the documents or materials students use is considered public information in the public schools, the parent’s request was legal, and we therefore respectfully complied.

A compromise????
In response to the parent’s request, the board placed his proposed policy on the May 4 agenda, and it seemed that this meeting would decide the issue one way or the other. Either the policy would be rejected and the parent’s materials would not be used in the classroom, or the policy would be adopted thus requiring the inclusion of ID in the science curriculum. However, at the meeting it was stated, most loudly by the parent proposing the policy, that ID is not and has never been recommended for inclusion in the district. The board entertained public comment for more than three hours, with the vast majority of comments opposing the policy. Once again, opposition came from teachers, college professors, parents and students. The motion to vote on the policy never received a second. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the board president (a different president from the one at the September meeting) suggested consideration of a modified policy. Jaws dropped to the floor. The compromise, as the president put it, would establish a resource center in the schools’ libraries, specifically for evolution, and teachers would hand out a flier to students and parents informing them of this resource center’s existence. In order that the board not be in violation of the Brown Act, this modified QSE was put on an upcoming agenda for public comment. Most of us felt that the May 4 meeting was a complete waste of time and a tremendous disappointment.

Some fast action
Working with my department chair and those at the other schools, we put together two petitions to the board urging the rejection of the modified QSE. One petition was signed by nearly all of the tenured science teachers and the second petition with a slightly different focus was signed by nearly every tenured teacher in the district. (It’s not clear why there were two petitions. It seems that either this needs to be explained or you can simply state that “petitions were signed by nearly all of the tenured science teachers in the district.”). The librarians in the district also produced a petition urging the rejection of the policy , stating t hat they saw no valid reason to be required to establish a special center for any topic.

A decision
The obvious focus of the June 2 board meeting was the proposed QSE policy. Prior to the public comment segment for this agenda item, the board president reminded everyone of the ‘ground rules,” one of which is that no single item occupy more than 30 minutes of time. Obviously these ‘ground rules’ aren’t always followed. With that in mind, and with no objection from other board members, each “side” was to spend 5 minutes organizing a speaking strategy. I then had the task of organizing about 45 people who wanted to speak so that the most salient points could be made. People agreed that my department chair would speak about the science teachers’ and district teachers’ petitions; one of the librarians would speak about the librarians’ position opposing the policy; a parent would speak about parent opposition to the policy; another community member would speak outlining the court decisions most relevant to this policy: a student would speak about student opposition to the policy; and I would speak to expose the proponents of the policy of involvement in the ID movement. I had dsicovered that the parent had spoke at a national ID conference in late April and that his scientist spoke at a large ID conference in 2001. In addition, I exposed the religious underpinnings of one of the board members’ concern for a change in instruction. I had found comments she wrote in a letter asking for support to include similar materials in an elementary school district in 2001.

It is telling that during the 5-minute period in which I was helping to organize speakers from among the nearly 50 individuals huddled around me and other teachers, only 10 – 15 people were attempting to organize on the other side of the room. While our speakers had difficulty fitting everything we wanted to say in the allotted 15 minutes, the proponents of the policy exhausted their arguments before their time was up. Some pointed comments followed from the board, with one member remarking that he (she?) had gained a deeper understanding of the need to support teachers, saying, “I finally understand tenure”

But prior to a vote being taken, the board president tried another attempt at a “compromise.” This time his idea was to have the board pass a “resolution” rather that to vote on a policy , and to remove the requirment of establishing of a resource center. Once again, jaws dropped. The president’s proposal prompted another board member to interrupt by saying, “You don’t get it!” This comment was especially significant because it came from the same board member who was sitting as president in the September meeting and who had stated that, from his vantage point, “evolution is bogus”. While he may still consider evolution to be “bogus,” I feel as though, with respect to the larger issues involved, he “gets it.” A vote was finally taken, rejecting the proposed policy, 3 – 2.

Lessons learned:
* For me, this issue started out about the science; it was articulated as being about the science, and it captivated me and my colleagues mainly because of it’s relation to quality science education. But in the end, when the board vote was taken, the issue wasn’t about science as much as it was about power. The issue was about politics and who controls the education of our children. * Stand up and speak out. The people on the school board are community members who won’t bite your head off. They probably possess a relatively shallow understanding of science and need to be educated. * Don’t be the only one to speak. Encourage others to speak. Do a little arm-twisting if necessary. Contact local colleges and universities. Ask them for support; ask them to speak and write letters. * Write letters to the board. Encourage others to do the same. By the time they hear you speak at the meeting they will have already sifted through the wealth information sent to them. Be a part of that information. * Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Encourage others to do the same. Because this is a public issue, make your points known to the public. * Know who is on the board. Take an active role in putting people on the board who will support the integrity of science and quality science education for our kids.

Chet Dickson teaches biology, sport science, and zoology at Granite Bay High School in Granite Bay, CA., a suburb of Sacramento. He started teaching in 1984 in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to the Sacramento area in 1994. He and his wife have been teaching at Granite Bay High School since it opened in 1996. The high school is one of four comprehensive high schools in the Roseville Joint Union High School District and has approximately 2,100 students; the district has approx. 7,000 students. Mr. Dickson also coaches football and is active as a co-director of the ‘Link Crew’ program. He may be contacted at: 916-786-8676 ext. 5613 or cdickson@rjuhsd.k12.ca.us.