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It’s all there, in black and white: high school students in Arkansas must be taught about evolution, both in eighth-grade science class and in high school biology.
The Department of Education produces “frameworks” for every core subject and class taught in the state’s schools, culled from national standards and curricula from experts and organizations nationwide. A committee of Arkansas educators meets over several months to hash out the details, and then the state Board of Education issues its stamp of approval in a public meeting.
For science, the latest revision was approved in February. Evolution was in the previous version of the science frameworks, but the new version gets much more specific about exactly what is to be taught at what grade level. For high school biology, it reads, “Students shall examine the development of the theory of biological evolution,” and then specifies seven ways that’s supposed to happen. For eighth-grade science, the framework calls for students to “compare the theory of evolution to the characteristics of a scientific theory,” “identify basic ideas related to biological evolution,” “explain that the fossil record provides evidence of life forms’ appearance, diversification and extinction,” and “explain the process of natural selection.”
So what’s the problem? Why are so many Arkansas science teachers apparently getting away with not mentioning evolution?
Because the sole enforcement mechanism is a “statement of assurance” that school superintendents must sign saying their districts’ classes teach the frameworks. Monitors from the Education Department visit each district once every four years — down from every two years before the last legislative session — but they spend no more than two and a half hours at each high school, said Annette Barnes, school improvement coordinator for the department. That time includes checking on things like academic improvement plans and compliance with all state laws. Inspecting the curriculum of every course, much less sitting in on a class to verify that a teacher is actually giving students the information, isn’t realistic.
“We would not have said to them, ‘Do you teach evolution, or do you not?’ ” Barnes said.
There also is no state benchmark or end-of-course exam for any science class, as there are in reading, mathematics and writing.
Barnes said the only way her department would know whether a teacher or district wasn’t adhering to the requirement to teach evolution was if a parent first complained up the chain of authority at the district level and couldn’t get the issue resolved locally.
Barnes said it surprises her that teachers say they don’t teach evolution.
“I can’t take it at face value that we don’t teach evolution,” she said. “If they said ‘We don’t teach that we evolve from an ape’ or ‘We don’t teach the Big Bang theory’… . It may be that there are certain pieces that people are uncomfortable with. That’s why we’d have to know for a fact that someone was teaching contrary to the frameworks.”