By Marilyn Stewart, NOBTS Communications
NEW ORLEANS — The state committee charged with writing new science standards for Louisiana schools has moved forward without the small edits lobbied for by Louisiana College biologist Wade Warren.
Declined were edits no larger than two-word additions reflecting science information currently included in many textbooks such as the sudden appearance of body forms in the fossil record known as the “Cambrian Explosion.”
The sudden appearance of fossil forms is viewed by some as problematic for the Darwinian idea of gradual change over large periods of time.
“I think it was very clear there were no content answers for my content questions,” Warren said. “So, in that sense, it’s very disappointing, but not surprising.”
Content standards, outlined in state law, are statements that define what a student should know or be able to accomplish at the end of a specific time period, grade level or at the completion of a course.
A larger 86-member state committee convened as “work groups” throughout last fall to propose new set of standards to the 39-member Science Standards Review Committee, of which Warren is a member.
The review committee met in New Orleans, Feb. 13., in a public forum, and concluded with a vote moving the new standards forward to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) for final approval. Warren’s “no” was the sole dissenting vote. The meeting was cordial throughout.
Committee chairperson Cathi Cox-Boniol, Lincoln Parish School System, responded first to Warren’s question as to why every edit he suggested was declined. Cox-Boniol described the Life Science work group discussion regarding Warren’s proposed edits as lengthy, “lively” and “passionate.”
“I just want to appreciate Dr. Warren for his passion,” Cox-Boniol told listeners. “That’s why people are put on a committee, to help in the guidance and to offer suggestions… So, I thank you for your passionate approach…”
Warren proposed an edit to standard MS LS4-1 titled “Biological Evolution, Unity and Diversity” that reads: Analyze and interpret data from patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction and change of life forms throughout the history of life on earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.
Warren asked why his proposed edit of “sudden appearance” after the word “extinction” was not appropriate, telling the committee, “This is a known fact about the fossil record—sudden appearance.”
Rhonda Matthews, co-chairperson, Iberville Parish School System, responded, saying the work group’s intention was to write each standard in a way that would give teachers freedom to cover subject matter in more depth.
“The intent was to not limit, but to empower teachers to teach the content,” Matthews said.
Cox-Boniol stressed that because the new standards drastically reduce the number of grade-level expectations (GLE), teachers will feel the freedom to cover the subject matter Warren lobbied to include. Cox-Bonio went further to point out the difference between standards and curriculum, adding standards provide the “framework” on which each district builds its curriculum.
Some pointed to the work group’s objection regarding the science of “sudden appearance.”
Brenda Nixon, co-director of LSU’s Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy, thanked Warren for his service but expressed doubt regarding the science.
“For our professors at LSU and others that teach this particular subject, there just is not enough evidence at this point to say this is, what we feel, rigorous scientific research,” Nixon said.
Warren asked for clarification in response. “Are you suggesting that there’s not evidence in the literature for sudden appearance? I think I misunderstood.”
“No. There is some evidence of that, but it is not to the point we can say this is what we want in our standards because there’s just not enough evidence to back it up,” Nixon said.
The “Cambrian Explosion,” the appearance of the major categories of animal life within a timespan shorter than anticipated by evolutionary timelines, was known in Darwin’s day. Recent fossil finds in Ediacaran strata that pre-dates Cambrian rock is pointed to by some scientists as evidence upholding Darwin’s idea of gradual change over time.
The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, website marks the Cambrian period as an “important point in the history of life on Earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record…sometimes called the ‘Cambrian Explosion.’”
Warren said current research does not resolve the problem for evolution, but intensifies it.
“A number of papers have come out in the last few years showing that the problem of sudden appearance that occurs during the Cambrian period is much bigger than was known by Darwin,” Warren said. “There are even more body plans that we know of now.”
Cox-Boniol stressed to the committee that the Life Science work group “overwhelmingly approved” the recommendation that Warren’s concerns be addressed in an appendix provided with the standards. The recommendation follows the standards to BESE for approval.
“I’m not convinced the standards as they’re written will inform public school teachers enough so they know,” Warren said. “I’m disappointed, but we just keep teaching people and educating people and you never can tell what might happen.”