This American Scientific Affiliation Science Brief was published in the ASA Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1996.

A School Board Success Story

How a California school board set policy on teaching science that ousted "isms" from the biology classroom.

Coming Soon to a School District Near You

On some issues, compromise is as difficult as being "moderately pregnant." A school board trying to combat teen pregnancies will find some parents and educators insisting that abstinence be taught, while others favor instruction on how to use condoms.

Consider this scenario: A science teacher gives an assignment on evolution or earth history, letting students read "creationist" materials. Some parents hear about it, demand to see the assignment, and ask to visit the classroom. The teacher fears that they are out to get him fired. Various groups take the side of the parents or the teacher, and the complaint is finally dealt with at a packed board meeting. Getting wind of the story, the press builds it up as a confrontation between liberal, open-minded parents and "the radical religious right."

When a local battle in today's "culture wars" is taking shape, citizens often call on nationally prominent organizations for assistance. But instead of helping to negotiate a satisfactory solution, some groups are eager to chalk up another "win" for their side. The losing side then smolders in resentment. That has happened in some well-publicized controversies over the teaching of evolution.

Teaching Evolution: Major Players

Two national organizations wanting to exercise control over how evolution is taught are the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Most scientists undoubtedly consider evolution a harmless term, merely a name for whatever processes produced the kinds of living things we know today. To the Institute for Creation Research, however, the word connotes an atheistic conviction that the God of the Bible had no part in the origin and development of life, especially human life. ICR leaders also contend, primarily on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Books and booklets flow out of ICR headquarters in El Cajon, California. Some argue that Genesis depicts a sudden, recent creation of all forms of life. Others avoid mentioning the Bible but assail the claim that evolutionary processes took place over billions of years. In heated school board controversies, ICR literature has often added fuel to the fire.

"Scientific creationism" is the label used for ICR's position. Legal battles over state laws mandating balanced treatment for scientific creationism culminated in a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Edwards v. Aguillard. The courts have ruled that the young-earth creationism fostered by ICR is "religious doctrine masquerading as science," which cannot be taught as science in public schools.

In subsequent political maneuvers, a major player has been the National Center for Science Education, which was founded to protect the teaching of evolution from inroads by scientific creationism. Citizens concerned that "creationism" may be creeping into local classrooms frequently request help from NCSE's headquarters in Berkeley, California.

NCSE is more overtly political than ICR and is generally praised in the media, whereas ICR is ridiculed. Both organizations are supported financially by zealous "believers" in their causes. Both seem to benefit from ambiguity in the public's perception of what they stand for.

Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe in a divine Creator, not merely a "fundamentalist" minority who view creation as relatively recent and static. Hence, creationism can be taken to mean either the religious commitment of many devout people, or the narrow dogma of a few, depending on how the word is defined.

Similarly, is evolution a fact, hypothesis, theory, or an ideology amounting to a belief system? It could be any of those, depending on how the word is used. Such ambiguity leaves people confused about whether or not they want evolution taught at all. Some parents worry that exposure to creationism could keep their kids from learning real science. Others are concerned that evolutionary theory will be taught as dogma, or that their children will be exposed to a naturalistic, anti-theistic evolutionism.

The most satisfactory solution is to keep both "isms" out of science classrooms by adopting a policy that clearly defines terms. That is what the school board of Hemet, California, did on September 5, 1995.

Teaching Evolution: Major Issues

Hemet is about fifty miles from Vista, California, a town torn apart by controversy and scrutinized by the media. More recently, excerpts of an acrimonious school board hearing in Merrimack, New Hampshire, were aired on a network television special, "Faith and Politics: The Christian Right."

Nobody in Hemet wanted that. Four of the seven seats on the governing board of the Hemet Unified School District (HUSD) had been filled by individuals of a conservative frame of mind. By the time "creationism" came up, the board had already suffered one setback: after adopting an abstinence-based sex education program, they dropped all sex education in response to a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way.

With another conflict facing them, concerned parents sought help from the Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), whose chairman agreed to meet with them to help them find their way through a potentially explosive situation. He first explained that, by law, "scientific creationism" cannot be taught in science classrooms. What most parents who are attracted to the ICR position really want, however, is assurance that their children will not be taught that they are "cosmic accidents."

The problem, he said, is that when theists (such as Christians, Jews, Muslims) object to that evolutionary interpretation, they are met with the argument that evolution means merely "change over time," which obviously occurs. But is that all that evolution means? Consider, for example, a 1995 position statement of the National Association of Biology Teachers, that evolution is "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable."1 A widely used high school textbook says that evolution "works without either plan or purpose is random and undirected."2 Those are statements by scientists. Are they scientific statements? No, because science, carried out in a purposeful way, has no way of determining whether or not purpose plays a role in evolution. Students who believe in a divine purpose for life should not be fooled by switches back and forth between a scientific meaning of evolution and an ideological one.

When "common descent" is presented properly as a working hypothesis supported by considerable evidence, it is no more a challenge to theism than "change over time." As to the neo-Darwinian theory of how evolution took place, natural selection's role in changing the color of moths, the shape of beaks, etc., has been extrapolated to explain such major innovations as the radically different body plans of new phyla. Yet there is reluctance to admit that the extrapolation is based more on commitment to the Darwinian paradigm than on actual knowledge of macro-evolutionary mechanisms. Few biology texts even mention the sudden, unexplained "explosion" of animal body plans that took place 530 million years ago in the Cambrian period. Facts that biologists believe they will someday establish should not be taught as facts that are already established. Otherwise, an "ism," not science, is being taught.

The Hemet Solution: Teach Evolution as Science

The document on Science Instruction (HUSD 6142.3) adopted by the Governing Board of the Hemet Unified School District begins with a one-page Policy statement. Its first two paragraphs lay out the goal of giving students "an understanding of key scientific concepts and a capacity for scientific ways of thinking," while pointing out that "science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises, with strengths and limitations."

Three final paragraphs distinguish between scientific facts, hypotheses, and theories; bind science teachers "to limit their teaching to science," and prohibit any discussion in science classes of "philosophical and religious theories" based "at least in part, on faith" and "not subject to scientific test and refutation." The wording of all five paragraphs comes from the 1990 Science Framework for California Public Schools.

The Policy statement is followed by a two-page Regulation on how the evolution/creation controversy is to be handled. It begins by noting that sensitive issues of evolution and religion must be handled within "the current policy statements of the California Department of Education and within the constitutional principles enunciated by the United States Supreme Court." Five numbered paragraphs are quoted from either the California Science Framework or U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard ([1987] 482 U.S. 578, at 591, 594).

These paragraphs specify in summary that
1. Only scientific evidence and theories are to be taught in science classes;
2. Nonscientific explanations of origins should be taught elsewhere;
3. No theory should be taught dogmatically and no student should be compelled to believe or accept any theory;
4. Science classes may include relevant scientific evidence concerning origins, including scientific evidence critical of current evolutionary theories;3 and
5. Scientific terms must be precisely defined and used with consistency of meaning.
A final paragraph spells out how these principles are to be applied in Hemet:
Therefore, the terms evolution and theory of evolution will be carefully defined and used consistently. Further, to make classroom instruction more stimulating, while guarding students from ideological indoctrination, the teaching of evolution will include: (1) forceful presentation of well-established scientific data and conclusions; (2) clear distinction between scientific evidence and inference; and (3) candid scientific discussion of anomalous scientific data, and unsolved problems and unanswered questions.

The second page of the Regulation provides explicit definitions (see page 2 of regulation at the end of this document).

How It Played in Hemet

The September 5 meeting of the board included the legally required "third reading" of the proposed Policy and Regulation. School superintendent Stephen Teele explained that he had formulated the document as part of a "remedy" for certain complaints made to the board. In June 1995, two parents had filed complaints that a teacher at Hemet High School and at a middle school had given assignments in which students were asked to defend evolution or debate its validity.

Those who had requested to speak included the complainants and the teachers whose actions led to the complaint. A high school teacher, who had for several years given the same research project without complaint, said he would be willing to remove from his resources some objectionable materials from ICR. A middle school teacher had made available to inquiring students a supplementary text questioning evolutionary theory but not endorsing "scientific creationism."4 Both denied trying to introduce creationism into science classes and said that in their attempts to teach critical thinking they were following guidelines laid down in the 1990 California Science Framework.

Two University of California professors had come to speak at the request of the complainants. One was U.C. Berkeley biologist Kevin Padian, NCSE president and a primary author of the California Science Framework. The other was biologist David Reznick of U.C. Riverside. When Padian said he didn't like everything he saw in the superintendent's proposal, one board member asked if he could quickly make some changes, which Padian penciled in on a copy of the proposed document.

Another teacher reminded the audience that Hemet ranks high in sending students to the state science fair and thanked the board for working out a clear-cut policy that expressed trust in the district's teachers. Some tension arose when Padian's hasty emendations came up for a vote. Among other changes, he deleted the sentence requiring inclusion of the "clear distinction between evidence and inference" and of "candid scientific discussion" of anomalous scientific data, unsolved problems, and unanswered questions. He also deleted 2(c) of the Regulation substituting unspecified "mechanisms of evolutionary change," in place of the specific definition and question of extrapolation from minor variation to major innovation cited therein (see page 2 of regulation at the end of this document).

With some board members wanting to defer to the two professors as "the experts," another proposed inviting Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, to Hemet to debate the issues. Few really wanted to do that for fear of becoming "another Fox TV special." One board member read from an article written by Padian soon after his work on the Science Framework.5-7 The article almost gloated over the fact that "the term evolution appears more than 200 times in the document." Padian had also written that "as for the religious right itself, the new Framework leaves them totally disenfranchised from the public educational system in California."

Sensing that he was among conservatives, Padian quickly responded that he had not been talking about board members who, like himself, didn't want creationism taught; he meant the people who do want creationism taught. Then he complimented Dr. Teele for being "in control of the situation" and said, "I think you're headed toward a good policy here." Padian's changes were rejected, 4-3; the Policy and Regulation were then adopted.

After the final vote, reporters seemed to recognize that a workable solution had been achieved. A story in the Press-Enterprise ("It's Final: Religion, Science Can't Mix") emphasized that board policy now "keeps creationism theories out of science classrooms." A story in the Hemet News ("HUSD Ducks Scopes Trial") quoted Professor Padian as acknowledging that on the whole the policy adopted was "pretty good."

Important factors in getting the Hemet document adopted were hard-working school board members willing to think for themselves and search for a broadly acceptable solution; a relatively united conservative community willing to put aside differences to support the board majority; the backing of many teachers dedicated to teaching good science but concerned about their academic freedom if harassed by parents with an axe to grind; and the holding of some training sessions in advance of the final meeting to advise supporters on what kind of opposition to expect.

Help is Available

Help is available for your community. The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is an organization of several thousand Christians in scientific work. The Science Education Commission of the ASA promotes teaching evolution as science rather than ideology. The Commission stands ready to offer as much assistance to local school boards as its resources will allow.

For starters, the Commission recommends that board members read Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, which now has over 100,000 copies in circulation. Though written for teachers, this ASA guidebook has been welcomed by school board members and parents as well. The 4th (1993) edition contains the text of a 1991 resolution, "A Voice for Evolution as Science," which served as a model for key parts of the Hemet Regulation. Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy can be ordered for $7 postpaid (quantity discounts available), from the American Scientific Affiliation, P.O. 668, Ipswich, MA 01938. Tel: (508) 356-5656. FAX: (508) 356-4375.

For extra copies of this report or copies of the complete Hemet document, contact ASA's Science Education Commission: John L. Wiester, 7820 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton, CA 93427 or Wiester or others may be available to conduct training sessions in your community similar to those that proved effective in Hemet.


1 "Statement on Teaching Evolution," p. 1, March 15, 1995. Available from NABT, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., #19, Reston, VA 22090.
2 K. R. Miller and J. Levine, Biology, p. 658, 1993, Prentice Hall.
3 The complete text of the first four paragraphs was drafted by attorney David Llewellyn, Dean of Simon Greenleaf U. School of Law.
4 P. Davis and D. H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People (2nd edn.), 1993, Haughton Publishing Co., Dallas. Available from Foundation for Thought and Ethics, P.O. Box 830721, Richardson, TX 75083.
5 K. Padian, "The California Science Framework: A Victory for Scientific Integrity," NCSE Reports, pp. 1, 10-11,Vol. 9, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1989.
6 John L. Wiester, "Teaching Evolution as Non-Science: Examples From California's 1990 Science Framework," PSCF, Vol. 43, No. 3, Sep. 1991.
7 M. Hartwig and R. Nelson, Invitation to Conflict: A Retrospective Look at the California Science Framework, Access Research Network, P.O. Box 38069, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80937-8069 ($5).

Hemet Unified School District INSTRUCTION Regulation 6142.3 R
Elementary and Secondary: Curriculum Science Instruction Page 2 of 2

The Evolution/Creation Controversy (continued)

1. Evolution: In a general sense can be described as change through time, and virtually all natural entities and systems change through time. But it is not just the history of natural things, it is also the study of patterns and processes that shape these histories. These patterns and processes may be astrophysical, geological, biological, or behavioral, and all contribute to the evolution of the universe as we know it. (Science Framework, p.29)

2. Meanings of Evolution:
a. Change Over Time: For example, observed change in the gene frequencies of closely related types of organisms such as finches or peppered moths (microevolution); or observed changes in the types of life forms that have existed over time as represented in the sedimentary rock record (fossil succession). Because such changes have been repeatedly observed, evolution of this type is a fact.
b. Common Descent: the view that all (or most all) life forms, extant and extinct, are related by common ancestry: a theory about the history of life. An inference made from several different types of observations, such as fossil succession, the biogeographical distribution of organisms, the existence of rudimentary and (apparently) imperfect organs and the existence of homologous structures and embryological similarities in disparate organisms. These lines of evidence, combined with the common-sense observation that all offspring have parents, have led many scientists to treat the inference of common ancestry as though it were a fact.
c. Natural Selection: The theory (acting upon genetic variations, such as mutation) has been the primary mechanism for the biological changes described in definitions one and two. In the case of small variations, such as those observed in peppered moths or finches, this neo-Darwinian mechanism is accepted as well-established. Whether this mechanism can be extrapolated to account for major innovations, such as new complex organs and phyla level body plans is an open question in biology and paleontology.
("The Meanings of Evolution," by Keith Stewart Thomson, American Scientist, Sept./Oct. 1982, pp.529-531)

3. Theory of Evolution:
Like other theories, it is more than the sum of the facts from which it is derived. It is the best explanation for the facts, and it has predictive value. How evolution has worked its patterns, processes, mechanism, and history comprises the theory of evolution, which is constantly being modified as new evidence emerges. (Science Framework, p. 23)