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Science report: A third of U.S. schools don't teach evolution
One-third of all children who attend public schools in the United States are being taught unsatisfactory science, according to a study published today in the journal Nature.
The evaluation by Lawrence Lerner, a professor of natural sciences and mathematics at California State University at Long Beach, graded each state according to its treatment of evolution in the classroom.
Lerner used as the basis for his evaluation state science standards as they apply to the teaching of evolution.
According to Lerner, several criteria are necessary for providing students with a good understanding of evolution. At primary grade levels, students should be able to understand that all living things reproduce, that their offspring resembles but does not copy their parents, and that there is a relationship between species and the environment in which they live.
At secondary grade levels, these ideas should be developed into an understanding of the survival between and within species. High school students should have a grasp of the limitations that species face due to environmental factors such as the availability of food and water, specialization, genetic mutation and natural selection.
Based on Lerner's evaluation, 10 states received an A grade for being "superb models" in teaching evolution. Fourteen states got Bs, seven got Cs, six got Ds and 12 failed. In the wake of a decision by the Kansas Board of Education to drop evolution from its statewide science standards, Lerner gave the state the only F- in the assessment.
Opposition to teaching evolution is based on the belief that evolution did not occur and that science's picture of the universe is misguided. The strongest critics of evolution in the schools are creationists who believe that the world and all matter and life forms were created by a divine being out of nothing.
Because of political and social pressures, evolution is the biggest variable of science curriculum in the United States, according to Lerner.
Alabama, Texas and Nebraska teach evolution as one possibility for how the universe was created. In Alabama, science textbooks include a warning to students that evolution is theory and not fact.
Evolution, Lerner maintains, is important not just for those seeking careers in science but also for anyone who wants to have a general understanding of science.
"Science tells you all sorts of things you can't see," Lerner said. "There is a need for the central organizing principle of evolution. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Without it, the facts seem counter-intuitive and they don't connect."
Lerner noted that the distribution of grades was not as regional as might be expected. There were As in the Bible Belt of the Midwest and Southeast and Fs in the Northeast, he noted.
Evolution is especially important in raising students' awareness about the changing environment around them, Lerner said.
"Evolution is intimately tied to ecology," he said. "Humans, of course, have a more diverse effect on the environment than any other living thing. Most species are highly specialized for their environments and evolve as the environments change. If the environmental changes are too rapid or too profound, the species becomes extinct."
The island fox, for example, successfully inhabited the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California for 16,000 years. In the past five years, four of six island fox populations have declined by 90 percent. A principal reason for this decline may be the introduction of golden eagles into the area beginning in the early 1990s, scientists say.
"The island foxes were snacks the eagles could easily get to," said natural biologist David Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies. "The foxes had no vigilant response."
The colonization of the islands by golden eagles was made possible by the decline and extirpation, influenced by humans, of their natural competitor, the bald eagle, which preys primarily on fish, not mammals.
"Without the insight of evolution, students inevitably come to see science as a heap of disconnected facts," Lerner wrote in the Nature report. "The present state of scientific literacy among U.S. adults bears witness to the ubiquity of this kind of learning experience."
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