February 22, 2004

Unintelligent design in Georgia’s public schools

By: Eric Wearne

Sometimes the South just can’t help shooting itself in the foot. Last year, it was the fight to keep the stars and bars on Georgia’s state flag. Last month, the state made national news for a similarly embarrassing reason.

Georgia is in the process of revising its entire K-12 curriculum, and the state Department of Education unveiled the new science standards last week. Unfortunately, those new standards call for the replacement of the term “evolution” with the phrase “biological changes over time.” The theory of evolution isn’t being removed from the curriculum–teachers can and will still teach it–but the term has been eliminated. The resulting negative publicity caused State School Superintendent Kathy Cox to call a press conference in which she defended the decision, calling the word evolution “a buzzword that causes a lot of negative reaction.”

As they read that last statement, I’m sure a lot of people around the country will think of Kathy Cox as a crazy Bible-pounding right-winger. But, Cox is not a crazy; she is a reasonable person and really does have the students’ best interests at heart. But this situation is not helping Georgia’s or the South’s image across the country, and eliminating the word evolution–an accepted scientific term–from the state science curriculum isn’t going to help students any, either. The change has actually annoyed conservative groups too, since in practice, teachers can and will still discuss evolution. The state just won’t sanction the term itself.

It is even more of a shame that this is happening because the evolution flap is overshadowing what is overall a pretty good revision of Georgia’s curriculum. Of course, the real solution to this mess is to free kids from a school system monopolized by the state government and allow parents to send them to whatever school they think will best suit their educational needs. Some may choose religious schools where students learn only creationism, but it’s quite clear that most parents just want the best, most up-to-date education they can get for their children. But barring a system of real school choice, the new curriculum is clearer and does hold students to higher standards than the previous muddy, unmeasurable mess we had. It has evolved…er, changed…over time.

Before he screamed his way out of the picture, Howard Dean talked about courting all the Southern guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. Now, sure, I myself drive a truck (without a rebel flag); but it’s hard for us in the South to move past Dean’s stereotype when we can’t even pull our science curriculum fully into the nineteenth century, let alone the twenty-first. (Gimme a break…trucks are just practical when you own a house).

As I said, Kathy Cox is not on a crusade to put creationism into the curriculum and eliminate evolution. In fact, at the ill-conceived press conference where she defended the decision, she said that since the curriculum is still only “proposed,” it could still be changed. In Cox’s own words: “If the public wishes that changes be made, we will do so.” Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, usually Cox’s ally, has said that the word “evolution” should be explicitly in the curriculum. Even Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, as well as president, got this one right, saying that “Nationwide ridicule of Georgia’s public education system will be inevitable if this proposal is adopted.” The state was 50th in the U.S. in SAT scores last year, and Atlanta placed last or near-last in several categories of the 2003 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), which compares several large urban districts on test scores, so Georgia’s public education system already deserves some ridicule. But situations like this don’t help the South shed its backwater image, and people nationally can’t tell that, a little backwardness notwithstanding, this really is a great place to live.

Eric Wearne is a research assistant at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a PhD student in Educational Studies at Emory University.