State education board asked to reject diluted academic standards
PHOENIX – A parade of teachers, parents and others lined up Monday to ask the state Board of Education to reject efforts by state schools chief to alter – and they believe dilute – academic standards.
During a meeting lasting hours, several people testified that Douglas is seeking to undermine the science standards crafted by a group of teachers. They specifically took aim at what were last-minute changes she and her staff made in language dealing with climate change as well as changes in references to evolution.
But they also told board members they also should ignore a bid by Douglas to adopt charter school standards crafted by Hillsdale College, a private Christian school, for all public schools in the state.
"Those are standards coming from a politically conservative, religiously conservative school with a Euro-centric sort of base to the world,'' said Karen McClelland, a member of the Sedona-Oak Creek school board. "We need our students to have equal emphasis on the rest of the world.''
The board took no action, deferring any final vote for at least a month.
Hillsdale, in promoting charter schools based on these standards, say they will "train the minds of and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civil virtue.''
But the standards themselves have a religious bent.
For example, the standards for sixth-grade history include references to what the college calls "basic ideas in common,'' including "the nature of God and humanity'' and the Old Testament. The standards also say students should learn the "important stories'' of creation, the Tower of Babel, and The Ten Commandments.
The New Testament is not ignored, with lessons including the Nativity, the baptism of Jesus, walking on water, and the Resurrection.
Douglas called what Hillsdale created the "gold standard for K-12 academics.'' She also said it's exactly what's needed to deal with what she said has been a series of failure in Arizona education to actually educate students and not, in her words, simply make them "worker bees.''
"We've stopped caring about making kids citizens and giving them the knowledge they need to be successful as citizens in this country,'' she told Capitol Media Services.
"It's become all about what's your career going to be,'' Douglas continued, saying the citizenship part of it has been neglected to say, "we'll just job train you enough to get you a job.''
While Douglas' focus on the Hillsdale standards are based on an increased focus on history and citizenship, her attempt to have them adopted is linked her fight over the science standards.
More than 100 people took part in crafting the new science standards, which have not been upgraded in 15 years. But in a series of back-and-forths with Douglas' Department of Education, some things were altered.
Some of those changes occurred in the last few months, after Douglas appointed Joseph Kezele, a biology teacher at Arizona Christian University and president of the Arizona Origin Science Association to the review panel.
Kezele did not testify Monday. But he told Phoenix New Times reporter Joseph Flaherty that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that there was "plenty of space on (Noah's) Ark for dinosaurs.''
Douglas, a member of the board, sat silently while science teachers from across the state urged the board to rescind those last-minute changes.
Sara Torres, executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, said returning the standards to what was first proposed "will ensure that teachers of science are not put in the position of teaching non-scientific ideas.''
It's not just a question of whether the teaching of evolution is being undermined.
Eileen Merritt, who is a teacher at the Arizona State University College of Education, said there are some very specific examples of what was removed, she believes improperly.
One would require students to "analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate change models to make evidence-based predictions of the current rate and scale of global or regional climate changes.''
"Also removed, the idea that science and engineering will be essential both to understanding the possible impacts of global climate change, into informing decisions on how to slow its rate and consequences for humanity as well as for the rest of the planet,'' Merritt said.
Douglas, for her part, suggested she was happy with those last-minute changes. But she also told board members that if they're unwilling to adopt the standards in the form she presented them, then they should scrap all of that – and the years of work that went into them – and simply adopt the entire Hillsdale-created standards.
That suggestion annoyed Tara Gurrero, curriculum coordinator at the Crane Elementary School District.
"It is both disheartening and demoralizing to hear that this body of work that Arizona educators have committed to may be dismissed by the adoption of a single school district's curriculum,'' she said.
Douglas and her bid to adopt the Hillsdale standards had some supporters, including Bob Branch who teaches at Grand Canyon University, a local Christian college. Branch recently ran against Douglas in the Republican primary for state school superintendent; both lost to Frank Riggs.
And Corrine Haynes, who described herself as a mother, grandmother and retired teacher, said Arizona students need what Hillsdale created.
"It has become alarmingly evident that we are a nation without its sense of history,'' she testified. "What unites us as Americans has been under attack for decades in our educational system and we are now experiencing the consequences.''
Not all of the objections to both the Douglas-altered science standards and adoption of the Hillsdale plan came from the academic community.
The Rev. David Felter, pastor at The Fountains United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, urged the board to construct a strict line between education and religion. And even if they choose not to, Felter said it would be a mistake to believe that what's in the Bible actually supports the idea of "creation.''
"We believe that evolution is something that needs to be promoted, that it is not, in fact, in conflict with the Bible,'' he said of Methodist beliefs. And he took a shot at those who would put creationism or the modified form of "intelligent design'' into science standards.
"This board is about to take the advice of people who believe the earth was created in six days and the earth is only 6,000 years old,'' he said.