Evolution’s New Foe: Timid School Administrators

Evolution education is under attack in Weston, Connecticut, but not from the usual direction.

Nobody is promoting intelligent design in the curriculum, or asking schools to teach evolution’s “strengths and weaknesses.” There’s just an administration afraid that teaching third graders too much about Charles Darwin will cause trouble.

“They might have just been looking to avoid controversy, but that has the same effect,” said Steve Newton, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education. ” If you’re not looking to teach children the best science, that harms their education.”

At issue is a class section proposed in 2008 by Mark Tangarone, teacher of the third, fourth and fifth grade Talented and Gifted program at the Weston Intermediate School. Tangarone wanted his third graders to study and compare the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

To learn about Darwin, students would have retraced the path of the HMS Beagle, the expedition that inspired a young Darwin’s theory of evolution. Each student would study a stop in the voyage, reporting on the animals and adaptations that Darwin observed.

When Tangarone ran his class plan by then-principal Mark Ribbens, he was denied.

In an email obtained by the Weston Forum, Ribbens explained that his objections had nothing to do with the soundness of the theory of evolution. Instead, he was worried about parent reaction.

“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic,” wrote Ribbens. “It is not appropriate to have [Darwin’s] work or the theory part of the TAG program since the topic is not age appropriate.”

Ribbens explained further, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

However, the class wasn’t out of step with official state science standards [.doc]. At the time, these instructed teachers to impart to third graders the ability to “describe how different plants and animals are adapted to obtain air, water, food and protection in specific land habitats.” That section of the standards was subtitled, “Heredity and Evolution — What processes are responsible for life’s unity and diversity?”

Ribbens left the school this year, and Tangarone asked to teach his Darwin program again. The request was rejected, and Tangarone submitted a letter of resignation on February 12, the date of Darwin’s birthday. “I feel that Weston has become anti-science and no longer a place I feel comfortable teaching in,” said Tangarone, who will retire two years early.

“I never dreamed this would be an issue in Weston,” he said. It’s a highly educated community. Many parents work in New York. There are authors, artists and scientists. They’re committed to education for their children.”

Weston Public Schools superintendent Jerry Belair did not respond to requests for an interview.

According to Newton, the motives of school administrators are not in doubt. “They just wanted to avoid controversy,” he said.

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