Diane Douglas' office is defending her decision to appoint a young-earth creationist to help review and change state education standards on evolution.
As Phoenix New Times reported last week, Douglas, the Arizona superintendent, tapped Arizona Origin Science Association President Joseph Kezele, who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible's Genesis narrative, for an August 30 working group that finalized the evolution science standards.
In interviews following the article's publication, the superintendent's chief of staff, Michael Bradley, said, "We wanted to include a wide variety of views so that we’d get the best product possible."
When asked whether it was right to give a role at the Department of Education to a person with fringe views, Bradley argued that Kezele represents a religious constituency.
"We wouldn’t consider Christianity a fringe view," Bradley said. He added that Christian religious beliefs are widely held by a broad segment of Americans. Unprompted, Bradley explained that he is a Christian too, but that he does not share Kezele's uncompromising creationist views.
Kezele, a biology instructor at Arizona Christian University, says that scientific evidence supports his beliefs that the planet is just 6,000 years old and that teenage dinosaurs were on board Noah's Ark. His ideas are rejected by an overwhelming majority of mainstream researchers.
During the working group meeting, Kezele convinced the seven other members of the working group to weaken the state evolution standards in at least one instance. They changed a reference to evolution as "the" explanation for the unity and diversity of life to "an" explanation.
And although the working group accepted Kezele's suggestion, they also cut language in the same section referring to evolution as a "theory."
Bradley emphasized that Kezele's creationist ideas do not appear in the standards, and that "in the standards themselves, there’s no creationist theory or any kind of Christian theory."
Douglas must now present the science standards for the approval of the State Board of Education. It will be one of the last duties she performs as superintendent before leaving office at the end of December.
Last month, she lost her re-election bid to former California congressman Frank Riggs in the Republican primary.
As superintendent, Douglas has expressed her belief that creationism and intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in science classrooms. Riggs, in a recent interview, said that he believes evolution to be "proven scientific fact," and supports teaching it in classrooms.
The evolution committee Kezele served on was part of a process of revision to the science standards this spring – the first review in more than a decade. During the process, the Department of Education also attempted to weaken references to evolution, opting for language such as "biological diversity" or "how traits within populations change over time."
"I was astonished," said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education.
"I would have thought that the rebuke that Douglas got for her previous tampering with the evolution standards would have dissuaded her from pulling a stunt like this," Branch said in an interview on Friday. "To find that [Kezele] was appointed really just flabbergasted me."
In addition to criticizing Kezele's inclusion on the evolution working group, Branch raised concerns about changes in the standards pertaining to climate change.
In the latest draft, several references to climate change in the high school earth and space science standards were deleted.
One deleted paragraph described advanced standards for earth science students. It asked them to analyze geoscience data and global climate model results "to make evidence-based predictions of the current rate and scale of global or regional climate changes."
Also struck was a paragraph that asked students to use a quantitative model to examine how human activity has affected changes to earth systems.
Unlike the evolution standards, it's less obvious whether these changes were ideologically motivated, Branch said. But from his point of view, the deletions are still troubling.
The earth science standards have historically been neglected in education standards, he said, even though an earth science lesson is the "most natural place to have a detailed discussion of climate change."
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"Those were things that high school students should know about, and it’s unfortunate that they were deleted, regardless of what the motivation was," Branch said.
When asked about the climate change edits, Bradley said that the changes were based on the fact that standards should name the core ideas that students ought to learn, whereas specific details can be left to individual school districts as they develop their science curriculum.
The intent was not to eliminate ideas related to climate change, Bradley explained.
"We still have the climate change in there," he said. "That has not been removed."