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The Controversy over the Kansas Science Standards

Keith B. Miller

Department of Geology, Kansas State University

First, some words about how the current situation developed.  A part of an effort to develop clearer, more effective guidelines for public school curricula in Kansas, the State Board of Education appointed a 27-member committee of K-12 science teachers, science educators, and scientists to develop a science standards document .  Over a 13-month period, it went through several drafts and several rounds of public comment.  During this process there was considerable opposition by certain Christian groups who sought the elimination of evolution from the curriculum.  In the end, the resulting document was really quite well-written and stressed both the nature and methodologies of science as well as several unifying theories and concepts (including evolutionary theory) that cut across disciplines.

This standards document was before the State Board of Education for three months awaiting approval.  However, one state board member put forward an alternative proposal that had completely bypassed any process of review or public comment.  It was largely ghost-written by members of a local creation science organization. This document eliminated any mention of evolution and also removed reference to any unifying scientific theories.  It rather put the focus on "technological science," and dismissed "theoretical science" as unproven speculation with little practical application.  Fully half the members of the State Board of Education (an elected body under no other political, educational, or legislative body) favored this proposal over the document developed by the education committee, resulting in an immediate deadlock.

In the last turn of events, 3 members of the Board rewrote the standards to produce a "compromise" document.  While not including the more objectionable parts of the alternate proposal, it still eliminated the theory of evolution as a model for understanding the history and diversity of life.  Furthermore it does not mention cosmology (Big Bang) or the Age of the Earth. It also includes errors of fact and misrepresentations of scientific methodology and content.  This version passed the Board on August 12th by a 6 to 4 vote.  The original standards document written and unanimously endorsed by the appointed committee was not even brought to a vote.  This decision was made in opposition to the recommendations of virtually every scientific and educational body in the state.  The Governor of Kansas and all of the presidents of the regents institutions (state universities) appealed to the Board to reject the alternate document.   The academic and educational communities are very irritated by the current situation.

The new science standards do not require or mandate teachers to teach anything.  They certainly do not mandate the inclusion of creationism.  What they do is establish the content of statewide assessment tests, and thus serve as recommendations for which topics and principles should be emphasized at each grade level from K-12.  Teachers and local school boards are free to establish their own curricula.  However the exclusion of evolutionary theory as an explanatory framework for the history of life and as a unifying concept in the biological sciences, the exclusion of theories of the origin of the universe (Big Bang model of cosmology), and the removal of references to a very ancient Earth history from the standards have significant implications.  These omissions are critical, and remove the core unifying concepts from the sciences of biology, geology, and astronomy.  Since they will not be subject to state assessment tests, these concepts are much less likely to be taught in districts where there is vocal opposition.  By throwing the issue to "local control" the state board leaves teachers much more vulnerable to complaints by parents or administrators eager to avoid controversy.  Furthermore, the decision is already having an impact on textbook publishers.  Since the decision, one publisher has removed an introductory chapter on the geologic history of Kansas from a history textbook for fear that it would limit sales.

Aside from the impact on public education, the decision of the Board reflects several widely held misconceptions about the nature of both science and religious faith.  Those seeking the elimination of evolution see current scientific and theological descriptions as being mutually exclusive and contradictory.  The warfare view of science (particularly evolutionary biology and geology) and faith is assumed.  But this view has been soundly refuted by a multitude of historical studies.  For example, several of the founders of modern geology were committed Christians.  Young Earth views were virtually absent among Christian apologists until well into this century. The primary proponent of Darwin's ideas in North America was Asa Gray, who was a committed evangelical Christian.  Furthermore, several contributors to the "Fundamentals" (a series of volumes from which the name "fundamentalist" derives) accepted some form of evolution. Many scientists presently teaching at the leading evangelical Christian colleges accept evolution as a powerful and well-supported theory of biological origins. My point here is that there is no necessary, inherent conflict between an ancient evolving Earth and a high view of the authority of scripture.

Another major misconception is that science is simply the accumulation of observational fact, and theories are merely unsubstantiated guesses.  This "facts only" view of science misses the core of what the scientific enterprise really is.  In my opinion, nothing could be more deadly to teaching science than to divorce it from the unifying theories which give observations meaning.  They make the world comprehensible.  They also generate the testable hypotheses (expectations) that drive further exploration and discovery.  When science is taught as only factual observation (something the standards passed by the Board would encourage), then disagreements among scientists and changing scientific views are seen as weaknesses and failings of scientific knowledge.  However, the exact opposite is the case.  It is the dynamic, changing, self-correcting nature of science that is its very strength.  The less science is seen as a body of established knowledge, the more inherently interesting and exciting it becomes.

The "compromise" standards that were passed and the committee-developed standards (that included evolution as a unifying theory of the biological sciences) can be viewed at http://www.kabt.org .  The original "creationist" alternate standards can be viewed at
http://www.geocities.com:80/CapitolHill/Parliament/6215/index.html.

Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506
kbmill@ksu.ksu.edu
http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~kbmill/
 


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