Knowledge Under Siege

How the Kansas Board of Education's  Decision on the Science Standards Threatens Our Children's Education 

On August 11, 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education (BOE) voted to adopt a new set of standards for the teaching of science in Kansas public schools. Those standards are bad for kids... bad for schools and teachers... and bad for the state's image and economy. That much is clear, once you understand what happened. But many Kansans are still unsure what the BOE actually did, and what that means. The following points attempt to answer those questions. 

What did the BOE actually do?
- The Board's six "radical religious social conservative" members rejected standards--based on national science guidelines--written over the course of 13 months by the 27-member writing committee that the Board itself had appointed. 

- The Board voted 6-4 to approve public school science standards that greatly de-emphasize or delete concepts of evolution, the geological time scale, continental drift, and current theories of the origin of the universe--all generally accepted foundational concepts in modern science.

- Evidence has been uncovered that indicates the adopted standards included numerous changes authored by members of a Missouri-based creationist organization, the Creation Science Association of Mid-America (CSAMA). An unofficial sub-committee of three "social conservative" BOE members apparently incorporated the creationists' changes in a six-hour closed-door session before submitting their version of the standards to the BOE for a vote. 

What exactly are "standards?"
- "Standards" are a framework to help local districts establish their curriculum. Each major subject area taught in public schools (Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, etc.) has its own set of standards, determined by the State Board of Education.

- State-wide assessment tests of schoolchildren, which are based on the standards, allow districts to measure how well schools are performing.

Who was on the Board-appointed writing committee, and what did they write?
- The writing committee consisted of 27 top educators and scientists from across Kansas, many with state and national teaching awards. 

- The writing committee's standards were based on standards recommended by the National Research Council and endorsed by a distinguished list of national science organizations, including the National Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

- The writing committee's standards received high marks in an external review by the Council of Basic Education (Washington, DC)--a review requested by the Board.

Why did the Board reject the writing committee's standards? 
- The "social conservative" members of the Board argue that teaching of evolution and other scientific concepts should be left to "local choice" and decided by local school boards. However, the BOE has not taken this position on any other subject area besides science. 

- Science was targeted for "local choice" because six BOE members and their supporters believe scientific knowledge about biology, geology and cosmology conflicts with the religious beliefs of "young earth creationists." YECs interpret the Bible’s book of Genesis literally, so they believe the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old, as opposed to scientists’ understanding that the earth has been here for billions of years.

- The three BOE members who rewrote the science standards have denied repeatedly that they made changes for religious reasons or that they had input from creationists. However, scores of changes they made were written by members of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America. The creationists’ influence is documented in the book, "Kansas Tornado," by Dr. Paul Ackerman. In that book,  the CSAMA participants in the rewrite are named, and their meeting dates and places, as well as the nature of their revisions, are detailed. 

- The BOE adopted the creationist-influenced standards despite overwhelming criticism from scientists and
educators from across Kansas, the nation, and the world. 

-Twenty-six of the 27 writing committee members have refused to have their names associated with the
standards approved by the BOE. 

- In September, 1999, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Research Council (NRC), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said in a statement they would not let Kansas use their copyrighted standards language because the BOE-adopted science standards do not advance science education. 

What are the consequences of the Board's decision?
- If the BOE-adopted standards are implemented in school year 2000-01, as planned, local school boards and teachers may choose to delete discussion of evolution, geological time, and origins of the universe. The BOE has ruled that those topics will not be included on state assessment tests, so some schools may eliminate them from lesson plans to avoid complaints from creationists in their communities. 

- The net result is that many Kansas schoolchildren will lack a modern science education. Evolution and geological time are as central to the study of science as grammar is to the study of English. Research and teaching of these topics is a central part of the science curriculum at colleges and universities across the nation and around the world. 

- The majority of Kansas schoolchildren go on to a university or college education. Students without solid academic preparation will be at a disadvantage when they take national-based achievement tests for admissions and scholarship applications and when they take college level courses. 

- The tremendous worldwide publicity on this issue has already damaged Kansas' image as a progressive,
forward-looking state. It could hurt our state's ability to hire quality teachers and attract quality businesses and industry. 

What is "evolution?" 
- Evolution is simply defined as "change over time."  Biological evolution--change in the genetic composition of a group of organisms--can occur over different time periods. The BOE's standards mention some aspects of evolution as it occurs over short periods of time (sometimes called "microevolution"), but they leave out discussion of evolution over longer periods of time (sometimes called "macroevolution"), which can lead to the development of new species.  "Microevolution" and "macroevolution" are actually stages of a continuum. 

- Scientific study indicates that the current diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution (many accumulated genetic changes over long periods of time). Think about your family. All of us share with our brothers and sisters certain characteristics which we inherited from our parents, and our grandparents before them. The same is true for species on earth today. All living species share some genetic information (DNA). The closer two species are in time to a common ancestor, the more genetic information they have in common. For example, horses and zebras shared a common ancestor relatively recently, and their structural similarities are readily apparent. But cats and dogs shared a common ancestor longer ago, so their physical similarities are less apparent. There are diverse evolutionary mechanisms depending on the time scale and situation; these include natural selection, random genetic mutations, and mass extinctions followed by emergence of new species.

- Evolution is central to our understanding of life and its history. Knowledge of the evolutionary relationships among species is a major theme that integrates biology, geology, anthropology, and many other scientific disciplines. There is no debate among scientists about whether evolution has occurred. Evolutionary biologists do, however, discuss the relative importance of different mechanisms of evolutionary change. Evidence of evolution comes from diverse scientific fields, from the study of fossils to studies of genetic composition of modern species. 

Are there practical reasons for studying evolution?

- Definitely. Evolutionary concepts are central to the breeding of crops and domesticated animals and to studying the development of antibiotic resistance to disease-causing bacteria, to name just a couple of examples.

- Also, knowledge of evolutionary relationships among species is crucial to the rapidly growing field of biomedical research. For example, Kansas researchers can study the genetic basis of a human kidney disease in a simpler organism (microscopic worms) because both humans and worms share a gene that is crucial in disease development. Humans and worms share this gene because of our common ancestry in the far distant past.

Can a person accept the evidence for evolution and believe in God? 
- Yes! Many religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, most Protestant denominations and Jewish theologians, agree there is no conflict between evolution and faith. Many people believe God created the world but accept that life unfolded on earth by the process of evolution. Others believe that God created all species but that evolution is the mechanism that He used.

- Science and religious faith operate in different realms. Scientists study only the physical processes by which life on earth has unfolded. Since the scientific method relies on observation of physical data, scientists cannot determine whether or not biological or geological processes were directed by supernatural forces.

To be fair, shouldn't we teach both evolution and creationism in science class and let students decide for themselves?

"Teaching both" is not an advisable or even feasible option, for several reasons:

- The idea of teaching "both" casts evolution and creationism as two equally valid scientific theories. But that is not the case.

"Science" refers to the systematic study of the physical or  material world using a variety of approaches, including  observations and experiments. The word "theory" in science refers to a testable, well-supported explanation for a large body of observed facts. With 140 years of research and testing behind it, the theory of evolution is one of the most well-supported theories in science. In fact, scientists the world over consider it the unifying theory of all the life sciences. 

However, creationism, whether it’s called "creation science" or  "intelligent design" (a belief that the appearance of design in nature points to an unnamed, supernatural intelligent designer), fails every test of a scientific theory. Since it is based on a belief in supernatural causes rather than observable facts, it cannot be tested or falsified,  and it has no explanatory or predictive power.

- Different cultures and religions believe in many different versions of "creationism." There even are numerous versions of Christian creationism, from Young Earth creationism to Old Earth creationism to theistic evolution to "intelligent design." Which one or ones would be taught? Who would decide?

- The Supreme Court and federal courts have ruled that creationism, or  "creation science," is in fact a religious belief, not science. Therefore, teaching it in a public school science classroom advances one particular religious belief over others, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Laws proposing "equal time" for evolution and creationism have repeatedly been thrown out by the courts for that reason. 

- There are two important things to remember with this issue:

- As noted above, the theory of evolution is not in conflict with a belief in God as Creator. However, it presents a problem for people who believe in a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, or for those who believe in so-called "intelligent design" creationism. Creationism in any form is a religious belief which falls outside the realm of science. 

- Students are not required to "believe" anything they are taught in school--only to understand it. The object of modern science education is to provide knowledge that will allow students to qualify for enrollment in accredited colleges and universities, and to take their place in today's increasingly technological and scientific work world. 

In view of all of this, it seems clear that the fairest solution--and the best for sound education--is for religious discussions to occur at home, at churches and synagogues, and in world religion classes, but not in the science classroom. 

Who has publicly opposed the Board of Education's vote on the science standards?

Many individuals and groups:

- Governor Bill Graves
- Presidents and chancellors of all the Kansas state universities
- All major statewide and national educational and scientific organizations
- Religious leaders of many denominations
- Columnists and commentators in newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio reports around the world
- The Fordham Foundation, a conservative think-tank, which  gave the BOE-adopted science standards an "F" grade 

What can Kansas citizens do about this issue?

1. Vote in the August 2000 primaries and in the November 2000 election! Five BOE members (including
four who voted to adopt the creationist-influenced science standards) are up for reelection in 2000. 
Candidates in Districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 will be on the ballot in 2000.

2. Express your concerns about quality education to elected state and local officials. Write letters to
your local newspaper stating your concerns.

3. Be aware of discussions and actions at your local school board and be supportive of your local science

4. Learn more about these issues from state and national sources. The National Center for Science Education  also is a valuable information resource.

5. Join Kansas Citizens for Science to help promote sound science education in our state.