What Happened in Kansas?

   By Jeanine DeNoma   

On August 11, 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted six to four to remove all references to macroevolution, the Big Bang, and the geologic time scale from the state's science education standards and, instead, injected the standards with young-Earth creationists' notions of science. The news hit the national media like a creationist slam-dunk and left many citizens, including scientists, reeling. College presidents and science educators in Kansas expressed dismay. The Republican governor called the decision, "a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist," reported Science (Aug 20, 1999). How did all this happen?

A 27-member committee of educators and scientists initially prepared a set of science standards based on guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences. But in recent years religious conservatives had gained a majority on the Kansas Board of Education, an elected body. The conservatives objected to the standards as presented. Board member Steve Abrams, a young Earth creationist, with the help of other creationists, rewrote the standards, injecting an anti-scientific attitude and describing scientists with words like elitist, dogmatic and atheist.

Dave Thomas, editor and president of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a scientist actively opposing similar creationist-based standards in New Mexico, writes (NMSR Reports, Sept. 1999), "The obviously creationist Abrams Standards were clearly unviable, so a 'compromise' version was introduced, blending some of the original committee's work with Abram's standards...The hostile language was removed, but creationists got what they really wanted: no macroevolution, no Big Bang, several requirements to study topics said to refute geologic time and so forth." Embedded throughout are suggestions for study on obscure topics such as mud flows at Mt. St. Helens and the Canyon Diablo meteorite. These are drawn directly from creationist literature. In fact, there's a thorough paper trail showing its religious base. You can find complete versions of the various sets of standards at the Kansas Citizens for Science web site: http://www.kcfs.org/compare.html

The National Research Council (NRC), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a statement on September 23, 1999, saying, "If the current version of the Kansas Science Education Standards is adopted and implemented, we deny permission to use text from our publications for that purpose." The statement was authored by Bruce Alberts, Chair of NRC and President of the National Academy of Sciences; Stephen Jay Gould, President of AAAS; and Emma Walton, President NSTA. It discusses specific problems in the Kansas document; the full statement is available on the web at: http://www.nsta.org/pressrel/jointstatement.htm

A local note of interest on the fallout from the Kansas decision, Science (Aug. 20, 1999) reported "Broadcast Software International in Eugene, Oregon, has already let it be known that it's crossing Kansas off its short list for a new service center."

While it is not mandatory that teachers follow the state standards, the standards determine what students will be required to know for the statewide achievement tests. The practical consequences of allowing these standards to remain in place is chilling. Without state standards to fall back upon, teachers, who want to teach evolution and who know they should, may be intimidated by parents and administrators into leaving out biology's most important concept. This is especially true for teachers in the small rural school districts, which make up about 40% of the students and teachers in the state. And for students in these districts who do not receive adequate instruction in biological principles, the consequence will likely be poorer scores on college entrance exams.

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