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Inherit an Ill Wind | The Nation

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Inherit an Ill Wind

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Goals 2000, Kansas Style

About the Author

Edward Larson
Edward Larson is the author of Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and...
Larry Witham
Larry Witham is an author and journalist in Washington, DC.

Like other states, Kansas began with the model science standards drafted by the National Research Council, a public-policy arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Various national science and teacher groups had asked the NAS to develop model national science standards. Nearly every state then used them in drafting their Goals 2000 state science standards, notes Rodger Bybee, who helped draft the NAS document. "They are called national standards, but it is not a mandate," he says, "It is not a law. Their use is voluntary. The states see the comprehensiveness of the standards, and then use portions of them."

The standards cover physical, life and earth science, and it is in the latter two areas that the concept of evolution falls. Further, "Evolution and Equilibrium" is presented as one of five "unifying concepts and processes in science." The other four pillars--from systems and evidence to measurement and form--appear devoid of ideological content.

Bybee, now director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in Colorado, said he visited eight or ten states to give presentations on the NAS document. "It's by invitation," he said. "It's usually to the committee reviewing the standards." He made such a visit to Kansas in early August of 1998, a month after the state commissioner of education, a gubernatorial appointee, had formed a committee of Kansas scientists and science educators to write the state's new science standards.

"I spent a morning with them," Bybee recalls. The topic of evolution invariably came up, a concern of some Board of Education members but not of the science writing committee. "The committee anticipated there would be some conflict," Bybee said after the board vote in August. "But I don't think they understood it would end up this way."

In working through similar processes over the past few years, controversy has erupted over evolution in thirteen other states besides Kansas. Only three of them, however--Alabama, Illinois and Nebraska--ended up diluting the teaching of evolution. Alabama, for example, required a disclaimer in biology and geology texts stating that evolution "is theory, not fact." Illinois put evolution in its "controversial issues" category. That allows each local school district to decide how to approach it. Nebraska did not go that far, but after an assistant attorney general argued that teaching evolution might violate the religious freedom of some students, the state school board added cautious caveats. Kansas might have ended up merely in this group were its elected Board of Education not half composed of assertive social conservatives.

"I really believe the good things that come out of schools happen in classrooms and locally," said Scott Hill, one of the conservative board members. "It was a huge issue for us." That sort of thinking led the board last year to demand a role in actually drafting the science standards. That startled the state education establishment, but it conceded five slots on the twenty-seven-member writing committee to the conservative board members. Evolution was not a major issue in anyone's thinking yet.

In the early nineties, amid a backlash in local schools against process-based science education, the board had voted to make process-style assessment tests optional. Going into the 1998 science standards, conservatives' main concern had been to roll back the focus on process. A board appointee to the writing committee explains, "One of the charges was to make these standards more content-oriented, or fact-oriented. Forget the process. Get us back to what content these kids have to know when they get out of school." It was only after board members saw the emphasis given to evolution by the NAS model that they began adding opposition to Darwinism to their concern that science should study "facts."

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