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Bleeding Kansas: What Happened? What's Next?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Bleeding Kansas: What Happened? What's Next?
Eugenie C Scott
NCSE Executive Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
During August and September of 1999, NCSE members and other citizens read in their newspapers, and heard on radio and television, that the Kansas State Board of Education had removed evolution from the state science education standards. Here is the story.


After a year of work, a committee of Kansas scientists and master teachers (including several NCSE members) submitted a draft version of the Kansas Science Education Standards, first to public hearings and later to the State Board of Education (SBE). The Committee had followed guidelines developed by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for preparation of such standards, and included evolution as an organizing principle ("Unifying Concepts and Processes") of science. Showing sensitivity to the fact that evolution might conflict with religious beliefs of some students and parents, the proposed standards reminded teachers:
Compelling student belief is inconsistent with the goal of education. Nothing in science or any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically.
Evolution was treated matter-of-factly, as the well-accepted principle of science that it is. Nonetheless, some members of the SBE, offended by the absence of creationism or "alternatives to evolution" in the draft, sought changes. School board member Steve Abrams, assisted by the Creation Science Association of MidAmerica, submitted substitute science standards that not only completely ignored evolution, but included some bizarre notions of the nature of science (for example, that "historical" and "theoretical" sciences are inferior to "technological" sciences). After much arm-wrestling, the SBE finally adopted science standards that were a patchwork of the 2 drafts. Evolution as an organizing principle of science was stripped out as was any mention of the Big Bang, cosmology, the age of the Earth, or descent with modification. As a result of these changes, evolution will not be included in the assessment tests students take before leaving high school.

Creationism's Fingerprints

It is clear that the hybrid standards had a creationist parent.
  • These standards spend a great deal of time distinguishing between "macroevolution" and "microevolution". Real biology does not, nor do other state standards.
"Microevolution" refers to the mechanisms of change affecting species and populations within a species; these are primarily genetic mechanisms producing variability in a population or species, and natural selection which acts upon this variation. It also includes non-selective mechanisms such as genetic drift, founder effect and the like. "Macroevolution" — as used by creationists — refers to the basic principle of descent with modification from common ancestors; what anyone else would refer to simply as "evolution."

Macroevolution is a far more complex topic to evolutionary biologists than the simple-minded version presented by creationists. In evolutionary biology, "macroevolution" refers to the patterns and principles that come into effect above the species level — not just the branching of the tree of life at levels such as genera, families, orders, classes and so on, but also such phenomena as rates of change, the mode of change (smooth or jerky), and other considerations that are relevant to the "big picture" of evolution. The Kansas standards take a typical "micro Sí! macro No!" approach with which NCSE has become familiar.
  • Creationist influence also is apparent in the exhortations to teachers to teach catastrophic geology, as in this benchmark for 4th grade which tells teachers to encourage discussion about "...whether or not all fossilized organisms were dead at the time of burial (i.e., closed clam fossils.)"
Of course, evidence for sudden burial and other catastrophic deposition is supposed evidence for Noah's Flood. Teachers are also told (twice) to discuss the Mt St Helens volcano, which is certainly an interesting geological feature, but rarely featured so prominently in science standards. Steve Austin of the Institute for Creation Research uses Mt St Helens to promote the universality of catastrophic geological processes. Because scientists witnessed a 30-foot "little Grand Canyon" being carved by a rush of water through unconsolidated ash, Austin argues that the Grand Canyon also could have catastrophically been cut in a matter of weeks in just the same way. Of course, the Grand Canyon is composed of some 4000 feet of hard limestones, sandstones, granites, and marbles, but those are just details.
  • The revised Kansas standards also recommend that teachers discuss the Allende meteorite, something else never seen in other states' science standards.
Creationists cite a scatter of radiometric dates on the Allende meteorite to argue that radiometric dating is invalid. The argument is that if radiometric dating is invalid, then of course the Earth cannot be old. If the Earth is not old, there is not enough time for evolution to have occurred — so evolution didn't happen. If evolution didn't happen — gee, what does explain the great diversity of life on Earth?

Implications of the Decision: Kansas

What does this mean for science education in Kansas? What does it mean for science education in the rest of the country? Certainly in Kansas, if the current standards take effect in 2001 as scheduled, students will be taught less evolution, especially because evolution will not be included in the assessment exams. Kansas teachers who know what is good for them will "teach to the test" because these scores will determine how they and their school districts will be ranked. Why waste time on something that the students won't "need to know"? Meanwhile, Kansas teachers already fear that they will be subjected to increased pressure to avoid teaching evolution.

We have found that without state science standards to shield them, teachers are less resistant to parental complaints about evolution. A California teacher once faced a trio of parents questioning him about whether evolution would be taught. He explained that he was required to teach it because it was in the California Science Framework. One disappointed parent finally burst out, "Well, you don't have to teach it like you mean it!" Teachers appreciate the shield provided by the "e-word's" inclusion in the state standards.

Also, Kansas students will be shortchanged when they take the ACTs, SATs, and Advanced Placement exams, which include many evolutionary concepts (see RNCSE 1998: 18[3]:27). But perhaps the greatest injustice to Kansas students is denying them the pleasure of learning about one of the most exciting and active fields of science. The net effect of the Kansas science standards is to encourage teachers to pussyfoot around evolution, separating it out from the rest of science as a "theory" (read: "guess") that is controversial and doubtful or "questionable" at best. Students going on to college will be in for a big surprise: evolution is taught matter-of-factly at every respected university in this country, including denominational ones such as Baylor, Brigham Young, and Notre Dame. Kansas students will realize they have been lied to about the position of evolution in modern science. I doubt they will be pleased.

Implications of the Decision: Nationwide

What about those of us outside of Kansas? If other state or local boards of education or legislatures follow in Kansas's footsteps and drop, qualify, disclaim, or otherwise downplay evolution, the rest of us will feel the repercussions as textbooks decrease their coverage of evolution. This is a serious matter, as most teachers rely on the textbook to determine course content. If evolution is in the textbook, there is at least a chance that it will be taught. If it is not, the chance diminishes virtually to zero.

The Future

The consequences of the SBE decision are extensive, indeed. Outraged Kansas scientists and teachers are planning for the election in November, 2000, when they will support candidates opposing those incumbent SBE members who voted for the compromise standards. Meanwhile, 3 organizations whose materials were incorporated into the first version of the standards have announced that they are denying copyright permission to the SBE because with evolution yanked out, the compromise draft does not adequately reflect the intent of their documents. The AAAS (publisher of the Benchmarks for Science Literacy), the NAS (publisher of the National Science Education Standards), and the National Science Teachers Association (publisher of Scope, Sequence and Coordination) issued a joint statement discussing their reasons for denying the copyright, available on the NSTA web site.

The denial of copyright permission will at least make it necessary to rework the compromise draft. With luck, this may provide an opportunity to revisit the content of the standards as well, but I am not holding my breath. The Kansas SBE is unusually independent of any other state agency, and like the proverbial 600 pound gorilla, can sit anywhere it wants.

NCSE will continue working with concerned Kansans and will keep RNCSE readers informed.