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Creationist Tornado Rips Evolution out of Kansas Science Standards

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Creationist Tornado Rips Evolution out of Kansas Science Standards
Deborah L Cunningham
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On Wednesday, August 11, 1999, the Kansas state Board of Education (BOE) adopted a "compromise" set of Science Education Standards for the state that left the decision to teach macroevolution in science classes up to each of the individual 304 school districts. The 6-4 vote occurred after months of public debate and several public forums, the final one taking place on August 10. The BOE's decision won't disallow the teaching of evolution in public schools, but since the standards will determine the contents of required assessment examinations in the sciences, critics fear that this decision will cause science teachers to spend less time teaching evolution and more time covering subjects that will be included on tests. Supporters of science education are also concerned that this decision will open the door to pressure to include "creation science" and "intelligent design theory" in the curriculum.

The BOE is made up of 5 conservative and 5 moderate members. The conservative victory occurred when Harold Voth, one of the moderates, voted with the conservatives in favor of adopting the new, "compromise" version of the Science Education Standards. These standards for the public school children of Kansas were originally written by a 27-member Kansas Science Education Standards Writing Committee. This committee was composed of science educators and consultants from the preschool to the university level, including 5 Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Science Teaching and 2 Christa McAuliffe Fellows. After a year of research, collaboration, and input from the National Science Teachers Association, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Science, the committee presented the 5th, and final, working draft of the document to the BOE in July, 1999.

The 5th Working Draft and the Compromised Version: Deleting Evolution

The 5th Working Draft of the standards was based on the National Science Education Standards and listed 5 "unifying concepts and processes": (1) systems, order, and organization; (2) evidence, models, and explanation; (3) constancy, change, and measurement; (4) patterns of cumulative change; and (5) form and function.

The explanation of the 4th concept in the working draft reads:
Accumulated changes through time, some gradual and some sporadic, account for the present form and function of objects, organisms, and natural systems. The general idea is that the present arises from materials and forms of the past. An example of cumulative change is the biological theory of evolution, which explains the process of descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors. Additional examples are continental drift, which is part of plate tectonic theory, fossilization, and erosion. Patterns of cumulative change also help to describe the current structure of the universe (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 9).
The "compromise" version of the standards deletes this 4th concept entirely, as well as other items, including the "Big Bang Theory".

The "compromise" set of science standards was written by a "subcommittee" of the BOE comprised of Voth and 2 conservative members, Abrams and Hill. Not only did this subcommittee delete "patterns of cumulative change" from the unifying concepts, it also deleted parts of the "Teaching With Tolerance and Respect" section. (This section was added by the science writing committee as a concession to conservative BOE members.) In the 5th Working Draft of the standards, this section stated
If a student should raise a question in a natural science class that the teacher determines to be outside the domain of science, the teacher should treat the question with respect. The teacher should explain why the question is outside the domain of natural science and encourage the student to discuss the question further with his or her family and clergy. Neither the Kansas Constitution nor the United States constitution require time to be given in the science curriculum to accommodate religious views of those who object to certain material or activities presented in science classes. Nothing in the Kansas Statutes Annotated or the Kansas State Board Regulations allows students (or their parents) to excuse class attendance based on disagreement with the curriculum, except as specified for 1) any activity which is contrary to the religious teachings of the child or for 2) human sexuality education (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 6).
Instead, the subcommittee substituted the following single sentence: "No evidence or analysis of evidence that contradicts a current science theory will be censured" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 6).

An additional change was made to an 8th grade benchmark: "The students will observe the diversity of living things and relate their adaptation to their survival or extinction". Instead of "Biological evolution, gradual changes of characteristics of organisms over many generations, has brought variations in populations" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 41), the "compromise" standards substituted "Over time, genetic variation acted upon by natural selection has brought variations in populations. This is termed microevolution" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 46).

In the next paragraph, the subcommittee deleted: "Students can compare similarities between organisms in different parts of the world, such as tigers in Asia and mountain lions in North America" as was "Students tend to think of all individuals in a population responding to change quickly rather than over a long period of time" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 42). Then this sentence was added to the benchmark: "Natural selection can maintain or deplete genetic variation but does not add new information to the existing genetic code" was added to the description of the benchmark (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 46). In addition, 2 indicators were added to that same benchmark in the "compromise" standards, one re-iterating that natural selection acts only on the existing genetic code, and the other that natural selection is a valid theoretical framework.

The subcommittee also made changes at the 8th-grade level in geologic time indicators, allegedly to make them more "academic" (according to Abrams), but the result is that they avoid teaching the students about the age of the earth. Another indicator was also added, describing the importance of falsification: "No matter how much evidence seems to support a theory, it only takes one proof that it is false to show it to be false. It should be recognized that in the real world it might take years to falsify a theory" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 58).

The bulk of the changes occurred at the 12th grade level. The subcommittee added an indicator asserting that natural selection and random genetic drift were the primary mechanisms of genotypic change. Other indicators about geologic formation and earth's history were changed in order to include "different methods" of estimating geologic time and evaluating fossils. Finally, another benchmark description was expanded from "As a result of activities in grades 9-12, students should develop an understanding of the universe, its origin, and evolution" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 70) to "Students should develop an understanding of the universe. The origin of the universe remains one of the greatest questions in science. Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables, cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 78). It is from this section that the "Big Bang" theory was deleted. Hill, when explaining why this change was made, said that he didn't want to limit the information available to children.

The rest of the changes occurred in the Appendices. In Appendix 1, the Glossary, the "compromise" version of the standards altered several definitions. In the original standards, the definition of "evolution" was subdivided into two sections. In the first, "biological" evolution was defined as
A scientific theory that accounts for present day similarity and diversity among living organisms and changes in non-living entities over time. With respect to living organisms, evolution has two major perspectives: The long-term perspective focuses on the branching of lineages; the short-term perspective centers on changes within lineages. In the long term, evolution is the decent [sic] with modification of different lineages from common ancestors. In the short term, evolution is the on-going adaptation of organisms to environmental challenges and changes (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 78).
The second definition of evolution was "cosmological":

With respect to non-living entities, evolution accounts for sequences of natural stages of development. Such sequences are a natural consequence of the characteristics of matter and energy. Stars, planets, solar systems, and galaxies are examples" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 79).

Instead, the "compromise" version defines "evolution", without subdividing it, as "A scientific theory that accounts for present day similarity and diversity among living organisms and changes in non-living entities over time. With respect to living organisms, evolution has two major perspectives: The long-term perspective (macro-evolution) focuses on the branching of lineages; the short-term perspective (micro-evolution) centers on changes within lineages" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 86).

They also changed the definition of "science" from "The human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 80) to "The human activity of seeking logical explanations for what we observe in the world around us" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 88, italics added). Finally, the definition of "theory" was changed from "In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses" (Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft, p 80) to a version that leaves out "well-substantiated" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 88).

The subcommittee also added a definition of "falsification":
"A method for determining the validity of an hypothesis, theory or law. To be falsifiable a theory must be testable, by others, in such a way that, if it is false, the tests can show that it is false" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 87)
The issue of falsification was apparently so important to the sub-committee that they replaced the original contents of Appendix 2 to a 2-page treatise on "Falsification — An Essential Verification Strategy". This modified Appendix 2 begins:
Repeatability is an inadequate criterion and is supplemented with falsification. The reason for falsifiability may not be intuitively obvious. It is fine to make statements like 'this theory is backed by a great body of experiments and observations,' but often overlooked is the fact that such claims are meaningless. Experiments and observations do not verify theories, they must be evaluated by human reason to determine the degree of verification they provide (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 90, bold in original).
The original appendix contained a diagram explaining the new science standards and a short description illustrating the connections among them.

Three examples that were originally listed in this Appendix to illustrate why "the experiment, observation, or 'proof' [involved in testing a theory] is deceptive" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 91), were deleted by the subcommittee just before the August 11 meeting.

The final changes were the deletion of Appendix 3, "Scientific Thinking Process", in which specific thinking processes were linked to grade levels, and Appendix 5, "Achievements in the History of Science and Technology", in which Homo erectus was listed as existing at 750 000 BCE.

The Kansas BOE: Evolution of a Controversy

This isn't the first disagreement between conservatives and moderates on the BOE. Since conservatives took hold of half the seats in 1996, the board has deadlocked over several issues from federal initiatives for developing career programs to the use of calculators in the math classroom. Other deadlocks have occurred over student testing, sex education, school accreditation, and teacher licensing. In these discussion conservatives often invoked the issue of "local control" or family prerogatives.

The current controversy began when some Kansans asked the BOE to reject the proposed science standards because evolution goes against their belief that God created the earth and all of its creatures. Conservative board members agreed that the standards focused too much attention on evolution, and one member wanted the standards to include other theories of how life began (Beem 1999a).

In April 1999 the controversy began in Kansas newspapers. Numerous editorials and letters-to-the-editor were published, both for and against teaching evolution. Many of the letters calling to strike evolution from the standards takes the form of old creationist arguments, such as the "religion of evolution", the lack of transitional fossils, the unfairness of teaching only one theory, and, of course, the right of local communities to control the curriculum.

On the other hand, many letters and editorials were pro-evolution. One letter states "It is science teachers and scientists — not citizens with a religious agenda — who should judge when and if alternate theories of evolution should be presented in the classroom" (Connaghan 1999, p B6). Several editorials and letters point out the possibility of lawsuits if "creation science" is taught in a public school environment. Even the state's Republican governor, Bill Graves, publicly criticized the BOE for considering the "compromise" document. Just before the final vote, the presidents of 6 Kansas universities wrote in support of teaching evolution arguing: that the "compromise" proposal "will be detrimental to the future of science education in Kansas. . . [and] will set Kansas back a century" (Hemenway et al. 1999:B6).

It was also in April, according to The Kansas City Star (Beem 1999b), that conservative board member Abrams presented a revised version of the standards to John Staver, the director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University, Professor of Science Education at Kansas State University, and member of the writing committee for the Kansas Science Education Standards. While Abrams' version gave authorship credit to the science writing team, he acknowledged that it was actually written by "various citizens" including Tom Willis, the president of the Missouri-based Creation Science Association of Mid-America, and members of a group called the National Committee for Excellence in Science Education. Several moderate members of the board objected to the contributions of anonymous "various citizens" to the revised document.

The Creationist Input

Tom Willis, who volunteered to help the board rewrite the science standards to exclude evolution, was quoted in The Kansas City Star as saying "I believe that history is only available to us in detail if you have a reliable witness. If you believe a reliable witness, then there's no evolution. The testimony in the Bible goes against it" (Beem 1999a).

The version of the standards that Willis helped the subcommittee to write are a stronger creationist version than the "compromise" version sent to the BOE. However, some of its elements were still obvious in adopted standards, such as in an exercise for 12th graders on fossil dating. This exercise has the students "[r]esearch all published data on the fossils present in the layers of the Grand Canyon" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 78, italics added) in order, according to the Lawrence Journal-World, for seniors to contemplate the possibility that the Grand Canyon was formed by a sudden, cataclysmic event (Seba 1999).

In fact, the next exercise listed is "Investigate how rocks and fossils are dated. Identify assumptions used in radioactive decay methods of dating. Compare and evaluate data obtained on ages from such places as Mount St Helens and the meteorite named Allende" (Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee, p 78). The interview with Willis in the Lawrence Journal-World quotes him as saying "The Grand Canyon was not caused by erosion but by a volcanic eruption. We know that from Mount St Helens" (Seba 1999, p 3A).

The Open Forum

On August 10, 1999, the last public forum was held at the BOE in Topeka. About 60 people were allowed one minute each to state their opinions; the majority of those who spoke opposed the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Kansas. Comments included "We can't know what happened in the past", "Creation involves just as much science as evolution", "Evolution involves just as much religion as creation (secular humanism)", "Both theories require faith", "Since neither theory is proven it is crucial that the decision is made locally", and my personal favorite, "We taught our children they were evolved from animals, and then we wonder why they act like animals".

Evolutionists were present however, and pointed out that Kansas students could lag behind their peers from other states in national test scores, such as the SAT and ACT, if evolution was not taught to them, and that the Supreme Court has already ruled that "creation science" could not be taught in public schools. One member of the writing committee, Patrick Wakeman, when addressing the subcommittee's statement that 95% of the original document was left intact, said "If I dissect a human heart, 95% of the body will be the same, but it won't function." Unfortunately, the evolutionists' logical and persuasive arguments were not heeded by the board.

The Vote

The morning of August 11, 1999 Loren, a member of the science writing team, a school district superintendent, and a former physics professor, recommended to the BOE that the 5th Working Draft of the Kansas Science Education Standards be adopted. He pointed out that the draft is widely supported by science organizations and the governor because it is based on national science education standards. He stated that the writing team could not support the "compromise" proposal because it is incomplete, inaccurate, and deletes evolution.

Another member of the science writing committee, John Staver, added that the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers' Association indicated that they would need to see the "compromise" proposal, if approved, prior to giving permission include text from their documents in it. He also recommended that the Kansas attorney general and the BOE's attorney examine the "compromise" document for potential legal problems. Staver went on to say over half of the members of the original writing team whom he had contacted would request that their names be removed from the "compromise" document, if passed.

After these opening statements, 3 of the members made statements in support of the 5th Working Draft. At this point, conservative member Hill made several last-minute changes to the subcommittee's document, including removing assessment flags and changing Appendix 2. The moderates pointed out that if board members rewrite documents such as these science standards, it will become increasingly difficult to ask experts to put in long hours working on such documents. Furthermore, some objected that they were unaware that a special subcommittee had been appointed (Abrams, Hill, and Voth) did not have an opportunity to volunteer to serve on it. One member called for an response by the original science writing committee to the new document, but BOE chairwoman Holloway refused, stating that the board had already heard from the experts.

As the board discussed each change, no religious reasons were cited as being behind the alterations. Instead, subcommittee members would say "wording was included to satisfy concerns by board members" or "we're making it more academic." Other justifications for the changes were that they didn't want to limit information available to children and didn't want a dogmatic approach when teaching about the origins of the universe.

Moderate BOE members questioned Hill about the source of the new information which the subcommittee had not acknowledged. Hill insisted that since the subcommittee didn't take any verbatim language from any source, it didn't feel like any had to be acknowledged. He added that the subcommittee's members did not want to add their own names to the document because they are not experts in science. The discussion went on until moderate member Voth stated that he supported the "compromise" proposal, after which the board approved the new document 6-4. Voth justified his vote because he said that the majority of people who contacted him about this matter encouraged him to vote for the "compromise" proposal, and also because he believes that it should be up to local school boards to decide whether or not to teach the theory of evolution.

The Reaction

The public reaction in Kansas newspapers to the vote has been overwhelmingly negative, both from politicians and concerned citizens. "I couldn't have done better" Tom Willis told the Lawrence Journal-World (Seba 1999). Yet, Republican Governor Bill Graves issued a formal statement after the vote: "This is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist.". Representative Ralph Tanner, the chairman of the Kansas House Education Committee, said that he would introduce measures during the 2000 legislative session that would either change the way the board is selected or alter its makeup. Tanner also said that he didn't subscribe to the idea that the argument is really about local control, not about evolution. He was quoted in The Wichita Eagle: "We are supposed to have a sense of uniformity across the curriculum across the state. Some people are trying to hide behind the issue of local control. There is no issue of local control on this type of thing" (Rothschild 1999, p 11A, 14A).

Chris Grenz from The Topeka Capital-Journal surveyed some Kansas religious leaders and got a mixed reaction. While many agree with the board's decision, others think that it is important to maintain the separation of church and state. (Grenz 1999, p 9-A).Most of the letters-to-the-editor published in Kansas papers were against the decision, and the Kansas City Star took pains to assure readers that this was because of the staggering imbalance of negative versus supportive letters.

Even Bill Nye "The Science Guy" has joined the fray. He released a statement to the Associated Press which said "To reject this fundamental, beautiful thing about the world around us is hare-brained. It's nutty" (Associated Press 1999:14A). The National Science Teachers Association called the board's action misguided (Associated Press 1999), and Steve Case, a member of the grassroots group Citizens for Science, stated in The Wichita Eagle that "Ordinarily, when a group comes in and demands that something be in the curriculum, you go to your state standards and say, 'Here is what the state says is good science.' That's the leg you stand on. Now, the board has cut those legs out from under them" (Tobias 1999, p 6A).

The BOE has also already been warned of a potential lawsuit. The Associated Press (Miles 1999) reported that the director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to Education Commissioner Andy Tompkins and board chairwoman Linda Holloway warning of a possible lawsuit if the new standards favor a creationist perspective. The American Civil Liberties Union also sent a letter to Kansas school districts warning them of possible legal action if they taught "creation science".

However, most school districts are reporting that the decision will have little immediate impact on their curricula. Only in the Pratt school district has there been pressure from a group of parents for school officials to adopt a new science textbook that includes "intelligent design orientation". As The Wichita Eagle reported, the request was referred to the committee developing science standards for that district (Tobias 1999). However, the BOE's decision practically assures that more such requests will follow.

The image of Kansas has definitely suffered because of the BOE's decision this month and it has already hurt the state financially in a much more direct way. Ron Burley, the president of an Oregon software company, Broadcast Software International, scratched Topeka off of his list as a possible location for a new regional technical center after hearing of the BOE's decision. In an August 11, 1999 email to The Topeka Capital-Journal, Burley wrote "The issue for us ... is whether ... we can count on finding a good selection of well-educated future employees in the area. Following today's decision, that is in doubt" (McLean 1999, p 1-A).

Kansans will have another opportunity soon to express their opinions on this issue. Of the 6 BOE members who voted for the "compromise" proposal, 4 are up for re-election next year: Holloway, Brown, Abrams, and Hill. One way to make it clear to the BOE and to political leaders that the "compromise" standards are really compromised standards is to go to the polls and change the makeup of the state school board. Until then, science education standards in Kansas must be listed as "missing in action."


Associated Press. 'Science Guy' joins debate. The Wichita Eagle 1999 Aug 14:14A.

Beem K. Next conflict for board of Education: Evolution consideration of science standard looms for Kansas. The Kansas City Star 1999a Apr 12:A1.

Beem K. Focus is on state science standards, board member is proposing some changes. The Kansas City Star 1999b May 11:B1.

Connaghan K. Letter-to-the-editor on Evolution Theory. The Kansas City Star 1999 May 5:B6.

Getz B. See no evolution, hear no evolution, teach no evolution. The Wichita Eagle 1999 Aug 15:B1.

Grenz C. Clerics mixed over science standards. The Topeka Capital-Journal 1999 Aug 13:9-A.

Hemenway R, Wefald J, and others. Letter-to-the-editor on Science standards. The Kansas City Star 1999 Aug 10:B6.

Kansas Science Education Standards, 5th Working Draft. July, 1999.

Kansas Science Education Standards, Kansas State Board of Education Science Sub-Committee. July 30, 1999.

McLean J. Businessman: Vote turned him off state. The Topeka Capital-Journal 1999 Aug 13:1-A, 13-A.

Miles D. Debate may evolve into lawsuit. Lawrence Journal-World 1999 Aug 11:1A, 3A.

Rothschild S. Lawmakers aim at state BOE. The Wichita Eagle 1999 Aug 14:11A, 14A.

Seba E. Creationist praises board. Lawrence Journal-World 1999 Aug 10:1A, 3A.

Tobias SP. Standards' effects could evolve slowly. The Wichita Eagle 1999 Aug 12:1A, 6A.

About the Author(s): 
Deborah L Cunningham is a Ph.D. student in Paleoanthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.