New Kansas School Standards Question Evolution

The Kansas Board of Education again has adopted science standards that take aim at evolution. Supporters say it's about bringing academic integrity to the science classroom. Critics call it an attempt to inject religion into science education.

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The Kansas Board of Education again has adopted science standards that take aim at evolution. Supporters say this is about bringing academic integrity to the science classroom. Critics call it an attempt to inject religion into science education. NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

The debate over the teaching of evolution in Kansas has been going on since 1999 when the state last took up the issue and removed many references to evolution from science standards. These new standards passed yesterday by a 6-to-4 vote take another tack. They encourage teachers and students to question evolution and investigate other explanations for how life developed on Earth. The standards instruct teachers to talk to students about molecular evidence and gaps in the fossil record that they say challenged the idea that animals share a common ancestor. Science groups and some on the board are concerned about a section in the standards that changes the definition of science, removing wording that referred to it as a discipline that looks for, quote, "natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." Board member Sue Gamble said, by removing that wording, the board was opening the way for students and teachers to consider supernatural and religious explanations. Chairman Steve Abrams said he disagreed.

Mr. STEVE ABRAMS (Chairman, Kansas Board of Education): You keep saying it's supernatural. It is not supernatural. There's nowhere that is mentioned, and, consequently, that's not the case.

Unidentified Woman: Now, Mr. Chairman, in all due respect, if it is other logical explanations for natural phenomenon, if they are not natural explanations, what other kinds are there?

ALLEN: In 1999, when Kansas last took aim at evolution, removing many references to it from state science standards, it was creationists who were behind the changes. That move attracted national attention and created a political backlash in the state. Moderates took control of the state's school board in the next election and the changes were soon reversed. But last year, in a new school board election, conservatives regained control and soon revisited the science standards and the teaching of evolution. This time around, the new science standards were written by supporters of intelligent design, a belief that the complexity of life shows that it must be the work of some unknown designer. Some school districts and other states have gone a step further, putting intelligent design into their curricula. In Dover, Pennsylvania, a court case is pending on that very issue. Kansas doesn't go that far. The new standards here focus only on criticizing evolution and don't mandate the teaching of either creationism or intelligent design. Nonetheless, John Calvert, a founding member of the Intelligent Design Network, sees yesterday's vote as their biggest victory yet.

Mr. JOHN CALVERT (Intelligent Design Network): This is on the cutting edge of science education. It's opening up the minds of students, the minds of educators, the minds of the public, developing a really fascinating national and international discussion.

ALLEN: But one board member who voted against the new standards lamented that once again, Kansas had become a national and international laughing stock, a sentiment shared by 18-year-old Mallory Fletchell(ph). She attended the hearing along with more than a dozen high school students from Shawnee Mission West High School.

Ms. MALLORY FLETCHELL (Shawnee Mission West High School): I mean, I knew it was going to pass because, I mean, we have--look at these men. These middle-aged men are deciding what we're learning in our classrooms, saying, `Oh, I'm so proud to be a part of this and high school, you know, students are going to love this.' But we are the high school students. I was just in high school and I came with a group of high school students, and we are ashamed.

ALLEN: Despite yesterday's approval, the new Kansas science standards aren't yet final. That's because science groups that wrote the national guidelines on which Kansas based its standards revoked copyright permission. Education department staffers are working to rewrite sections of the standards to get around the copyright problem. It will be many months before the new science standards filter down to the classroom; even longer before they make their way onto state assessment tests. But high school teacher Jack Krebs of Kansas Citizens for Science says he believes the vote will have a chilling effect on how evolution is taught in the schools.

Mr. JACK KREBS (Kansas Citizens for Science): It's going to make people more reluctant to actually even open up the Pandora's box. And it is going to give more opportunities for those districts that are susceptible to it to somebody at the local level to start doing some fairly blatant teaching of creationism.

ALLEN: The first test of the new Kansas science standards will perhaps come not in the classroom but at the ballot box. Four of the six conservatives who voted yesterday to approve the new standards are up for re-election next year, and all are expected to face stiff challenges. Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City.

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