I started my 24th year of teaching high school biology last week with a feeling of uncertainty unlike any I have ever experienced. Not even greeting my first class in my first year of teaching compares. Why? I was born, raised, educated and have always taught in Kansas--something I've claimed with pride. Now I'm on the defensive, though. I'm making excuses for my state because of the Board of Education's recent decision to approve new science standards--over the objections of a 27-member statewide committee on which I served--that attempt to deny the critical importance of evolution to the understanding of biology.
Don't get me wrong. Despite the state board's efforts, my students and I will still be exploring the diversity and history of life on Earth, experimenting with plant breeding to understand natural selection, analyzing genetic data banks to propose evolutionary relationships and collaborating with researchers who are investigating the evolutionary biology of the monarch butterfly. I am certain about the place of evolution in biology education.
What I am more uncertain about is what will happen in the community as a result of the state board's actions. Many people in our community have different views from mine, based on their religious convictions. Students in my class have sometimes expressed disbelief--and have even become upset--when I discuss Darwin or the Big Bang theory. This difference of opinion about the origins of life is not new--it has been present in my classes every year of my teaching career.
I've always respected those views. Until now, though, I've been able to minimize possible conflict. I have encouraged my students to seek guidance at home or with clergy members whenever they have felt that their biology study is in conflict with their religious beliefs. Our committee's proposed standards specifically recognized the division, stating that an understanding of evolutionary principles is not the same as a "belief" in them. But now I worry that the state board's action risks polarizing the community by forcing people to take sides.
Sometimes I wonder how we arrived at this point. When my wife (also a science teacher) and I were appointed to the science standards panel last year by the state's commissioner of education, Andy Tompkins, we had no idea that our committee's efforts would lead to a fundamental reassessment of one of the basic principles of biological science. We were aware that social conservatives had mounted successful campaigns to win seats on the state Board of Education, and that the 10-member board was split evenly between its conservative and moderate members. We also knew that the conservative members were taking a much more activist role in curriculum issues. But in those early days, there was no public evidence that Kansas was about to become the next battleground for the debate over evolution that has taken place recently in Arizona, New Mexico and other states.
Our committee--made up of scientists, educators and citizens, including some appointed by the Board of Education members--was asked to provide more specificity and depth of content to the state's science standards. In our state, curriculum standards are only suggested as guidelines to help local school districts establish their own specific curriculums. That's why I can carry on teaching evolution to my students. However, there's a catch. The state standards are also used to develop mandatory, grade-level assessments that are directly tied to school accreditation.
My brother says that mankind's most effective invention for wasting time is the committee meeting. So that our committee wouldn't fall into that trap, we selected the National Science Education Standards (NSES) as a framework for our proposed standards. The NSES, the result of three years of intense work by hundreds of educators and scientists from all over the country, were designed to help states develop their standards.
Like the NSES, our document included evolution as a major theme in science, uniting many disciplines including cosmology, geology and physics, as well as biology. Some committee members raised questions about the wording, and we spent more than a year addressing concerns from citizens and board members, modifying the document to present science while trying to minimize perceived conflict. John Staver, the writing team co-chair, my wife and I spent quite a bit of time working directly with three board members to find a resolution to our differences. In the end, it wasn't enough.
When the proposed standards went before the public at hearings around the state, evolution opponents came in large numbers to several meetings to voice their displeasure. For months, the newspapers carried stories about the debate and about how the board was "deadlocked" over the standards. Several of us--and I was right in there--were pessimistic about swaying the social conservatives, but we were equally convinced that standards designed to help students prepare for the future required an understanding of evolution. If you believe that the world is only 10,000 years old, how can you understand plate tectonics, or mineral exploration?
In May, one board member, Steve Abrams, sent Staver his own revision. The document, which Abrams said had been developed with the help of citizen groups, including evolution opponents, contained a definition of creation as "the idea that the design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer." Abrams's document was not passed by the board, but it did open the door to a major revision of our work. On Aug. 11, the Board of Education voted, 6 to 4, to adopt a revised set of the writing team's standards. (Three board members made these revisions, since those of us on the writing team refused to remove evolution.) The resulting document greatly reduced and misrepresented the concept of evolution and related science topics. It omitted all mention of geologic time, for example, and radically restructured cosmology.
It also brought national attention to education in our state. Ever since, the other writing team members and I have been inundated with requests for interviews by each of the major networks, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, U.S. News, and journals such as Nature and Science. I know that our state's reputation in education is seriously damaged, but given the continuing public response to the board's decision, I have every confidence that voters at next fall's election will reestablish appropriate and effective educational leadership of the Kansas Board of Education. But even if that happens, I can't help wondering whether we have laid bare some deeply rooted issues that will continue to inflame this controversy.
Much has been written since mid-August about the nature of both science and religion by others more eloquent than I. For now, I am interested in how this conflict expresses itself in my community--between the so-called "creationists" and the "evolutionists"--as we find ourselves picking sides. It seems clear to me that instead of remaining a single community, we may be allowing the fallout from the vote to divide us starkly into "us" and "them." Count the letters to the editor in my local paper, the Kansas City Star, and you'll find about twice as many in favor of teaching evolution as against. In some central Kansas towns, the letters are running closer to 50-50.
In Kansas, you can assume that nearly everyone you meet believes in some form of divine creation. At the same time, these very folks have demonstrated throughout our state's history an enormous level of support and commitment to excellence in education. That includes science education. Just as in every other state, the citizens of Kansas want for their children the best possible future--and they see education as the answer. This is not a paradox. Although I know many parents of the kids I teach pursue very different beliefs in their homes and churches, the strength of their faith allows them to trust me to teach science in the classroom. As Kansas Gov. Bill Graves (R) recently said, "In my education experience, the focus of science was based on evolution. There was still always a healthy opportunity at home and through what we learned in our churches to understand the creation of the universe." For most Kansans, there really is no conflict between science and religion. Our churches have helped us search for spiritual truth, and our schools have helped us understand the natural world.
The board's action creates an entirely different educational environment, though, by legitimizing the notion that science and religion cannot coexist. By politicizing this issue and their own particular interpretation of Biblical scripture, religious activists (like some of the board members) have created confusion and division. They would erect a wall between "creationists" and "evolutionists" and demand that each citizen choose one or the other side. And I sense new anger and frustration in the Star's letters to the editor.
That's how I see things now; that's the source of my uncertainty at the start of this school year. I'm worried about that wall. My students have been back for more than a week, and so far things are going well; class is much the way it always was, with plant breeding and monarch butterflies. So maybe my work with the Board of Education clouded my reasoning, making me worry that its actions reflected a change in the personality of my native state. Maybe I should have known better. Right now, I can only hope.
Brad Williamson was a member of the Kansas committee that worked on revising the state's science curriculum guidelines. He teaches at Olathe East High School.
What Was All the Fuss About?
Here's an excerpt on evolution from the proposal, based on National Science Education Standards, that the 27 members of the Kansas science curriculum committee put forth in January for the state board of education's approval.
The students will understand:
1. That biological evolution is the scientific theory that living things share common ancestry, and that through time changes have occurred in different lineages as they became adapted to different ways of life.
2. That biologists use evolution theory to explain the Earth's present-day biodiversity which developed over approximately 3.8 billion years.
3. That biologists recognize that the primary mechanisms of evolution are natural selection and random genetic drift.
4. The sources and value of variation.
5. That evolution by natural selection is a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology.
Understand does not mandate "belief." While students may be required to understand some concepts that researchers use to conduct research and solve practical problems, they may accept or reject the scientific concepts presented. This applies particularly where students' and/or parents' religion is at odds with science.
In mid-August, the board of education approved standards that eliminated virtually all mention of evolution and related concepts, including natural selection, common ancestors and the origins of the universe.
Source: Kansas science education standards, third working draft