Kansas Evolution Controversy Gives Rise to National Debate

By Bess Keller — September 08, 1999 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Science teacher Betty Holderread does not have a single good thing to say about the Kansas board of education’s decision last month to drop evolution from its list of what students should know. But one word does leap to her mind: “injustice.”

In a recent workshop Ms. Holderread led for science teachers in the rural Kaw Valley district, she recalled, “we talked about the board and how they did an injustice to the science teachers and the children of Kansas.”

Some 60 miles west on Interstate 70, chemistry and physics teacher Jay Nicholson had an entirely different view of the new curriculum standards. In his eyes, they are a victory for open-mindedness.

The Evolving Kansas Science Standards


Academic standards adopted in 1995--and replaced by the Kansas board of education last month--mentioned evolution twice, both times as part of the high school curriculum. Students should understand “mechanisms and consequences of biological evolution processes,” the standards said, and the “evolutionary aspects of species development and adaptations.”
Recommended But Rejected

In adopting its new standards, the board rejected the recommendations of a committee of state science teachers on the teaching of evolution.

The following is an excerpt from the section of the draft standards that was deleted by the board:

Benchmark: Students will understand* major concepts of biological evolution.
Indicators: The students will understand:
  • That the theory of evolution is both the descent with modification of different lineages of organisms from common ancestors and the ongoing adaptation of organisms to environmental challenges and changes.
  • That biologists recognize that the primary mechanisms of evolution are natural selection and random genetic drift.
  • The sources and value of variation.
  • That evolution by natural selection is a broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology.

*Understand: “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.

The new standards, which are optional for local school districts, omit any mention of evolution from the high school standards. For 8th graders, the board changed the recommendations of the standards- writing panel to authorize only the teaching of “microevolution.” The board used that term to refer to changes over time within a species, rather than changes resulting in the evolution of one species into another.
SOURCE: Kansas Department of Education.

“The document does a very good job of encouraging critical thinking and the examination of data,” said Mr. Nicholson, who holds a doctorate in entomology, because it leaves teachers free to question the theory of evolution in their classrooms.

The disagreement is a small-scale version of a rift that has opened across the state following the board’s approval of the standards, which are optional for districts. The decision has inflamed the debate between pro- and anti-evolution forces, exacerbated hard feelings between Christian conservatives and moderate Republicans in the state, and fueled calls to change the structure of Kansas’ elected school board. And in districts statewide, teachers and school officials have begun the school year amid new uncertainty.

Move Strikes Chord

On the national level, the board’s move has also struck a resounding chord, in part because anti-evolutionists in Kansas have succeeded where those in more than a half-dozen other states have failed.

In response, well-known champions of science--among them, Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard and New York University geology professor, and Bill Nye, public television’s “Science Guy"-- have lambasted the Kansas action. So have groups as varied as the American Jewish Congress and the American Chemical Society.

Together, they are joining national education groups in decrying what they see as a mounting threat to science education posed by those with views grounded in the biblical account of creation.

“Creationists have realized if evolution is not in the standards, it is less likely to be taught,” said Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, Calif. “It is an approach that we’ll see more and more of.”

By its 6- 4 vote on Aug. 11, the Kansas board yanked most references to Charles Darwin’s explanation of biological diversity from the state’s standards, as well as accounts of the origin of the universe and the development of the Earth that conflict with the biblical version of creation.

They did preserve, however, a few references to evolutionary change, but only as it applies to variations within individual species and not to the transformation of one species into another.

Kansas districts are free to set their own curriculum standards, and the board’s move was not a ban on teaching evolution.

But it does ensure that Kansas students will not be questioned on the topic on new statewide science tests, set to be given in 2001. That in turn gives local boards the leeway to exclude or downplay the topic. Under the previous state standards, high school graduates were expected to know about evolution.

Control Issue Cited

Conservative members of the board say they don’t want or expect evolution to disappear from Kansas classrooms. Instead, they say, they have simply given local boards more control over a sensitive area of the curriculum.

“Nobody’s out to sabotage education,” said Linda Holloway, the president of the state board. In the first draft of the new standards, she added, “the heavy emphasis implied that evolution was beyond examination.”

But critics worry that the change will lead to more than closer examination of the topic. “It empowers local people to say, ‘Don’t teach evolution,’ ” said Brad Williamson, a biology teacher from Olathe who was part of a 27-member committee charged with drafting new science standards for the state. The work of the panel, which also included Ms. Holderread and Mr. Nicholson, was largely rejected by the board.

For now, many Kansas districts are sitting tight--or even advancing the cause of evolution. When Ms. Holderread met last month with teachers in the 1,100-student Kaw Valley district to rewrite the local science curriculum, the group used the science standards devised by the National Research Council and the Kansas standards-writing committee’s original draft--both of which describe evolution as a unifying framework in biology.

“There wasn’t a discussion on the evolution; the thinking was, ‘Of course it will be there,’” Ms. Holderread said. “It was business as usual.”

Officials of Kansas’ largest district also say they have no intention of altering their science curriculum, which reflects national standards. “We are knee-deep in student improvement, have a bond issue looming ahead of us, and we don’t see this as one of our major priorities,” said Mark A. Evans, an associate superintendent in the 49,000- student Wichita schools. He added that not one parent had called to talk to a district official about evolution.

Cindy Duckett, a supporter of the state board’s action who runs a loosely organized school reform group in Wichita called Project Educate, said she doesn’t expect change in the big districts. It is in smaller communities, she predicted, that the move “will encourage local people to take on local school boards.”

In the small town of Pratt, west of Wichita, she noted, the school board of the 1,400-student district is considering a book popular among some critics of the theory of evolution as a supplement to its science curriculum. The book, Of Pandas and People, by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon, puts forward a partial picture of what is known as the “intelligent design” theory: that life is too complex to have evolved except under the direction of a master designer.

That view, which questions the assumptions and evidence of evolution theory rather than advancing a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, is characteristic of many of the current attacks on evolution. (“Eminent Science Group Reiterates Importance of Teaching Evolution,” April 28, 1999.)

Even now, some biology teachers who are uncomfortable with evolution skip it for all but advanced students, said Mr. Nicholson, the teacher and entomologist. At most, he added, the change in the standards will let students and teachers question evolution and discuss competing explanations for the diversity of life forms.

“I’m sure there will be people who will go to the local school board and ask for less evolution or more creation,” Mr. Nicholson said. Yet, he predicted, teachers of typical first-year biology classes “probably won’t see any change from what they’ve been used to in the last five years.”

Grassroots Action Urged

If districts want to add creationist views to the curriculum, they have to move carefully. In a 1987 decision in a Louisiana case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not compel the teaching of creationism because it is essentially a religious doctrine.

Still, efforts to strip evolution from the curriculum-- or at least make sure it is taught as only one unproved theory among many--have cropped up in other states in recent years.

But the action by the Kansas board is the clearest victory in years for those who reject Darwin’s theory. Consequently, scientists and science educators active nationally have cast an anxious eye on the events there.

In Ms. Scott’s view, Kansas is a microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere, with those who oppose teaching about evolution using grassroots politics to make themselves heard. Her center helps local activists mount counterattacks on efforts to minimize the importance of evolution.

Ms. Scott said she worries that just at a time when more publishers are including evolution in their textbooks, the Kansas decision may discourage them. It is a prediction that has proved true in at least one case so far, when a small California publisher recently pulled a chapter on Kansas prehistory from a new text for middle schoolers in reaction to the board’s action.

Victory Downplayed

Creation scientists, meanwhile, have tended to downplay the significance of the new standards.

“This is not nearly as big a victory as [our opponents] think,” said Tom Willis, the president of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, based in Cleveland, Mo. “I don’t think a little victory is much, but it has potential if it gives an opportunity for a hearing on a larger scale.”

Paul Atkinson, a psychology professor at Wichita State University who has carried the creationist banner in many debates, said that the standards as originally written threatened to “marginalize the creationist opposition rather than include them in the fray. Biblical theists have the right to be included rather than marginalized.”

Creationists certainly have the right to be heard, but not in the science classroom, countered Kansas state Rep. David Adkins, the chairman of the House appropriations committee and an outspoken critic of the board’s decision.

“It’s not an issue of discussing it, it’s an issue of context,” he said. “Would people with these concerns really feel comfortable with a public school teacher talking about these kinds of things? Wouldn’t they be more comfortable with a faith leader?”

The Republican said the new standards might not lead to many changes in the short term, but over time local school boards will feel pressure from what he called “a very small, focused group” of staunch conservatives.

“This has been a very shrewd attempt to exploit a base of public opinion” following the trouncing that the most conservative wing of the state GOP received in last fall’s elections, he charged, noting that polls show that a substantial majority of Americans believe that God created the universe and its life forms. That belief is not incompatible with “testing a basic principle of life science,” he added.

And even if the decision ultimately affects few Kansas classrooms, it has already made the state a laughingstock, Mr. Adkins said. “Kansans everywhere are going around with bags over their heads,” he complained.

Mr. Adkins said he was considering legislation to require students entering state universities to have studied evolution. The idea would be bolster local boards that might otherwise be pressured into dropping the topic.

The lawmaker also said he planned to introduce legislation that would add a gubernatorially appointed 11th member to the elected state board, a bill he expects to draw far more attention this year than when he introduced it last year. The board has deadlocked 5-5 along ideological lines in many votes over the past several years.

Board Under Scrutiny

Gov. Bill Graves, who has no power over the board but urged it not to drop evolution from the standards, said through a spokesman that he was considering several options for altering the board, including Mr. Adkins’ plan.

“Clearly, the majority [of the board] has a political philosophy that they want to promote, and it has no place in education,” said Mike Matson, a spokesman for the GOP governor. “This only encourages legislators and others to change the [board’s] structure.”

One sign of the minefield that the issue presents to national leaders came late last month. Vice President Al Gore, who has built a reputation as a leading voice on science-related issues, declined to criticize the Kansas board. Through a spokesman, the presidential hopeful endorsed local control over the issue, including the freedom to teach creationism. But Mr. Gore’s spokesman later offered a clarification, saying the vice president favors teaching creationism only in some contexts, such as in a class on religion.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is seen as Mr. Gore’s most likely GOP opponent should the vice president win the Democratic nomination next year, said he favored teaching creationism in addition to evolution because children should be exposed to different theories about how the world began.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment: Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: June 8, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: June 1, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 11, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 27, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read