2005 standards had little effect
2005 standards had little effect
Districts expected board to overturn evolution stance

By Barbara Hollingsworth - Topeka Capital-Journal - 1/15/2007
Evolution is sure to spark a debate in Kansas.

Kansas State Board of Education members have been playing tug-of-war over the issue for eight years a game that has cost some in elections. It is a fight that has inflamed passions, drawn a slew of reporters to the Sunflower State and spawned plenty of jokes.

But when it comes down to the heart of the debate what should children learn in science classrooms the fight may have little effect.

"It's such a small part of our science curriculum it really hasn't had any effect at all on us," said Mike Mathes, superintendent in Seaman Unified School District 345.

Still, evolution and the state science standards returned as part of state board discussions last week in the board's first meeting with newly elected members.

The moderate or liberal faction of state board members may flex their new political muscle next month by removing controversial changes made to the state science curriculum standards in 2005 by what was then a conservative-controlled board. A very similar course change occurred in 2001.

"The science standards happen to be one of the very large issues," state board member Janet Waugh, D-Kansas City, told fellow state board members of her reasons for returning to the topic. "The voters in my district told me overwhelmingly they wanted the science standards changed."

School districts aren't mandated to teach the state's curriculum standards on any subject. But those standards are often adhered to closely if not completely followed by school districts wanting to ensure students are well prepared for state assessment tests.

However, many school districts have kept at least some distance from the controversial 2005 state science standards, which include criticisms of evolution and a definition of science that critics say would wrongly open science to supernatural explanations.

"My sense is the current state standards have had little impact because no one is using them," said Steve Case, chairman of the group originally tasked with writing the standards and a critic of changes later made.

Among area districts, Topeka USD 501 didn't change course, and Auburn-Washburn USD 437 is just now working to align its science curriculum to the state's standards. Little changed in Silver Lake USD 372, where superintendent Steve Pegram pointed out that the most controversial 2005 changes weren't marked for testing.

"I think it was a whole lot to do about nothing," he said, saying the battle was more one of philosophies than something that would affect schools.

At most, state board member Sue Gamble, a critic of the 2005 standards, said the changes emboldened some teachers to challenge their local curriculum and school boards.

Even John Calvert, a chief proponent of the changes as managing director of the Intelligent Design network, acknowledges the changes haven't had a widespread influence on science classrooms. Some school districts avoided adopting the new state standards in anticipation they would quickly change again.

During a break from last week's meeting, Calvert said he thinks the 2005 standards weren't implemented because of the pending election.

Calvert said the 2005 changes were never meant to affect the way every teacher taught but to give options to those who wanted to explore criticisms of evolution with their students.

To Mark Jarboe, head of the science department at Shawnee Heights High School, the debate seemed a bit of a "tempest in a teapot." After all, evolution the key focus of the controversy receives little instruction time in the midst of everything teachers must cover, he said.

If anything, Jarboe said, the debate has made students more interested in evolution. The controversy has only built their interest, creating what teachers like to call a "teachable moment."

"It gives teachers an opportunity to let them talk about the issues," he said. "We don't have any teacher on our faculty that would belittle a student or tell them they can't believe a certain way, but we believe they need to have an understanding of the theory of evolution."