A Brief History of the Minnesota Academic Standards in Science
A Brief History of the Minnesota Academic Standards in ScienceDuring the summer of 2003, more than fifty classroom teachers, parents, professors of science and education, and business people convened at the Department of Education to create the new Minnesota Academic Standards in Science. The state legislature overturned the Profile of Learning standards in April of 2003 with the requirement that new standards in five areas (mathematics, language arts, science, social studies, and art) be developed and implemented by the 2004-2005 school year.
In the early summer, Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke put out a call for those interested in being on the science standards committee. The application process consisted of going to the department's web site and providing contact information along with a 100-word biography. No further information was sought or allowed.
It is not known how many applications were received or what criteria were used to select those chosen to serve on the committee. However, no science teachers from the Minneapolis Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, were placed on the committee, although three are known to have applied; while two of the members were teachers from a small private high school called South West Christian High School which has a faculty of thirty-two.
The Department of Education gave the science committee an outline of the format to use for the new standards. Four strands, taken from the national science standards, were divided into several sub-strands, also generated from the national standards. The committee was charged with creating the "standard" and "benchmarks" under each sub-strand. For example:
Grade Level 9-12
Strand II PHYSICAL SCIENCE
Sub-Strand E Forces of Nature
Standard The student will understand the forces of nature and their application.
1. The student will recognize the factors that affect the presence and magnitude of gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces.
2. The student will identify the dominant force or forces in a variety of interactions.
The Department of Education provided copies of "exemplary" state standards documents (ironically including Minnesota's recently repealed Profile of Learning for Science! See previous link.). The general committee was also given a copy of the so called Santorum "Amendment." This precipitated the first discussion of creationism/intelligent design and allowed for the identification of those in the group who supported intelligent design. The "Santorum Amendment" was the only legal advice given to the committee.
The first rough draft of the standards was sent to the Department of Education to be disseminated for public input. It took many of us by surprise when the published standards included a softening of several Nature/History of Science and Life Science standards through the insertion of such phrases as "may explain" and "might account for"; phrases never used by the committee. Through the efforts of several committee members these additions were made public and the Department of Education, in a statement by Commissioner Yecke, retracted the printed version for the original draft. The strand groups re-convened after the hearings to consider the public's input. Each strand committee reviewed the public comments pertinent to that strand. Changes were made to the strands based on some public comments; not all of the comments were constructive or supportive of sound science.
After working in smaller strand groups, the standards/benchmarks for the four strands were brought to the larger group for approval. There was little debate on the vast majority of the draft standards/benchmarks; there was discussion, forceful but not heated, on the Gr. 9-12 Nature and History of Science Sub-strand A standard and benchmarks. A small but vocal minority wanted the words italicized below stricken from the draft; the words were left as written.
Grade Level 9-12
Strand I. HISTORY AND NATURE OFSCIENCE
Sub-strand A. Scientific World View
Standard The student will understand the nature of scientific ways of thinking and that scientific knowledge changes and accumulates over time.
1. The student will be able to distinguish among hypothesis, theory and law as scientific terms and how they are used to answer a specific question.
2. The student will be able to explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including but not limited to cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease and big bang theory.
(NOTE: there are three more benchmarks in this standard. No language was challenged in those benchmarks.)
Additionally, there was some discussion of the 9-12 Life Science Sub-strand E:
The student will understand how biological evolution provides a scientific explanation for the fossil record of ancient life forms, as well as for the striking molecular similarities observed among the diverse species of living organisms.
The same minority wanted to add "may" before "provide" and to substitute "possible" for "scientific." The motion did not pass and the second draft version, as originally worded by the strand committees, was sent to the Department of Education.
The Commissioner of Education chose members from the larger committee to form the final writing committee. Of the twelve members selected, four were intelligent design proponents. The criteria for selection were never made public.
The writing committee edited the standards/benchmarks for clarity of language, creating bulleted lists, etc. Importantly, the writing committee could not add to, or delete from, the standards/benchmarks except to eliminate repetition or to create consistent language (e.g., always using "The student will…").
There was little debate on most of the standards including the History/Nature of Science. However, the ID proponents did try to add language to the 9-12 Life Science E standard to allow "alternative theories: to be taught. Additionally, they sought to have the language of 9-12 Life Science E Benchmark 4 changed as they felt that the language forced students to "accept" biological evolution. The writing committee accepted none of these edits and the final version of the science standards was sent to the Department of Education.
Before the legislative committee hearings, David Eaton, a member of the writing committee and treasurer of the Minnetonka, MN school board who is heavily active in the state's intelligent design community, commissioned a poll by the Zogby group to assess the level of support in MN for "teaching the controversy". The Zogby survey was conducted February 13 and 14, 2004 after the standards and minority report had been delivered. The poll consisted of several questions; however, one question in particular was used in subsequent editorials and in the Senate and House hearings:
When Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in school, student should also learn how scientists continue to critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.
The results are dated February 17 and were spun by the ID folks as supporting the inclusion of "alternative theories" in the science standards. Additionally, the intelligent design members of the writing committee sent a minority report, to the Department of Education and the two Minneapolis/St. Paul newspapers. This was intended to create the image of substantial disagreement over the teaching of evolution within the full committee and the writing committee. The report was signed by four members of the writing committee: David Eaton, Duane Quam, Kathryn Duffield, and Heather McKinley; however, Ms. McKinley did not attend any writing committee meetings or contribute to the writing committee discussions in any form.
Public hearings on the final version of the standards were held in January and February of 2004. Members of the full committee, the writing committee, and outside commentators testified both for and against the standards. Summaries of the hearings can be found at Pharyngula. On May 16, 2004, the last day of the 2003-2004 session, the legislature voted to adopt the state science standards without any of the changes or amendments proposed by those who wanted to teach the so-called weaknesses of biological evolution. The final standards adopted were those recommended by the original writing committee.
Dr. Melanie A. Reap
Associate Professor of Education
Winona State University
Winona, MN 55987