Science groups rebuke Kan. school board


CHICAGO -- Two leading science organizations have denied Kansas' school board permission to use their copyrighted materials as part of the state's proposed new science standards because of the standards' critical approach to evolution.

The stinging rebuke from the two groups, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association, comes less than two weeks before the school board is expected to adopt the new standards, which serve as a template for statewide tests and, thus, have great influence on what is taught.

Kansas is one of an unprecedented number of states and school districts where the teaching of evolution has come under assault this year. If adopted, the standards, which also received a lukewarm review from an outside consultant, would be among the most aggressive challenges in the nation to biology's bedrock theory.

The copyright denial could delay adoption as the standards are rewritten but is unlikely to derail the board's conservative majority in its mission to require that challenges to Charles Darwin's theories be taught in the state's classrooms.

"Kansas students will not be well-prepared for the rigors of higher education or the demands of an increasingly complex and technologically driven world if their science education is based on these standards," Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy, and Michael J. Padilla, president of the teachers' group, said in a joint written statement yesterday. "Instead, they will put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they take their place in the world."

In the statement, as well as in letters to the state board, the groups opposed the standards because they would single out evolution as a controversial theory and change the definition of science itself so that it is not restricted to natural phenomena. A third organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, echoed those concerns in a news release supporting the copyright denial, saying: "Students are ill-served by any effort in science classrooms to blur the distinction between science and other ways of knowing, including those concerned with the supernatural."

Though the science groups' complaints focus on just a handful of references to evolution, their copyrighted material appears on almost all 100 pages of the standards, which are an overview of science subjects taught in kindergarten through high school. In Kansas, as in most states, local school districts decide on curricula and choose textbooks, but the state standards guide those decisions.

"In some cases it's just a phrase, but in some cases it's extensive," said Steve Case, chairman of the standards-writing committee. "You try to keep the idea but change the wording around - the writing becomes horrifically bad."

Case, a research professor at the University of Kansas who opposes the changes conservatives inserted to the standards regarding evolution, said that removing the copyrighted material could take several months. But Steve Abrams, president of the state school board and leader of its 6-4 conservative majority, said members could approve the standards Nov. 8 as planned, with a caveat directing a copyright lawyer to edit out direct references to the groups' materials.

"The impact is minimal - it won't change the concepts," said Abrams, a veterinarian. "They obviously don't have copyrights on concepts."

The copyright skirmish is not a surprise: The two science groups took similar steps in 1999, when the Kansas board stripped the standards of virtually any reference to evolution, a move that was reversed when conservative members were ousted from office. Critics of evolution regained a majority last year.

Sue Gamble, a board member who supports evolution, acknowledged that the science groups' dissent would do little to halt the standards' adoption but said it could have a longer-term effect.

"Nothing is going to stop these six members from doing what they're going to do," she said of the board's conservative majority, four of whom are up for re-election in 2006. "It won't make any difference, but I think it will make a difference next year in the election."

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