TOPEKA, Kan. – The Kansas state school board Tuesday approved new, multistate science standards for public schools that treat both evolution and climate change as key concepts to be taught from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
The State Board of Education voted 8-2 on for standards developed by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council. The new guidelines are designed to shift the emphasis in science classes to doing hands-on projects and experiments and blending material about engineering and technology into lessons.
"I can concentrate on teaching processes — teaching kids how to think like scientists," said Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, who teaches physics at Hays High School and traveled to Topeka to publicly endorse the new standards as vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science. "I'm more concerned whether they can design and analyze an experiment. That's what science is all about."
Past work on science standards in Kansas have been overshadowed by debates about how evolution should be taught. The latest standards were adopted in 2007 and treat evolution as a well-established, core scientific concept, but Kansas law requires the academic standards to be updated at least once every seven years.
Though the new standards drew some criticism over their treatment of evolution, it wasn't anywhere as vocal or public as in the past. Together, Democrats and moderate Republicans control the board, and social conservatives wanting to inject skepticism of evolution into the standards were likely to have found little support.
The same political factors blunted criticism of the standards' proposed treatment of climate change as an important concept that should be part to lessons in all grades, rather than treated separately in upper-level high school classes.
One of the board's dissenters, Ken Willard, a conservative Hutchinson Republican, criticized the standards for what he saw as their lack of objectivity on both evolution and climate change. The other no vote came from board member John Bacon, a conservative Olathe Republican.
"Both evolution and human cause of global climate change are presented in these standards dogmatically," Willard said. "This nonobjective, unscientific approach to education standards amounts to little more than indoctrination in political correctness."
Kansas uses its standards to develop statewide tests given to students each year to judge how well schools are teaching, which in turn influence what happens in classrooms. Matt Krehbiel, the state Department of Education official overseeing Kansas' work on the new science standards, said it's likely to take three or four years to develop tests tied to the standards and start administering them to students.
Kansas had five different sets of science standards during the 10 years ending in 2007, as conservative Republicans skeptical of evolution gained and lost board majorities. In 1999 and 2005, when the board abandoned evolution-friendly standards, Kansas faced international ridicule.
During a public comment session Tuesday, Rex Powell, a retired Spring Hill business and organizational consultant, said the new standards promote "an atheistic world view." Powell is a member of Citizens for Objective Public Education, which formed last year to contest the new standards.
"They are standards for religious indoctrination rather than objective science education," Powell said.
But Fred Hereen, a father of five from Olathe, said the new standards reflect mainstream science and will help students distinguish it from "carnival science." Hereen is a member of Climate Parents, a group advocating teaching about climate standards, and he presented petitions signed by more than 2,500 Kansans in favor of the new science standards.
He said the new standards' emphasis on climate change is "critical."
"Climatology and climate change should be prioritized because of the condition of the world and because of our contribution to a changing climate," he said after the board's vote. "If there's controversy there, it's important to get more good information, not less."
Still, the bigger debate has been about Kansas adopting standards drafted by multiple states. In 2010, the board adopted multistate, Common Core standards for reading and math, and this year, some conservative Republican legislators tried unsuccessfully to suspend their implementation. Had they succeeded, their legislation also likely would have blocked the adoption of new science guidelines.
The board's public comment session Tuesday lasted about three hours, mostly because several dozen speakers addressed the Common Core standards. Several critics saw adopting the new science standards as part of a troubling trend of moving toward multistate standards.
While supporters see multistate standards as an attempt to improve teaching and students' performance, critics worry that implementing them will prove expenses. Also, they contend the state is sacrificing control over its schools.
But Krehbiel told board members, "Kansas had its hands all over this document."