August 25, 1999
School Districts in Kansas Split on Evolution Ruling
By JACQUES STEINBERG
OPEKA, Kan. -- Sitting at their students' desks two
days before the start of the new
school year, four high school biology teachers here were hashing
over the vote of the Kansas Board
of Education earlier this month:
to delete virtually any mention of
evolution from the state's recommended science curriculum and
its standardized tests.
The teachers' reaction was as
swift as it was unanimous: they
would continue to teach science
as they have been, with the support of their superintendent.
"They'll get evolution here,"
said Elaine Pardee, who teaches
at Washburn Rural High, where
the science classroom walls are
lined with various animal skeletons that, by their very appearance, testify to the evolutionary
theory of a common ancestor
among mammals. "We're not going to cheat our kids."
About 200 miles away in Pratt,
a small town west of Wichita, the
local school board president,
Willa Beth Mills, had a very different reaction to the state
board's action. She applauded it,
and said she hoped that it would
lead to elements of creationism --
or at least a heavy dose of skepticism about the theory of evolution
-- being injected into her district's schools.
"I don't think it's relegated to
Sunday school," Mrs. Mills said.
"If you present the material to
students with critical thinking,
and they come to you with a paper
supporting creationism, or arguing against evolutionary theory
from a creationist point of view,
you should accept that."
These are emotionally volatile
and exceptionally confusing days
for the teachers, principals and
parents of Kansas's public school
children. Two weeks after the
board's vote, which was widely
interpreted as establishing an important national beachhead for
creationists, the theater of battle
has shifted to the state's 304 public school districts.
Because the adoption of standards in science or any other subject cannot be dictated under
state law, it will be up to each
district to decide whether to follow the lead of the state board,
which issues guidelines suggesting what should be taught in the
state's classrooms. What the
state board can control is the content of its standardized tests.
Beginning in the 2000-2001
school year, the state tests in 7th-
and 10th-grade science will not
ask students questions about the
theories that multiple species
have evolved from a common ancestor and that the universe originated in an explosion, or big bang,
two ideas that have come under
sharp attack from those who have
found more persuasive evidence
of the world's origins in religion
as in science. (Questions about
"microevolution," defined in the
state guidelines as changes in an
organism's "structure, function or
behavior," will remain.)
At issue for Kansans is nothing
less than reconciling two central explanations of life: the Darwinian theory that man and monkey gradually
branched off of the same family tree
millions of years ago as they adjusted to a changing environment, a contention heavily rooted in scientific
evidence, and the creationist belief
that a divine being has been pulling
the biological levers of the universe,
including the origin of man, as described in the Bible.
The debate concerns more than
what public school students should
learn about each point of view, more
than a decade after the Supreme
Court said states could not compel
the teaching of creationism. For science teachers, the state board's
characterization of evolution as a
theory shrouded in doubt -- no matter the supporting testimony of fossils and genetic codes -- has raised
worries about whether other theories
at the heart of science, like those
concerning atoms or even gravity,
will come under attack next.
"If you take away evolution because it's a theory, you can't teach
science," said Steve Angel, a chemistry professor who is the president of
the Auburn-Washburn school board
in Topeka and a member of the committee of experts whose standards
were rewritten by the state board.
"All of science is theory."
Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, has been among the most
vocal critics of the state board,
whose 10 members are elected and
are outside of his control. He argues
that the six-member majority that
rewrote the standards in just a few
hours, ripping out whole pages of a
document that had been drafted over
nearly two years by a committee of
27 scientists and science teachers,
did so to make a rhetorical splash at
the behest of the conservative wing
of the state Republican Party.
"There are 304 locally elected
school boards who have the option to
tell the state board to go jump in the
lake," said Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Governor, who is on
vacation this week. "The Governor is
confident the overwhelming number
Not so in Pratt, a town of about
7,000. At the urging of a group of
parents, the school board arranged a
presentation earlier this month from
a local wildlife biologist about a book
titled "Of Pandas and People: The
Central Question of Biological Origins." The book -- first printed in
1989 by Haughton Publishing of Dallas and since sold to public schools in
more than a dozen states -- suggests
that "intelligent design," as engineered by an "intelligent agent,"
may be a more compelling explanation than biological evolution for the
wide variety found in nature.
While the book stops well short of
identifying God as the designer, as
creationists might, critics, including
those affiliated with the National Association of Biology Teachers, have
condemned the book as little more
than an artfully worded end-run
around the Constitutional separation
of church and state in the classroom.
But to Chris Mammoliti, a biologist with the state Department of
Wildlife and Parks who presented
the book to the Pratt board, "Of
Pandas and People" and its theory
provide the perfect antidote to those
teachers who might be tempted to
teach evolution as an undisputed
"I see the theory as saying, 'It is
legitimate to have, as part of the tool
kit for science education, the option
to say that the things we see in
nature may be designed or could
have been designed,' " he said. "It
doesn't speculate or presuppose that
there is a creator or miracles involved."
Mrs. Mills, the board president in
Pratt, said the book is now under
consideration as a supplement to the
district science curriculum, which
was already being rewritten at the
time of the state board vote.
Administrators in Pratt said that
Mrs. Mills' position on the standards
has not prompted anyone to tell district officials they would pull their
children out of the school system.
In Auburn-Washburn, one of five
school districts in Topeka, the board
president, Angel, and the superintendent, Howard Shuler, have
pledged that there will no change in
the district science standards in response to the state board vote. (
Shuler said that only one parent of
the district's 5,000 students had written to criticize the district stance,
and none had threatened to pull children out of district schools.)
Ninth-grade biology students at
Washburn Rural will be introduced
to Darwin and evolution over three to
five days in the spring semester,
after they have gone through rites of
high school biology like dissecting a
rat and a sheep's heart.
The textbook used in the ninth
grade, "Biology: Visualizing Life,"
published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Austin, Tex., explains that
"monkeys, apes and humans are examples of primates" and argues that
"primates most likely evolved from
small, insect-eating rodentlike mammals that lived about 60 millions
Ms. Pardee, who has taught biology at Washburn Rural for nine
years, tells her students that evolution "is the most currently acceptable scientific explanation that we
have," but adds that her students
"don't have to believe it." What she
insists is that her students "know
what the facts of the theory are."
Though they might be able to pass
the new state science test without
such knowledge, she says, the material is covered in the standardized
science test for the district and the
advanced placement test in biology.
When the inevitable question from
a student arises about creationism,
usually couched in a biblical reference, Kevin Bordewick, another biology teacher at Washburn Rural, said
he cuts off such discussions, believing they are better suited to a humanities class or the home. "It's
between them, their parents and
whatever God they believe in, if
any," Bordewick said.
Though Bordewick and his colleagues at Washburn said they would
never introduce their personal beliefs into the classroom, other teachers said drawing such a thick line
was nearly impossible.
Joyce Depenbusch, who teaches
7th- and 8th-grade science in Skyline,
in Pratt County, says she believes
that "evolution and creation don't
have to be mutually exclusive."
While Mrs. Depenbusch says she
does not "present the science of
creationism in my classroom," she
says she was not opposed to telling
her students about her beliefs, as
long as she prefaced her comments
"very heavily" with a warning that
the ideas were her own.
"Evolution is a theory," she said.
"We can present several different
theories to help them think. Let them
do some thinking with the help of
their families. Then let them make
up their own minds."