Friday, April 12, 2013

New science standards to come before State Board of Education

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

The final draft of new science education standards that could become a model for the nation was released this week.

That could set the stage for heated battles at the Kansas State Board of Education in coming months over the teaching of hot-button issues of evolution and climate change.

The state board is expected to hear a full briefing on the Next Generation Science Standards when it meets on Tuesday.

The decision about whether to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards is up to each state. The Kansas state board is expected to vote on the new standards later this year.

"I do think the (Kansas writing) committee has done an awesome job and the public has had an enormous amount of opportunity to have input," said board vice chairwoman Sally Cauble, an Independence Republican.

Kansas was among 26 states that took a lead role in drafting the new standards. The process was led by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 by governors and business leaders to develop higher academic standards for American schools.

Achieve also played a leading role in developing the Common Core State Standards in reading and math, which the state board officially adopted in October 2010.

In 1999, Kansas made international news when the state board adopted science standards that deleted references to evolution from the state guidelines, leaving the decision about whether to teach evolution up to individual school districts.

Since then, the state board has revised the standards at least three times as the balance of power on the 10-member board has shifted between social moderates and conservatives.

Moderates are currently in firm control of the board, and so few people expect the board to make any major changes to standards dealing with evolution.

But board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican and one of the remaining conservatives, has publicly criticized earlier drafts of the Next Generation standards, saying that by promoting evolution, the standards favor one religious viewpoint over another.

The effort to downplay evolution and to promote alternative theories such as "intelligent design" - a variation of creationism that avoids references to specific religious theories - was driven largely by national groups, including the Discovery Institute.

Since then, some experts say, battles over evolution have subsided nationwide, while new efforts are being waged to challenge the scientific principle of human-caused climate change.

"What I have heard is that groups like the Heartland Institute are going to try to put out curriculum that pushes against the scientific consensus that global warming is primarily human-caused," said Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a group that supports the teaching of both evolution and climate change.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the Kansas Legislature that many observers said was an attempt to undermine the scientific consensus about climate change.

House Bill 2306, which never received a hearing in the House Education Committee, would have required the state board to adopt science standards that would include discussion of evidence both for and against scientific theories and hypotheses.

One section of the bill said: "The legislature recognizes that the teaching of certain scientific topics, such as climate science, may be controversial. The legislature encourages the teaching of such scientific controversies to be made in an objective manner in which both the strengths and weaknesses of such scientific theory or hypothesis are covered."