Adopts "Just Because" Science Education Standards
November 26, 2002
By David Albrecht
KS - Wendy Leckmann's sixth graders are ready to talk about
what they've learned in geology class. One student raises
her hand. Her question: According to the textbook, some scientists
believe the planet is very old. But of course, her revised
science textbook emphasizes that the estimated age of the
earth is just a theory. Besides, what the book says is very
different from what her parents and minister say. "Why do
the scientists say that?" she asks. "Well Susan," replies
Ms. Leckmann, "it's Just Because." Discussion in the class
quickly moves in another direction.
More than three years after Kansas became an international
laughingstock because of a State Board of Education vote to
remove mandatory teaching about evolution from science education
standards, a new science policy has been added to all schools'
curricula. "Just Because" science, a joint effort of the State
Board and a coalition of independent free-market science think-tanks,
emphasizes uncertainty and human frailty, while allowing that
controlled, systematic observation occasionally bears useful
fruit. "Our job isn't to weaken or water down science standards,
though many education bureaucrats say so," says Sidney Bolton,
executive director of Sound Science, one of the groups that
helped draw up the requirements. "What we are doing is making
sure that potentially disruptive controversy and disturbing
theories don't damage the ability of our students to learn
important science facts."
"Nonsense," says Dr. Irwin Mandelbaum, a physicist, member
of the National Academy of Sciences, and a well-known authority
on science teaching standards in a number of developed countries.
"What Just Because is doing is simply short-circuiting the
scientific process for the sake of political expediency."
Among the examples he cites: a new junior high science book
that discusses the Grand Canyon while avoiding any mention
of how old the world-famous formation may be, or how it may
have formed. Instead, Kansas junior high kids are now required
to remember the order of rock formation names from top to
bottom, along with the color of each rock formation, along
with what state the canyon lies in and how many different
chain restaurants are available on the South Rim for tourists.
In the high school biology texts which meet the new standards,
DNA is mentioned, along with its structure. However, the common
linkage of all terrestrial life forms through the presence
of DNA is attributed to Just Because. Finally, at least three
high school physics texts have been amended to omit entire
chapters on optics. Why optics? "There was some controversy
in Topeka with a Reverend Fred Phelps, apparently", says Mandelbaum.
"He and members of his church believe that since the first
rainbow was seen by Noah after the Flood, light could not
have been refrangible before that time." Out of deference
to Phelps and other religious and political conservatives,
Kansas teachers are now careful to skirt potential controversies
in physics as well as biology.
For some educators, the new science standards are fine. According
to Jack Howell, high school football coach and science teacher
in Colby, Kansas, Mandelbaum's version of science standards
doesn't take into account the interests and realities of unique
communities. "With all due respect to Dr. Mandelbaum, his
views are not what we want to hear or need to know. Since
when do Kansas educators need to have the opinions of East
Coast elites and self-styled science 'experts' forced upon
us? That might fly in Harvard Yard, but it ain't kosher out
here." Howell is quick to note that the removal of all controversial
provisions or content from science has made actual classroom
teaching much easier. "We used to get into all sorts of debates
in class, endless questions, not to mention all sorts of screaming
matches at local school board and PTA meetings. Personally,
I think the new way is simply better."
The new streamlined science standards have saved the Colby
district money, while making more time available for a variety
of special programs. The termination of chemistry and physics
laboratory classes has also meant substantial savings on the
school's insurance policies. And with actual science teaching
hours and prerequisites cut by two-thirds, high school students
in Colby are now available for extended anti-drug education
workshops, more and bigger pep rallies and optional holiday
worship services. Facing a funding shortfall, the Colby school
district has also teamed up with the local Wal-Mart to offer
students a taste of the workplace - easier now in the light
of science cutbacks. Students are now encouraged to work 25
hours weekly at minimum wage, with half of what they earn
dedicated to additional school funding needs such as books,
teacher salaries, band uniforms and football equipment. "I
think it's worked out well on balance,' says Coach Howell.
"We're saving money, the kids can learn about the real world,
and Wal-Mart even donated a new Coke machine to the high school."
Bolton of Sound Science is quick to dismiss charges from
the political left that Just Because science is a way of introducing
God to the public school classroom. "I just don't think that
position is defensible,' said Bolton, a former climate change
consultant to both President Bush and the now-defunct Global
Climate Coalition. "What we're trying to do here is reverse
a long-standing trend toward absolutist humanistic science.
What Kansas' parents know, and what Kansas' kids need to know
is that there are still many, many uncertainties left in science."
God is also, he notes, never mentioned as such in the curriculum
standards, and copies of the revised state standards bear
out his claim.
But if the Olathe sixth-graders didn't learn about the age
of the earth, or about the dinosaurs, or about how the Grand
Canyon formed, or about continental drift, what did they learn
in geology class? "Well, we learned that volcanoes are really,
really hot - I guess just because they are," says Susan.