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Kansas Adopts "Just Because" Science Education Standards
November 26, 2002
By David Albrecht

OLATHE, 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.

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