When Public Understanding of Science Thwarts Standards-Based Science Education

John R. Staver

Center for Science Education

Kansas State University

1999 President, Association for the Education of Teachers in Science

"What a strange set of historical circumstances, what odd disconnect between science and society, can explain the paradox that organic evolution – the central operating concept of an entire discipline…– remains such a focus of controversy, even of widespread disbelief, in contemporary America?" (Stephen Jay Gould, 1999, p. 2087).

All of us who work in institutions of higher learning know that the three traditional segments of a university’s mission are research, teaching, and service. As a science educator working in the culture of a land grant institution, I have long held that research, teaching, and service must be integrated under the umbrella of a professional mission. The research that we conduct, the teaching that we do, and the service that we perform need to be considered as an integrated entity, one that informs, and is in turn informed by, society. I also know full well that many in the scientific community do not concur with this view. Many scientists focus on the research segment of a university’s mission. They integrate teaching with research only in their doctoral programs, and they leave the practical outcomes and implications of their work to others. I think that such a view can, in part, explain the paradox that Gould cites in the quote from his article in the June 25, 1999 issue of Science.

Public understanding of science is one arena in which a long-term disconnect between research, teaching, and service can produce consequences that are detrimental to standards-based science education. For example, low levels of public understanding of science in general and evolution theory in particular can influence the science taught in K-12 schools. A specific instance concerning evolution theory occurs in the formation of state education policy by boards comprised of elected lay members of the public. I am currently participating in such an instance as the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) considers the work of a state level writing committee charged by the KSBE to draft new science standards for the State of Kansas. A year into the development process, KSBE members and the writing committee remain engaged in dialog about a single issue, the presence or absence of evolution theory in the state science standards. The ten members of the KSBE seem about equally divided on the issue.

The writing team that I co-chair with Dr. Loren Lutes, superintendent of a small rural school district in southwest Kansas, began its work a year ago. Since we began discussions with the Kansas State Board of Education, its members who oppose the presence of evolution have continually asserted that they want the state science standards to reflect good science. The writing team’s view is that the Kansas Science Education Standards, now in its fifth draft, reflects good science. Early on, the writing team embraced the vision of the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and adopted the NSES content framework, including its unifying concepts and processes. We did so because we felt that the four-year development process which produced the NSES was fundamentally sound. This process included critiques and reviews by twenty-two science education and scientific organizations as well as wide spread state and local participation by over 18,000 scientists, science educators, teachers, school administrators, and parents. AETS, NARST, and NSTA were three of the twenty-two organizations, and AETS, NARST, and NSTA members were among the more than 18,000 individuals who participated.

During March and April of this year, one KSBE member developed an alternative draft in direct collaboration with the Creation Science Association for Mid-America (http://www.csama.org) located in Cleveland, Missouri. Development of the alternative draft, which was presented to the KSBE at its May, 1999 meeting, stemmed from members’ dissatisfaction with the writing committee’s vision of good science. The section on the nature of science in the alternative draft sets forth several conceptions. A partial list includes the following ideas: 1) good science is science that is verifiable, falsifiable, and repeatable; 2) historical science, which includes the study of past events such as the origin of life and the universe, is not good science because these ideas are not testable, as the past is not verifiable, falsifiable, or repeatable; 3) scientific law is considered to be more important than scientific theory; 4) inductive reasoning is emphasized over and above deductive reasoning, which is downplayed.

The core of these board members’ concerns is the presence of evolution theory in the writing committee’s draft. These members have, in my judgement, constructed an understanding of the nature of science that is consistent with their fundamentalist religious views, which include a literal reading of scripture. Needless to say, their understanding of the nature of science is quite different than the nature of science as it is portrayed in the National Science Education Standards and in the writing committee’s draft, which is based on the NSES.

As word continues to spread of a brewing confrontation, the print and electronic news media have begun to cover the emerging story. Several articles were published in The Kansas City Star, The Topeka Capital Journal, and other local papers during the month of May. Kansas City and Topeka television stations attended the May KSBE meeting and reported the story on their evening news programs. Reporters working for Reuters, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times have interviewed me.

As I write this editorial, I am participating in discussions with KSBE members, the Kansas Commissioner of Education, members of his staff in the Kansas State Department of Education, and my colleagues on the writing team. The purpose of these talks is to learn if there is common ground for compromise and agreement. I am not sure if such common ground exists. But, I can say that the writing committee stands firm in its commitment that evolution theory must be included in the Kansas Science Education Standards.

The upshot of all of this is that key members of the public, in this instance some KSBE members who harbor alternative conceptions about the nature of science based on their fundamentalist Christian religious views, are in a position to influence the content of science for all students in the K-12 public schools of Kansas. I am being advised by experts who know the political arena much better than do I to focus my attention on those KSBE members whom I have an opportunity to convince – in this case the one or two who perhaps remain open – and ignore the members who will oppose the writing committee regardless of the evidence. This is good advice, but it is frustrating and difficult to accept. Nearly 35 years ago Hans Andersen, my undergraduate science methods teacher, doctoral committee chairperson, and a past-president of AETS, taught me that, as a teacher, I should never give up on any student. This is good advice, too. So, I intend to follow both pieces of advice. I will focus more attention on those KSBE members who represent the swing votes. But, I refuse to ignore those who firmly, and probably always will, oppose, our committee’s work. Perhaps this is because fundamentally I am a teacher, not a politician. Hopefully, there is yet something that I can teach them. Surely, I have learned a lot from them.

Gould (1999) points out that nearly one-half of all Americans deny evolution.

We in the scientific and science education communities need to accept a portion of the accountability for the public’s level of understanding of evolution theory. We also need to accept a responsibility for and make a commitment to participate in a reconnect of the public with respect to its understanding of evolution in particular and science in general. This means teaching for understanding, not for indoctrination. This means teaching with respect, not with denigration. This means teaching when the goal may sometimes be communication, not concurrence. This means teaching according to national standards. I accept my portion of the accountability. However, I am a teacher, and I also accept the responsibility and commitment to participate in the reconnect. I hope that you will, too.


Creation Science Association for Mid-America Website (http://www.csama.org)

Gould, S. J. (1999). Darwin’s more stately mansion. Science, 284(5423), 2087.


Back to the EJSE