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Kansas Seeks Role in Crafting Common Science Standards

Kansas—which in recent years has served as a central stage for debate over the teaching of evolution—is among the states seeking to become a lead partner in crafting a set of common standards for science.

But just in case anyone is wondering what this could mean for how evolution is handled in the standards, the framework developed by the National Research Council to guide the standards makes absolutely clear that the topic is central to understanding biology. The final framework, issued last month by an expert panel the NRC convened, identifies Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity as one of the four "core ideas" for understanding the life sciences. (At the bottom of this blog post, I've included an excerpt from the framework that spells this out more thoroughly.)

The Kansas state board of education voted 6-4 in July to apply to be one of the lead state partners in helping to craft the science standards. Officials at Achieve, the Washington-based nonprofit that is overseeing the standards-development process, tell me that at least 6-8 states will play this key role, while other states will have repeated opportunities to weigh in. The organization has already assembled a team of 36 writers with expertise across science and education to craft the standards. Furthermore, a broad-based "stakeholder group," with hundreds of members, will provide feedback throughout the process.

The goal of the standards initiative is for states across the nation to adopt the new science standards to replace their existing ones. However, at least one state, North Carolina, has already signaled that it won't be doing that. As I noted the other day in a blog post, the issue in that state, however, is not concerns about common standards, or about the framework, but rather a matter of timing. The state just updated its science standards and has been working for some time to develop materials to help teachers reflect them in their classrooms.

For those who need a quick reminder about Kansas, there's plenty in the EdWeek archives to document the big battle over teaching evolution. In late 2005, the state board of education, led by a conservative majority, voted to revise the state's science standards with new language that attempted to raise questions about various pieces of evolutionary theory. However, after changes in the makeup of the board, that language was stripped out in 2007.

And this was not the first back-and-forth of the state's policy on evolution. In 1999, religious conservatives on the state school board stripped most references to the theory from the state science standards. Two years later, a newly elected majority reversed that decision.

I should also mention that Kansas is certainly not the only state where the teaching of evolution has been especially contentious. Other examples include Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

In an interview last month, Stephen Pruitt, a former Georgia education official who is taking the lead for Achieve in developing the science standards, emphasized that it will be "truly a state-led effort." To that end, the organization is inviting states to apply to participate as "lead state partners," and will rely on a group of outside experts to help make a final decision on which states get that designation. The goal, he explained, is to have a diverse group of states both geographically and in how they currently organize their science standards.

As promised, I'll close with a lengthy quote from the framework's section on life sciences that helps explain the view of evolution seen by the panel and, therefore, presumably what the standards developers will reflect.

"From viruses and bacteria to plants to fungi to animals, the diversity of the millions of life forms on Earth is astonishing. Without unifying principles, it would be difficult to make sense of the living world and apply those understandings to solving problems. A core principle of the life sciences is that all organisms are related by evolution and that evolutionary processes have led to the tremendous diversity of the biosphere. There is diversity within species as well as between species. Yet what is learned about the function of a gene or a cell or process in one organism is relevant to other organisms because of their ecological interactions and evolutionary relatedness. Evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth."

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