Curriculum - Why teachers may wish they weren't in Kansas any more

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Parents' lawsuit argues that evolution lessons are `atheistic'

The teaching of evolution has long been a contentious issue in parts of the US, with fundamentalist Christian groups arguing that greater emphasis should be placed on God when students learn about the existence of humanity.

But a group of parents in Kansas has taken this opposition to a new level by launching a court action against the state's school board over its decision to teach evolution in science lessons at all, claiming that it is "atheistic".

Over the summer, the Kansas State Board of Education voted in favour of adopting a new science curriculum, called the Next Generation Science Standards, which is designed to improve education in the subject across the US.

The standards have been developed by 26 states in an effort to align school systems, but they have faced significant opposition from parent and religious groups that object to climate change and evolution being taught in schools.

One such group, the Citizens for Objective Public Education (Cope), filed a federal lawsuit against the Kansas school board after it voted to introduce the science standards. The organisation believes that by teaching evolution schools will "endorse an atheistic world view", which it claims violates the separation of church and state.

The group states that the new curriculum will force students to ask the "ultimate religious questions", such as "where do we come from?", while at the same time requiring them to respond with "controversial atheistic answers".

John Calvert, who is acting as legal counsel for Cope, said the subject of the origins of life should not be taught to students until they are at least 14 years old, and even then should be framed in terms of religious rather than scientific questions.

"If a kindergarten student were to ask a teacher how we came to be here, then we think they should respond by saying that it is a religious question, and from a scientific standpoint we don't know, but there are religions that provide their own answers," Mr Calvert told TES.

The lawyer is the founder of the Intelligent Design Network, which aims to "promote the scientific evidence of intelligent design". He said he was confident that the case would be upheld.

"I think the facts are pretty clear and I don't see how the case could be lost," Mr Calvert said. "There is an evidence-based alternative to the scientific orthodoxy on the origins of life."

So far, the Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted by six other states, with many more expected to follow suit in the coming months. Support for the standards has been much lower in the country's southern states, however.

Earlier this year, TES reported that Louisiana and Tennessee had both passed legislation allowing schools to stop teaching evolution in science lessons, and instead focus on the "controversy" of the conflict between Darwinism and creationism ("Fighting for evolution to be the natural selection", 10 May).

In Louisiana, the move motivated student Zack Kopplin to make getting the bill repealed his final-year project at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. He failed, but having gained support from Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Harold Kroto, he has since launched a campaign to oppose "anti-science" legislation.

Such controversy around evolution is not limited to the US. In the UK, the rise of free schools, which can be established by religious groups and are exempt from the national curriculum, has attracted interest from creationist groups.

And in 2005, a Dutch education minister drew criticism from scientists for proposing that schools should teach intelligent design to encourage debate between different religions.

The National Center for Science Education, an organisation that promotes the teaching of science in the US, said the Kansas lawsuit was the latest attempt by creationist groups to block new standards, adding that the case would be a waste of time and money.

"The reasoning of the lawsuit is shoddy and at odds with the case law," Josh Rosenau, the centre's policy director, said. "It's a shame that Kansas will have to waste staff time and attorney's fees fighting the case, but it's difficult to imagine the case lasting long."

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