State science standards and ID

A common tactic of the ID movement is to try to insert ID-influenced statements into state and local science standards, such as in Ohio and Darby, Montana recently. The argument is that science standards are biased towards philosophical naturalism and towards dogmatically teaching “evolution only”, and therefore standards should include statements that question these “biases, such as “teaching the evidence for and against evolution” or “teaching alternative theories of origins.”

Kansas is currently reviewing its science standards, and it is likely that these issues will once again arise here. As a member of the state standards review committee and as a former curriculum director, I am interested in whether these types of ID-influenced statements have a proper place in state standards.

Rather than immediately address the question of whether these kinds of statements are appropriate, I would like to first talk more generally about what standards are, what they are not, why they are important, and how they are established. Having a proper understanding of how standards relate to the overall subject of teaching science in the public schools should help put the activities of the ID movement into perspective.

What are Standards?

Standards are an outline of the most fundamental and essential things a student should know in a subject area. They are arranged in a hierarchy of increasing specificity. In Kansas, the most general statements are Standards, each of which includes a number of Benchmarks; Benchmarks include a number of Indicators, and Indicators can include even more specific details. Much of the standards is directly related to content. For instance, here, in a slightly edited form, is the start of the Kansas 9-12 Biology Standards:

STANDARD 3: LIFE SCIENCE - all students will develop an understanding of the cell, molecular basis of heredity, biological evolution, interdependence of organisms, matter, energy, and organization in living systems, and the behavior of organisms.

Benchmark 1: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the structure and function of the cell.

Indicator 1: cells are composed of a variety of specialized structures that carry out specific functions.

Indicator 1a: Each cell is surrounded by a membrane that controls the flow of materials into and out of the cell.

Other examples of topics included in the standards would include the structure of the atom, the nature of chemical bonding, the history of the earth and life on it, and so on.

Science standards also contain statements about other aspects of science, such as:

• statements about the nature of science as a process of inquiry about the natural world, the scientific methods used and the nature of the knowledge obtained, • statements about the application of science to technology, including such areas as engineering, medicine, agriculture, and so on, and • statements about areas that require both scientific knowledge and social and personal value judgments, such as bioethics, environmental policy, genetic technology, and so on.

What are Standards Not?

Standards are not a comprehensive list of everything that will be taught. Teachers cover additional details in order to strengthen and enhance students’ understanding of material in the standards They also cover additional topics either for their intrinsic value (this is a local choice), for their value in integrating topics, or for their value in illustrating the relationship of content to more general areas such as the nature of science or the relationship of science to broader human concerns. It is always the teacher’s task to try to genuinely engage the students in learning science and to give the students a sense of what it means to do science, and many curriculum decisions (beyond just addressing what is in the standards) are made in order to do this.

Standards are also not a curriculum guide, a scope-and-sequence document, nor an instructional guide: they do not dictate how content is to be organized, the materials that are to be used, or any particular pedagogical style.

Why are Standards Important?

Particularly since the recent advent of high-stakes accountability testing, it has become increasingly important that curriculum be aligned with the state and national standards upon which those tests are based. Assessment results are critical these days, and therefore local districts must take state standards into account when they develop their local standards. State standards give local districts a framework with which to start - without state standards, each local district would be faced with the task of “reinventing the wheel” in determining what was essential to teach.

Standards also bring national and state uniformity to the public education system. We live in a mobile world, and we have a system of education dedicated, at least in theory, to both excellence and equity. Standards work to ensure that all students, no matter where they are educated, will learn the essential fundamentals that will allow them to be well-prepared as a citizen, and possibly a future student of scientist.

How are Standards Established?

Curriculum in general and standards in particular are established by expert educators in the subject matter - people who are knowledgeable about the content and applications that students should learn to be successful in the world as well as about what is developmentally appropriate and pedagogically feasible in the classroom. For instance, the 2001 Kansas standards which are currently being reviewed were written by a committee of high school teachers, college professors in both science and science education, and people from the community who had a science background. This committee studied the national standards as well as other documents about what all students should know.

The ID Movement and State Standards

Since state standards are the framework of public science education, it is clear why the ID movement wants to influence them, but in fact their attempts to do so are inappropriate and the statements they wish to insert have no place in the standards. Let me explain why.

The first and foremost reason is that standards describe mainstream fundamental content and concepts that are well-established and accepted worldwide. The concepts and statements offered by the ID movement do not meet these criteria. It is not the place of state standards committees nor Boards of Education to be making judgments about whether a particular challenger to accepted science, no matter what it is, should be elevated to a place in the standards without convincing the worldwide community of scientists first.

For instance, the ID movement wishes to redefine science so as to include the possibility of supernatural intelligence agency, but the vast majority of scientists hold strongly to the idea that has prevailed for 500 years - that, in the words of the current Kansas standards, science seeks “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.”

The ID movement claims that empirical evidence for such intelligent agency exists, but the scientific world is not at all convinced, and has in fact either ignored such claims or shown the substantial flaws in the ID movement’s arguments.

The ID movement, in wanting to teach “the evidence for and against evolution,” implies that there is some doubt about whether evolution (in the sense of descent with modification) has even happened. This claim has virtually no support in the science community.

The ID movement, in wanting to teach “alternative theories of origins,” implies that ID is an “alternative theory,” but ID is no theory at all - there are no testable hypotheses about what, when, or where ID has happened exist; no empirical methods, even proposed, as to how to establish results of the purported intelligent agency; and no published or even informally reported ID research.

And last, in arguing that science is dogmatically biased towards philosophical naturalism and against theism and other non-materialistic religions, the ID movement ignores the extremely large number of people in the world, scientists and otherwise, who are religious in some way and yet accept that science as currently practiced is perfectly appropriate and does not conflict with their religious beliefs. While this issue is obviously outside the scope of science itself, it does show that ID movement’s concern about the nature of science is a narrow sectarian issue, and not a fundamental one that belongs in the state science standards.

So the short summary is this: the ID movement needs to convince the scientific world that ID has something to offer. If they can do that, and if ID or some part of it then becomes accepted science, then ID will move into state science standards. That is how all the other science in the standards got there. Trying to get ID and ID-influenced concepts into the standards now is asking for special privileges, and there is no reason to grant them. ID needs to earn its way like everything else. The ID movement’s attempts to manipulate the system by “jumping to the head of the line” deserves the strong resistance of all who value the processes and purposes of establishing standards in public education.