Minnesota Science Standards: Shifting Controversies

There are several areas of controversy emerging in the discussion of Minnesota Science standards, but almost none of this controversy has to do with Evolution and Creationism. Amanda and I attended a public meeting on the issue last night, and I felt at the end that a kind of victory had been achieved.

But this is complicated.

I'd like to give you an overview of what this process is about, describe what appears to be new in these standards, outline the apparent areas of controversy (very briefly) and finally make specific suggestions for changes in the standards that have to do with creationism. But first, let me tell you why I felt a sense of victory at the end of the meeting last night.

Those of you who were at the meetings may have a very different perspective than mine: The vast majority of people in the room were K-12 teachers or members of the committee, and I am neither. I hope you will add to this discussion as you feel appropriate.


I came prepared to question three paragraphs in the standards that I felt were inappropriate (more on this below) but I also decided that I would keep my mouth shut as long as the conversation stuck with issues about the standards themselves, and did not engage in any way with creationism. In other words, I was willing sit and watch unless even a passing (positive) mention of creationism came up.

Amanda and I got there quite early and sat on the left side of the room, near the front. As the proceedings were about to start, we spoke briefly with Professor Dana (on the committee), a committed evolutionist. To our right we could see Science Teacher Barry and colleagues, white bishop to our black. We noted that back and to the right, on the opposite corner of the room, was Mz. Evolution Minnetonka herself (Dawn) and colleagues. Melanie Reap was in the room. Activist teachers and members of the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education and the Minnesota Science Teachers Association were in two other clusters, with Ed Hessler playing short stop on the right flank, dressed in army fatigues (and shorts) and ready for battle. In a room of perhaps 40 people, I personally knew (to some degree or another) more than a dozen who were strong supporters of real science and of evolutionary biology in particular, people who have stood shoulder to shoulder over the last several years in the fight against the creationist yahoos, at the state level, in various communities, active in MNCSE or other organizations, active in their own lives and schools.

But there were several people I did not recognize, and as my gaze wandered among them, I wondered: "Which of these citizens are here from the church of Creationism?"

There was one couple near the center of the room that I suspected, and a somewhat frenetic looking man carrying literature (I spied the word "creationism" peeking out of the stack). I was a little worried about him.

Before the public comment section there was quite a bit of discussion regarding the process (some of which I'll relate below). Eventually, the public input portion of the program began. The moderator identified the location where members of the public were to line up. With great haste, the strange man with the literature ran to the spot to be first, and a small phalanx of teacher-looking people lined up behind him, and squatted down on the floor ready to pounce. One, I recognized as a member of the education Faculty at the U, the others I did not know.

The frenetic man with the literature took the mike and began his comments. I was tense.

He began by insisting that "Nothing in biology makes sense!!!!!"

"... Except in the light of evolution!" he quickly added. The literature he was carrying, which he now waved before the standards committee and the audience, was the National Academy's book on Evolution and Creationism. He asked the committee to seriously consider extending evolution into the K-6 standards which, at the present time, lack any mention of the topic. (There are reasons for that which may have little to do with creationism, but the speaker was right, this should be done).

When he was finished, the room erupted in thunderous and extended applause.

Subsequently, a few other speakers mentioned the importance of evolution, and each such mention resulted in very positive reactions from the audience.

No one spoke in favor of creationism. It is not even clear that there were any creationists in the room. One member of the suspect couple sitting in the middle of the room turned out to be some kind of scientist who had positive and useful input into the standards.

Creationism was not a factor in this discussion. It was almost as though creationism did not exist.

We won. Victory.

The Process: What is a science standard?

A brief word about what we are talking about here. This is my simplified model of how all of this works.

Standards, which are determined by states, in turn guide the production of curriculum. A simple list of standards would guide a wide range of curricula, but certain aspects of the standards are very specific and thus are translated directly as curriculum, but the idea is that standards are sparse, list like, skeletal frameworks taht are then placed in concordance against textbooks and other resources, patterns of teacher licensure , school traditions and so on to produce district or school specific curriculum.

Then teaching happens. The curriculum is not what is taught: A curriculum is turned by a teacher into lesson plans, written or in the head, which are then manifest as actual things that actually happen in actual classrooms.

Standards are not curriculum, curriculum is not teaching, but all this is realted. At each stage of the unfolding of educational activity from standards to teaching there is room for abuse (if the standards have loopholes allowing creationism to be taught, for example) and there is room for creativity. At the same time, the standards (or curriculum derived from them) may also be too specific and constraining and stifle creativity.

In general, leaving room for creativity is the same thing as leaving room for bad teaching. To fix this, you need very carefully worded standards and very good teachers.

The Product So Far

In Minnesota, we seem to have both. The new standards are very good and the committee that worked on them should be commended highly! Then sent back to work because there is still a lot to do. This is only a first draft, but compared to the last round of science standards in this state, they are an order of magnitude better. Good job, folks, we appreciate your efforts! And I'm secretly glad that I did not get picked to be on this committee, because it turns out that I was clearly not needed and it looks like a LOT of work... (wait, did I say that out loud?)

What we have now is a large document with the standards written out in detail, which is open for public review for only a few more days. Then, the committee will take the result of his review and go back to work on it. There will probably be another public phase, there will be an expert review phase (using hired consultants form out of state, generally), and in the end, the Commissioner of Education gets what appears to be line item veto and revision power. At that point the standards go to a state rules committee and are implemented.

These last two stages concern me a great deal. We do not know if our education commissioner is a creationist or not, but she has publicly said that whether or not creationism should be taught in schools is a local decision (which it is not). And our governer is a total yahoo. So we'll see how that goes.

What is new in the standards: The word Evolution occurs many times. Not so much in the old standards. Engineering has been stuffed into every available nook in these standards. Too much, in my view, but since culling needs to happen, I assume some will happen here. And, the new standards are very specific about when various topics will be taught by grade for the pre-high school years.

What is Wrong ... depends on whom you ask

The big controversy is this: For the pre-high school standards, the standards specify which topic will be covered in which year, not allowing districts to optimize for local conditions (like what teachers happen to exist and what they are licensed to teach in any of the very remote districts in the state!). Also, the standards specifically avoid 'banding' and instead use 'spiraling' in their structure. This means that each student is exposed to aspects of ech of the science 'strands' (areas of study) each year. This is considered to be a superior way to teach by some, but not by others.

To some extent, this might be a battle between teachers and experts on education, and it might be an attempt to change how education is done at this level. With teachers trained and staffed to teach each year (i.e., there is s a 6th grad, 7th grade, and 8th grade 'science teacher') in the spiraling method, each teacher will have to cover all the science topics. This may mean that some teachers are not technically qualified to keep the job they have now, and it also means that some teachers are going to be teaching stuff they don't really want to teach. That may not sound important to someone who is not involved in education, but it really is important: This is where teaching is clearly an art. Make an artist do something they don't want to do, and you wont' get art. Same with teaching.

The other major area of concern is the amount of stuff that is in the standards: There is too much breadth, and thus, there will not be enough depth. This concern was expressed by many speakers, each pointing out different aspects of this problem. The number of topics and subtopics to cover is too much, and compromises will have to be made. Many topics are addresses at very superficial level, as indicated by the verbiage used to describe the standard. "Measure" or "Demonstrate" is used a lot but "understand" is used less often.

Why there are three unacceptable clauses in the standards and what to do about them

My problems with the standards, and the issues that I am bringing to the attention of the committee via the on line internet public comment process, are about three paragraphs.


Explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including, but not limited to, cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, gem theory of disease and big bang theory.

No one that I know who is involved in this process thinks this is good paragraph. (see this discussion) The science standards committee did not put this paragraph in the standard. This paragraph was supplied to the committee by the Commissioner of Education as an "assumption" that would not be changed. Even though the Committee does not want this paragraph there, it shall remain there by fiat. But the fact that the committee was forced to keep this paragraph in the standards does not mean that citizens cannot complain about it.

Then there is this one:

Understand that scientists often cannot bring definitive answers
to matters of public debate. There may be little reliable data
available, or there may not yet be adequate theories to
understand the phenomena involved, or the answer may involve
a comparison of values that is outside the realm of science.

I do not know if this standard is being forced into the document by the commissioner or not, but I don't like it. It does make a valid point but this is a possible loophole for global warming denialism and creationism as written.

Then there is this:

Recognize the contributions of Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities, as well as other cultures, to the understanding of interactions among humans and living systems.

This statement is also part of the 'assumptions' and thus could not be changed. This is not about science: It is about other things. Like woo. And it is patronizing. Minnesota Native Americans have to be brought, by law, into every area of the school standards, including science. But here we are being asked to consider non-scientific alternatives to science. There are better ways to bring Native American issues into science. For instance, land use and ecology, game management, etc. are scientific issues where there are major political controversies. And if we look more broadly (in several directions) we can look at diversity in science as well.

If you are interested in commenting, do so soon, because the commenting period closes soon.

More like this

One of the big issues in science education is the topic of science standards: each state is supposed to have guidelines for the public school curriculum, which are intended to enforce some uniformity and also make sure that key subjects are covered. These standards are often accompanied by big…
Continuing with our discussion of the Evolution 2008 conference ... Yet another item from the first day of the conference, the pre-conference teachers day sponsored by Evolution 2008 and the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education (MnCSE) ... The Minnesota Citizens for Science Education…
[Repost with minor modifications form gregladen.com] width="250"/> As indicated in a press release by the National Center for Science Education, the National Council for the Social Studies has released a position statement on Intelligent Design. ...There have been efforts for many decades to…
Bob Reich is rarely wrong, and here he makes a very important point: Teachers are being laid off and new hiring frozen, after-school programs cut, so called "noncritical" subjects like history eliminated, schools closed, and tuitions hiked at state colleges and universities. It's absurd. We're…

Good job, Greg! As at the Rochester meeting, the BIG issue with teachers in grades 6-8 is the lack of banding at the middle levels (BTW, the standards, although touted by the MDE to be a "spiral curriculum", are not spiraled.) Current MN licensure has either elementary K-8 generalist with a subject specialty at middle level or secondary licensure in 5-12 in one subject. Most middle schools employ those with secondary licensures; ie., those folks with a one subject license. Many, if not most, of those getting the K-8 license are looking to be subject specialists at the elementary level, not middle school teachers. If the 5-12 teachers are made to teach subjects/topics out of their field then they would not be considered "highly qualified" under NCLB. See the issue? As I have said in the past, although the MDE and Board of Teaching occupy the same building, they do not occupy the same state.

Bravo. Well done.

By Timothy Wood (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

What a great summary--smart and insightful, useful. I hope you have sent some of these comments on to the committee. I'm sorry I missed you. I came ready to say a few things but only if necessary. A couple of things I wanted to say were said better than I could ever possibly have done.

I agree with your comments on Indian contributions. One standard and benchmark that sticks out, at least for me is I don't know what "traditions of thought" means. I do know that science, mathematics and technology have deep roots and history and I certainly agree that students should learn that as Benchmarks reminds us, 'all sorts of people, indeed, people like themselves, have done and continue to do science." What worries me about the benchmark in particular is that it reduces the richness of the growth of scientific knowledge.

Thanks, Greg. I'm so glad you were there.

By edward hessler (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thanks very much Greg, nice work.

Many, many thanks, Greg, for this comprehensive description, and for your analysis. As you say, LOTS of work by the committee - and at last, a glimmer of hope that the standards can be written this time to make Minnesota a leader in science education.

I will share this concern when I comment online at MDE: The phrasing of, a leftover from the 2003 standards, has had the EFFECT, if not the INTENT, of allowing creationists to argue that "alternatives to evolution" must be/should be taught.

"Explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including, but not limited to, cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, gem theory of disease and big bang theory."

The phrasing of raises similar issues. If the INTENT of the 2008 standards is to outline a strong science curriculum, why on Earth would we want language that will have the EFFECT of weakening science?

By Judy Budreau (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thanks for coming last night Greg. Since I had to leave early, Im glad to see you didn't need to counter-point an idiot creationist. I was happy with the comments and concerns raised by the speakers and know we have a ton of work left to do (with little time to do it before the standards are sent out for expert review). I admit that I outwardly groaned when "squirrel" man got up and started, but he highlighted a number of issues I harped on during various committee meetings (although I hope I was slightly more eloquent).

My concern with the depth versus breadth issue is that it encourages students to view science as a passive subject, something you memorize instead of something you do. If you want kids to be interested in science, you don't tell them things. (Well, you do, but....) You let them get their hands dirty. You let them make "common sense" predictions, then demonstrate for themselves through testing that the truth is more interesting. You go beyond basic principles to the point where the weird stuff happens. All these take time.

I think I'll have to make a few additional comments about some standards that are pretty and all but perhaps less basic than the basics really need to be.

A meeting on education standards in the world's most scientifically literate, richest, most technologically literate nation, and nobody mentioned talking snakes or global floods. It's a measure of how low we've been held back by these idiots that we count that a victory.

Concerning benchmark about how evidence can challenge accepted theories: I was one who stood up late in the meeting and just made a general plea to the committee to strength the benchmarks in earlier grades to begin the process of understanding evolution (in "developmentally appropriate ways", which seemed to be a catch phrase for the evening). I had intended to address, but I thought I would just do it in writing, and the weakness of benchmarks in the earlier grades seemed to be a larger issue.

I am interested in how you came to understand that the committee is not allowed to change this benchmark in any way. If true, that has the feel of a clear attempt to pander to a number of young earth misconcentions, not just evolution. And it makes a large process issue in itself.

By the way, they probably will have to change at least one word in that benchmark. Unless,of course, we really should challenge portions of the "gem [sic] theory of disease".

By Bruce Odegaard (not verified) on 27 Sep 2008 #permalink

I am interested in how you came to understand that the committee is not allowed to change this benchmark in any way. If true,

The same web site where you get the standards has a link to "assumptions" ... where this is written in cold hard ink.

Here is the "assumptions" page.

Before claiming any "Victory"
let's remember to teach our children real science,
such as:

- Matter from explosions does not condense to form objects like galaxies.

- Chemicals do not react together randomly to form amino acids through natural processes.

- Amino acids do not randomly interact to form living cells through undirected natural processes.

- Molecules-to-man evolutionism violates the Law of Biogenesis: Life does not come from non-life.

- The specific complexity of genetic information in the genome does not increase spontaneously. Therefore, there is no natural process whereby reptiles can turn into birds, land mammals into whales, or chimpanzees into human beings.

See:What Does Cutting-Edge Science Teach about Origins?

Greg, what the gentleman said is of course the name of Dobzhansky's famous essay.