More than 80 to work on new science, history lesson plans
Norman Draper, Star Tribune
Published July 18, 2003

Editor's note: An article on July 18 incorrectly cited as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act a quote advising schools teaching evolution to also teach a range of scientific views on the topic. It is not part of the act, but contained in a report that accompanies the act.

There will be no debate about whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution. When a newly minted committee meets to figure out what Minnesota students should learn about science, that will already be decided, according to Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke.

While she has no specific instructions for the committee assigned to come up with social-studies standards, she does have some strong suggestions. Yecke hopes to move away from what she calls the "naive and outdated" idea that elementary school students must learn about their own communities before tackling U.S. and world geography. She also considers lessons about "the founding fathers and the foundations of this country" to be "vitally important."

Yecke's comments came Thursday as she detailed the latest actions to restore a more "content-based" curriculum to state schools. With new standards already rewritten for math, English and reading, she announced the lineups for the next two committees.

The science committee will have 41 members, the social-studies committee 44. More than 600 Minnesotans applied to be on the new committees. Sixty percent of the committee members are from the Twin Cities area, and 40 percent are from the rest of the state. Parents, teachers, school administrators and business people are represented.

Yecke said she hopes that the committees, which will first meet July 31, will have their first drafts done by fall and new standards for the Legislature to act on next February.

Clashes over classes

Both science and social studies can be controversial subjects.

In some states, creationism and evolution have clashed. The teaching of evolution has been a hot-button issue in Kansas and Ohio. And social studies -- which will include U.S. history, world history, geography, economics and government/ citizenship -- has occasionally been a battleground of philosophies about what to teach -- political currents, presidents, wars and facts; or diaries, everyday life, the contributions of minorities and women, and critical thinking.

Arizona's state board of education recently approved state Superintendent Tom Horne's proposal to infuse "traditional values" into high school history, according to published reports. That proposal requires high schools to teach the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, among other things. Horne said teachers too often neglect such topics and cited the story of one student who learned about the Civil War in one day but studied quilting for a week.

As with the math and language arts standards, Yecke wants the committees to come up with their own ideas of what kids should learn.

But she said she will instruct the science committee to avoid any clashes over the teaching of evolution. She will cite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the teaching of strict creationism in the classroom and a section of the new federal No Child Left Behind Act that strongly advises school districts to teach evolution in a way that "helps the student to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society."

"My purpose is that we don't need to enter that debate," Yecke said. "And that these decisions lay with the local school boards."

Yecke hopes social-studies committee members will back off from a common current practice of teaching elementary-school-age children about their own neighborhoods and communities before they start studying geography.

"When you have children sitting next to a child from Guatemala and a child from Somalia, they need to learn more about the world," she said. She also wants an emphasis on key documents -- such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance and the Federalist Papers -- that set the stage for American nation-building.

"I think that is critical," she said.

More teachers now

A notable difference between these committees and the earlier math and language arts committees is the presence of more teachers. Thirty-five of the new committees' members are K-12 teachers. Yecke said the addition of more teachers is a response to criticism that the math and language arts committees had too few teachers.

Among the committee members named are Macalester College Geography Department chairman David Lanegran, Wayzata High School Associate Principal Denis Biagini, Lakeville parent Lori Bovitz and Eden Prairie High School science teacher Jean Tushie.

As with the other committees, Yecke is starting them out with plenty of study materials. Those include standards already in place in such states as Arizona, Massachusetts, California, Kansas and Alabama.

Minnesota's own science standards under the now-defunct graduation rule called the Profile of Learning also will be included in the study materials. Those standards got high marks from such organizations as the Fordham Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers and Education Week magazine.

Yecke said the new standards will be introduced into schools during the 2004-05 school year and will be fully implemented in 2005-06.

Norman Draper is at

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