Opinion Columns & Blogs

Kansas teachers aren't anti-evolution

A new survey shows Kansas secondary biology teachers have the lowest rates of creationist belief of teachers in any of the states surveyed. The survey results — presented at a September conference of the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers and due to be published in an upcoming Kansas Biology Teacher journal — verify that the general press image of Kansas being backward on evolution is completely opposite of the facts.

The percentage of biology teachers from different states who thought that creation has a valid scientific foundation were: Kentucky teachers, 69 percent; Oklahoma, 48 percent; South Dakota, 39 percent; Ohio, 38 percent; Illinois, 30 percent; Georgia, 30 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; and Kansas, 24 percent.

Creationist belief that contradicts science may actually be substantially lower than these percentages suggest. In a 1991 survey, 85 percent of Kansas biology teachers said they thought "the modern theory of evolution has a valid scientific foundation." But 25 percent also indicated that they thought "creationism has a valid scientific foundation."

After that survey, I chatted with teachers in the field. Some explained that they marked both answers because they were not literalist and saw 3.5 billion years of evolution as no problem. But they did believe in a supernatural creation of the universe in the beginning and, in some cases, a supernatural instilling of the soul on the evolutionary route from ape-men to humans. In neither case would their beliefs interfere with teaching modern evolutionary biology.

The 2009 study showed similar overlap. Of those who believe creationism has a valid scientific foundation, half do not think creationism should be taught in public schools.

A big divide remains between small rural schools and larger Kansas schools. Today, 36 percent of biology teachers at small rural schools (fewer than 100 students) are creationist, while this drops to 15 percent in schools with 100 to 399 students. Rural teachers are more likely to be trained in biology as a "second field" and are less likely to pursue an advanced degree, as they have to teach across many disciplines. Other research finds that small rural Kansas schools are more subject to influence from a few local personalities, while larger schools can pay more attention to state and national standards.

Some media perpetuate the perception that science and religion are not compatible. But most Christian denominations have no difficulty with evolution. In 1998, Molleen Matsumura in the National Center for Science Education Reports found that "of Americans in the 12 largest Christian denominations, 89.6 percent belong to churches that support evolution education."

Hard-core opposition to evolution among Kansas biology teachers is probably about 6 percent, dramatically lower than for any other state surveyed.

Sadly, that will not stop late-night talk shows from portraying Kansans as anti-evolution hayseeds.