Thursday, July 31, 2014
A proposed change in South Carolina's biology standards for teaching evolution is designed to encourage discussion in the classroom.
A six-member panel voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend the compromise to the full state Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee. Approval from both is needed for any change to education standards.
The compromise essentially defines science and says evolution is a scientific theory. It could end months of disagreement between the boards, which meet again next month, in South Carolina's latest flap over religion and science.
“Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment and observation, and evolution, as with any aspect of science, is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing,” reads the proposed addition to the evolution standard. Other parts of the standard, which lay out what high school biology students should learn about evolution, were not in dispute.
Oversight committee director Melanie Barton, who helped write the compromise, said it means teachers would need to stay up-to-date on scientific discoveries and how they relate to evolution, to help students have a deeper understanding of it.
Sen. Mike Fair, a member of the oversight board, had pushed for language calling for students to question Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection — to “construct scientific arguments that seem to support and scientific arguments that seem to discredit” it. But the state Board of Education rejected that proposed addition last month.
The compromise, if approved next month, could have little practical effect in the classroom.
Fair said the language is in line with a nationwide effort to teach students more critical thinking skills.
“It doesn't change anything,” he said before the vote. “It enables teachers to get their students more involved in critical thinking on these matters.”
Rob Dillon, founder of South Carolinians for Science Education, said he doesn't have a problem with the wording, but rather the placement of the two paragraphs. They would be more appropriate as an overall header for high school standards in biology, chemistry and physics, he said.
“I object to evolution being singled out,” said Dillon, a biology professor at the College of Charleston. “It attracts controversy to evolution. ... It's no more controversial than photosynthesis.”
The back-and-forth between the two boards over evolution is a repeat of the debate in 2005, the last time science standards were up for periodic review.
Fair led the charge then for students to “critically analyze” evolution. The compromise eventually approved in 2006 called for students to “summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”
Expert panels began the latest review of science standards in January 2012. The high school biology standard for evolution was the only standard not adopted by both boards by mid-February.
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