July 28, 2014

Evolution compromise heads to SC education panel

S.C. education leaders disagree on whether to teach evolution with or without a dose of skepticism or mention of other creation theories. But after months of debate, a compromise could be approved Tuesday.

State education leaders may ask high-school students to treat evolution as any other scientific theory.

That means the students should understand that the theory — like any in science — can be tested by experiments and could change as science develops.

That approach to teaching evolution will be up for debate Tuesday as a compromise proposal to end a months-long disagreement over whether evolution is scientific fact or should be taught with a dose of skepticism alongside other creation theories.

A six-member panel made up of two S.C. education boards, charged with approving all changes to state education standards, will meet to discuss the way the state teaches evolution.

The evolution standard, taught in high-school science classes, is the only standard the State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee have not approved in an update to the state’s 2005 science standards. Those standards detail what students at every grade level should know and be able to do.

The evolution standard hit a snag this year when creationists — led by state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and a member of the Oversight Committee — pushed to include language that is more critical of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Fair argued high-school students should learn about evolution alongside other creation theories or –– at the very least –– discuss natural selection as a theory, not scientific fact.

In April, Fair succeeded when the Oversight Committee, the state’s education accountability arm, proposed language that would ask teachers and students to construct scientific arguments both supporting and discrediting “Darwinian natural selection.”

But the State Board of Education rejected that language in June, sending the evolution standard back to the drawing table.

“I'm not apologizing for the language before. I think we were right,” Fair said Monday of including arguments against evolution in the classroom.

But, Fair added, he is OK with the proposal up for discussion Tuesday, even though it does not ask students to form arguments against evolution.

The proposed standard does allow teachers and students to question evolution, saying: “(E)volution, as with any aspect of science, is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.”

According to the proposal, students should be able to explain how scientists develop, test and critique theories, and understand “that all theories may change as new scientific information is obtained.”

The new language comes from the National Science Teachers Association, said Oversight Committee executive director Melanie Barton, who helped craft the compromise language.

State Board of Education member Danny Varat said he sees merit in allowing more room to question evolution in the state’s science standards. In history, for example, “the conversation on any given thing never stops,” said the Greenville historian.

Science-education advocates say evolution has been singled out as though it is scientifically controversial when it is not.

“We don't like to see the evolution standards singled out for political or religious reasons,” said Robert Dillon, a College of Charleston science professor and president of South Carolinians for Science Education.

“It makes it seem as though there is something special about evolution or natural selection that makes it seem scientifically controversial,” he said. “It's just as established as photosynthesis or the Krebs Cycle.”

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