SC school board OKs new science standards over religious concerns

rbarnett@greenvilleonline.comOctober 9, 2013 

The state Board of Education gave initial approval to a new set of science standards Wednesday, although some board members tried to overturn the vote out of concern over whether the new guidelines leave room for students’ religious beliefs on the origin of life.

“What I’m asking is to teach both,” said board member Neil Willis of Boiling Springs.

After the board approved first reading of the state’s first revision of its science standards since 2005, Willis made a motion to reconsider the move. One other board member seconded the motion, but it failed on a voice vote.

The standards now will go to the state Education Oversight Committee and come back to the state Board of Education for final action early next year.

Prior to the vote, members of the public addressed the board on both sides of the issue.

Deb Marks, program director of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, told the board that the proposed standards have a “materialistic bias” about the origin of life.

“This, in effect, seeks to indoctrinate rather than inform,” she said. “Therefore, that is not objective education.”

Robert Dillon is a biology professor at the College of Charleston and a member of South Carolinians for Science Education who served on the panel that reviewed the 2005 standards. He called the new standards “excellent.”

Dillon responded to Marks’ comment by saying that science, by definition, deals with material facts and doesn’t attempt to answer questions of philosophy or religion.

“I have heard today that we scientists have a materialistic bias, that we are functionally materialistic,” he said. “We are absolutely materialistic. Guilty as charged.”

Briana Timmerman, director of the Education Department’s Office of Instructional Practices and Evaluations, told the board that the new standards require students to develop higher-order thinking skills and focus on problem-solving rather than memorization.

Board member Jim Griffith of Aiken asked if the standards covered the concept of “irreducible complexity.”

Timmerman said she didn’t know.

“That tells me all I need to know,” Griffith said.

“Irreducible complexity” is a concept proponents of so-called “intelligent design” use to argue that some biological systems are too complex to have evolved from simple organic materials by chance.

“To remove the option to believe, I think, is a mistake,” Willis said.

Board member Raye O’Neal Boyd of Winnsboro agreed.

“Where is the opening for people who believe to stick by their beliefs, but at the same time show that they understand what you’re trying to teach them, but not necessarily adopting what you’re trying to teach them?” she asked.

Timmerman said the curriculum doesn’t ask students to take a personal stance but to evaluate the evidence.

Board member David Longshore of Orangeburg said he doesn’t see a conflict because the Bible teaches things that can’t be observed.

“I don’t see science as competing with religion,” he said. “It’s simply saying, based on what you observe, what conclusion can you make.”

Board member Danny Varat of Greenville questioned whether some of the standards would really encourage critical thinking. He cited one that he said asks high school earth science students to “support” or provide evidence for a particular hypothesis regarding climate change.

“If we’re asking them to be critical thinkers, why would we ask them to support a particular position?” he asked. “It just seems like it’s leading toward a predetermined conclusion.”

Timmerman said the standard Varat was referring to was about climate change over geologic time, not the question of human activity affecting climate change and that perhaps the word “support” should be changed to “provide evidence.”

No wording changes were made before the vote.

The science-religion issue was a sticking point when the 2005 standards were approved.

At that time, members of the Education Oversight Committee who opposed the standards agreed to support them even though they didn’t call for students to question evolution after a proviso was inserted in the state budget that says all textbooks used in South Carolina public schools should encourage “critical-thinking” skills.

The state board will have another crack at the standards at its Jan. 8 meeting, after the EOC acts. If they are approved on second reading then, they would go into use in the 2014-15 school year.

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