Keeping religion separate from science in S.C. schools

Why can’t science teachers simply teach science?

That’s the question on some people’s minds after Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting where they reviewed the state’s proposed update to science standards for K-12 students.

State law requires that the standards be updated regularly. The most recent update, in 2005, encountered significant delays because of meddling from folks who want to mix in some religious doctrine. To at least one observer, the revision this time around is heading down the same path of not-so-divine intervention.

In 2005, it was creationism and intelligent design, said C of C biology professor Robert Dillon, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. This year the buzzwords are apparently irreducible complexity and climate change.

Dillon also was part of the group that led the 2005 standards revision.

Some folks from S.C. Parents Involved in Education — the same folks who brought you the recent daylong protest of the Common Core standards (the national education standards that some say amount to too much government interference in state matters) in Columbia — came to the meeting and began a push for more inclusion of religious themes. Then a handful of board members chimed in with religious or political sentiments.

Dillon was, in a word, disappointed.

“Here is my one and only point. I want science in the science standards. I don’t want any politics, I don’t want any religion. I just want science.”

Of course, it’s never that easy.

Strong foundation

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national leader in standards evaluation, gave South Carolina’s 2005 science standards an A-. Only six states got an A or A- rating in the 2012 report released by the foundation, which included this praise: “While too many states sacrifice clarity or content for the sake of brevity, South Carolina provides science standards that are clear and succinct, but that also outline most of the essential K-12 content that students need to learn.”

The standards will also praised for having a clear and logical progression, with “a firm scaffold upon which educators in the Palmetto state can build a science curriculum.”

So we’re starting from a strong foundation, even with the religious bickering that preceded the eventual adoption of the 2005 standards.

“It should be so simple,” Dillon said.

But he predicts more infighting between the Board of Ed and the Education Oversight Committee, a separate 18-member review panel that can suggest wording changes and other revisions to the standards before the state board gives final approval next year.

Separation of church and state

Millibeth Currie, a nationally board-certified teacher who chairs the science department at Moultrie Middle School, was involved in the first phase of the standards review this go-round.

“Science is everywhere. It’s explaining our system of our universe that exists right now,” which means a student’s family background or philosophy or religion doesn’t even factor into the equation.

When religious concerns are raised, “I kind of neutralize it. There’s no way of being able to answer who’s right or who’s wrong” among different religions, she said. “The focus should be on discovering the commonalities in our universe.”

Sounds like those state board members could use some time in her classroom.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.

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