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In South Carolina, Students May Soon Critique Natural Selection

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Academic standards drive public school curricula, tests, and teacher professional development, among other things. On a daily basis educators try to align what they do with what their state's academic standards call for. Although nothing gets students to engage as much as an engaging teacher, good standards can improve educational outcomes over the long term at a systemic level. So we should all want demanding standards that set clear goals.

South Carolina's Education Oversight Committee recently sent a memo to the South Carolina State Board of Education urging that body's adoption of a new science standard, H.B.5C.4, which reads:

Construct scientific arguments that seem to support and scientific arguments that seem to discredit Darwinian natural selection.

The South Carolina Education Accountability Act (i.e., ยง59-18-320(D)) requires new standards to be adopted by both the Education Oversight Committee and the State Board of Education. The Education Oversight Committee voted 7-4 to adopt H.B.5C.4 and to recommend it to the State Board of Education for consideration. The State Board of Education must vote to adopt H.B.5C.4 before it may be included in South Carolina Department of Education's 2014 Draft Academic Standards and Performance Indicators, which are intended to replace next year the state's 2005 Standards.

The State Board of Education will meet on May 14 for a retreat. The agenda for the retreat does not include a vote on whether to adopt H.B.5C.4. According to its published meeting schedule, the State Board of Education will after its retreat meet on June 11. No agenda has yet been published for this meeting. However, a representative of the Education Oversight Committee advised me that the State Board of Education will likely vote on adoption on June 11. Today, a representative of the State Board of Education confirmed that the Board will take up the matter then.

Now, natural selection is one mechanism that drives evolution, one of many. That is, natural selection is not the only mechanism that changes allele frequencies in a population over time. So it should be uncontroversial for students to construct scientific arguments that support and discredit natural selection as the sole or major engine of evolution, an exercise that would help them learn what scientific argumentation looks like and how it works. Even so, things should increasingly heat up in South Carolina the closer we get to the State Board of Education's vote on H.B.5C.4.

If H.B.5C.4 is added to South Carolina's 2014 Draft Academic Standards and Performance Indicators, the standard would join many other lines in the document that hew to a critical perspective, which, frankly, is a great thing for kids to learn. Here is some language already in the 2014 Draft Standards that exemplify that critical perspective:

6.E.2A.2 Critically analyze scientific arguments based on evidence for and against how different phenomena (natural and human induced) may contribute to the composition of Earth's atmosphere. 

H.B.5A.2 Explain how scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of the theory of biological evolution. 

It is critical that educators understand that the Science and Engineering Practices are not to be taught in isolation. There should not be a distinct "Inquiry" unit at the beginning of each school year. Rather, the practices need to be employed within the content for each grade level or course. 

Good stuff, right? Let's hope the State Board of Education continues the theme by adding H.B.5C.4. Stay tuned.

Photo: South Carolina State House/Wikipedia.