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N.C. comes up short in science education

Saluda, N.C., Dec. 16, 2005

Time was when a B average might get a student into a decent college. Not anymore. But that’s the grade given North Carolina in a national evaluation of science education standards.

Before parents judge whether they can live with that kind of performance from their state’s public school system, they should look at little closer at the details of the new study, which was released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., organization devoted to improving American educational standards. More troubling is the score North Carolina received in biological evolution: 1 out of 3.

By contrast, South Carolina, which was cited by the report for excellence in science instruction, managed a top mark of 3 in evolution. So did our neighbors in Virgina, Georgia and Tennessee, leaving the Tar Heel state mired in the primordial mud.

So why is this cause for concern? Because as the late geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Today’s life science students need to understand evolution backwards and forwards if they are to assume command of the genetics, medical and ecology laboratories of tomorrow.

The Fordham report, The State of State Science Standards 2005, concludes that "Science education in America is under attack." And it would appear that North Carolina is part of the problem, despite the leading-edge reputation of its state university system, the Duke name and the Research Triangle.

Consider what the report’s authors had to say about efforts to teach elementary and high school students about the life sciences in South Carolina: "A reader has the sense that there was qualified thought at work.... The handling of evolution, which begins quietly with the introduction of fossils in grade 3 and continues thereafter, is exemplary."

In North Carolina, though, "There is no proper mention of evolution until 9th grade. In due course, the main points of (now) classical, modern synthesis evolution are touched. But there is not much originality or insight in this treatment."

To be fair, we’re "excellent,” on physics, and "laurels are due the writers who introduced the second law of thermodynamics." Indeed, the overall grade of 79, -- a high B -- puts North Carolina at ninth in the nation, far ahead of national embarrassment like Kansas, which recently removed "natural" explanations in its definition of science, scoring an F overall as a result.

And it can't hurt to point out that North Carolina isn't alone in handling evolution poorly. A dozen states scored even lower on Darwin's educational legacy, including Connecticut, Maine, Wisconsin and Alaska.

Still, we would be wise to take advantage of the Fordham study's prescriptions. By contrasting the remarks on the A-grade states with those of the less successful, improvement strategies jump out. For example, many states are doing little but meeting the unambitious National Science Educational Standards. But South Carolina, "used the national standards as a starting point, not for slavish replication. As a result, these standards are content-rich; they constitute a genuine effort to define science literacy from K through 12."

Such goals are essential if North Carolinians are to properly prepare their students for the future. First, there is the rapidly evolving job market, which will rely increasingly on biotechnology and related fields of expertise. Second is a social and political environment confused by aggressive campaigns from anti-intellectuals who are infiltrating school boards and corrupting curricula with creationist propaganda.

Depending on who's counting, creationism-friendly legislators in at least 13 states have introduced bills challenging evolution over the past year, despite a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that forbids the teaching of creationism in public science classes. The California-based National Center of Science Education reports "serious anti-evolution efforts" in the state houses or local school boards of 33 states this year.

The good news is that other states are resisting what the lead author of the Fordham study calls a "well-funded and politically motivated attack" on evolution. But Paul Gross, a biologist and former provost of the University of Virginia, warns that the big picture is hardly reassuring:

"Certainly some states do an awful job addressing evolution. But for the most part these states also do an awful job addressing the rest of science."

North Carolina’s students can’t afford to suffer from such negligence. When our classes in a critical subject such as evolution rate only a 1 out 3 – a failing grade by any standard – it is time to sit up and take notice before our performance slips any further.

James Hrynyshyn is a freelance science writer in Saluda, N.C.

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