You would think that with the United States falling behind some 17 other nations in science education that those charged with the responsibility of improving the level of education would be working to reverse that trend. You would think that in the state of Ohio, where thousands of schoolchildren are unable to pass science proficiency tests, improving the science curriculum would be one of the highest priorities. You would think that after convening a panel of science and education experts to develop comprehensive standards for the teaching of science from kindergarten through the 12th grade, the state Board of Education would be delighted with the results. But if you thought so, you would have been wrong.
For some members of the state school board are responding to the nearly 100-page science standards as if the hands of time had been turned back to 1925 when John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tenn. was charged with violating a Tennessee law that made it "unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
To hear board member Michael Cochran tell it, the process of developing the standards was not fair because various notions of religious creationism or its latest version "intelligent design" were not given equal weight with the scientifically accepted understanding of evolution.
Limited understanding: We can appreciate that board members may not have adequate background to assess the science standards. Cochran, himself, is an attorney with a masters degree in divinity. Board member Deborah Owens-Fink, an assistant professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron, wants to be sure that Ohioans support standards "they can be comfortable with." Comfort levels are no doubt important in the field of marketing, but "comfort level" cannot be the criterion on which science is judged.
Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church was not comfortable with Galileo's theory that the earth revolved around the sun. There are religious groups that regard mental illness as demonic possession and are uncomfortable with life-saving antipsychotic drugs. Other groups are not comfortable with the theory that germs cause disease and refuse the ministrations of doctors. Believers are entitled to their beliefs -- whether on the subject of birth, death, astronomy or creation.
But the United State Supreme Court has ruled that those beliefs cannot be considered acceptable alternatives to science -- no matter the comfort level of the believer or the zealousness of the belief.
Science is based on evidence, and religion is based on faith.
The science standards were not thrown together haphazardly. Rather, established scientists from universities and industry and highly qualified teachers were carefully selected to improve the science education for Ohio's children.
Gary Capone, a science teacher at Volney Rogers Junior High School in Youngstown, and the only person from this region chosen to serve on the science standards committee, says that the members spent weeks examining other states' standards and benchmarks to determine what scientific principles and methods needed to be taught and what were the most effective ways to teach them. Capone said, "We asked ourselves, 'Is this the best?'"
"The best" is what all Ohioans should want for the state's children. That's why the General Assembly passed a law to establish standards in English language, the arts, mathematics, foreign language, social studies and science.
In this regard, state board members should listen to the advice of their experts in all the content areas and not substitute their personal religious beliefs for the evidence presented to them.