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Science literacy, the Loch Ness Monster and the evolution of public education

What’s more off the wall? A Christian school teaching students that the Loch Ness Monster is a living dinosaur and proof of creationism? Or science supporters who continue to believe that public schools can significantly boost science literacy?

The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey suggests it’s a toss-up. He responded yesterday to the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who predictably skewered vouchers after reports surfaced about some private schools using a biology textbook that says, “Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland?”

“I can certainly see why paying for this sort of thing would disturb a lot of people … ,” McCluskey wrote. “Let’s, however, use this to confront another, extremely dubious belief that many would never challenge:  Government schooling leads to good science instruction.”

McCluskey efficiently lines up the evidence. A Gallup poll this month found only 15 percent of Americans believe human beings evolved without any involvement from God. National test scores show more private school students are proficient in science than public school students. And surveys show many public school biology teachers give short shrift to evolution because it’s too much of a mine field. “The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction,” McCluskey wrote.

I took a whack at this issue a few weeks ago, after a New York Times piece on tax credit scholarships cited examples of creationist teaching in private schools.

My post didn’t persuade friends in the science tribe, of which I am a proud but low-ranking member. (On my last vacation, I took my young sons to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where, inbetween splashes, I tried to explain to my 8-year-old why dolphins have vestigial pelvic bones.)

Despite the reaction, I didn’t hear anything to dissuade me from thinking that science supporters have more to gain than lose from the fast-changing landscape in education. The new environment will include a lot more school choice. It may include a few more schools that think Nessie is a plesiosaur. But it will also include opportunities for charter schools, private schools and yes, even some religious schools, to ramp up science instruction beyond the unsatisfactory levels now found in too many traditional public schools.

Eventually, science supporters will find those niches, and adapt and thrive.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at