Earlier this year, the Wyoming legislature became the first in the U.S. to reject new science standards for schools. Lessons on climate change, lawmakers said, would brainwash kids against the state's coal and oil industries. Now, parents, scientists and even churches are fighting the decision.
Aerial view of a Wyoming mine by Christopher Boyer
The science guidelines in question are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), adopted so far by 11 states and the District of Columbia. The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—working with 26 state governments—developed the NGSS to update K-12 science education in schools for the first time since 1998. Essentially the NGSS provides benchmarks for what students should learn in each grade, but leaves decisions about specific textbooks and how to teach the curriculum up to individual districts, schools and educators.
In Wyoming, a committee comprised of 30 science educators spent 18 months studying and comparing the NGSS with existing guidelines in other states, and then unanimously recommended that it be adopted by the State Board of Education. However, in March, the legislature added a footnote to the state budget that prohibited any public spending to implement the NGSS—effectively killing it. Then, a month later, the State Board of Education told the committee of science educators to develop a new set of standards, which would better reflect the values and economic interests of Wyoming.
As the Casper Star-Tribune reported:
"[The standards] handle global warming as settled science," said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote's authors. "There's all kind of social implications involved in that that I don't think would be good for Wyoming."
Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy, as the state is the nation's largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.
Ron Micheli, the state board of education chairman, agreed.
"I don't accept, personally, that [climate change] is a fact," Micheli said. "[The standards are] very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development."
In the aftermath of the legislature's vote, grassroots campaigns have sprung up across the state. Among the most vocal opponents of the new science standards is the group, Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core—which not only faults the NGSS for its failure to "objectively" address "controversial issues" such as climate change, but also takes issue that it "teaches evolution as a fact, starting in elementary grades (current WY standards teach evolution as a theory, and not until 8th grade)."
For instance, the Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core objects to the NGSS guideline that, by the end of second grade, students should understand that, "Some kinds of plants and animals that once lived on Earth (e.g., dinosaurs) are no longer found anywhere, although others now living (e.g., lizards) resemble them in some ways."
According to the group, this language is evidence that:
- The standards address ultimate religious questions and then use a doctrine or "Rule" that permits only materialistic or functionally atheistic answers.
- The standards require a materialistic explanation for any phenomenon addressed by science.
- The standards are neither educationally objective nor religiously neutral, because an atheistic or materialistic worldview is consistently affirmed throughout.
- The Standards fail to present legitimate scientific critiques of materialistic theories regarding the origins of the universe, of life and its diversity.
Not so, says the Wyoming Association of Churches (WAC), which represents about 10 Protestant denominations statewide. Earlier this month, WAC issued a press release:
WAC believes that God gave us the responsibility to serve as stewards of the created order. Science, on the other hand, is not based upon a belief system but rather a field of study dedicated to the understanding of how the created order works. Therefore, WAC strongly supports the advancement of an education system founded upon 21st century evidence-based science standards, like NGSS, which encourage Wyoming students to think critically, and through greater knowledge, foster stewardship of the created order.
"Science is important, peer-proven," Rev. Warren Murphy, a Cody-based Episcopalian minister told the Billings Gazette. "Faith is something else. It shouldn't interfere with what science is doing. ... Whether it was 6,000 years ago or Adam and Eve or dinosaurs, it was all created by God."
"Our concern isn't fighting the Legislature, and it's not to take issue with other people's faith," he added. "It's simply saying faith is a belief system; science isn't. Let's keep them separate."
At the same time that the Wyoming Association of Churches was issuing its statement, a group of 46 current and former science and math professors at the University of Wyoming sent the state Board of Education a 36-page paper, titled "Why the Critics of the Next Generation Science Standards are Wrong."
The paper includes a point-by-point rebuttal of objections to the new guidelines, which I'd like to frame and hang on my wall. Some excerpts:
- When someone argues, "Evolution is just a theory" or the "The NGSS presents human's role in climate change as fact rather than theory" the person does not understand the nature or the language of science. The use of the term theory over the years has been troublesome, for it means something entirely different in science than it does in everyday life. In science a theory is a concept that has been thoroughly tested and moved from an hypothesis to a trusted truth, verified in studies (often over generations of use) tested, passed judgment by scientists for years and years, passed many tests through use. An example would be Bernoulli's principles about air pressure and wings, which helps us figure out how to make planes that fly. These scientific theories should be accepted as a working truth. The theory of plate tectonics is another example. It has been tested worldwide for over 100 years, and while it has been modified, and may be further modified in the future, the basic theory remains unchanged.
- When someone argues, "The NGSS does not include the scientific method" that person does not understand the nature of science. There is no single method that scientists use, and in particular they seldom use the linear step-by-step process described in many science textbooks (memorized by generations of students). This method represents an obsolete view of the nature of science.
- When someone argues, "The science standards must reflect the role of energy and agriculture in our state's economy" that person does not understand the nature of science. These specific issues fall into the domain of the social studies, especially history, geography, and economics. They may be included in the state's social studies standards, but have no place in the science standards.
Whatever the outcome in Wyoming, the debate over the new science education standards is just a preview of what's to come in other states, where some legislatures have also expressed disapproval over the NGSS—including South Carolina, which has considered adding guidelines that would soften the language on climate change.
But, advocates of quality science education should take heart that the governor of Kentucky—which, like Wyoming, is a coal state—approved the guidelines even after a legislative committee rejected them. The office of Governor Steve Beshear said the standards are "a critical component in preparing Kentuckians for college and the workforce."