Standards

W.Va, Wyo. Debate Climate-Change Mentions in Science Standards

By Liana Loewus — January 16, 2015 7 min read
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The West Virginia state board of education, in a move that has drawn national attention, recently rewrote parts of the Next Generation Science Standards that mention climate change—and then voted last week to undo those edits after receiving pushback from scientists and educators.

States’ adoptions of the Next Generation standards have been slow and steady since the standards were put in final form nearly two years ago, but in recent months, the standards’ climate-change language has fueled pockets of controversy—in some ways echoing older debates over teaching evolutionary theory.

In Wyoming, the legislature barred the standards’ adoption through a budget bill last spring, with the representative who led that effort objecting to teaching global warming as a fact. But a recent proposed bill could soon overturn that decision as well.

Both West Virginia and Wyoming are among the nation’s top energy producers, which some observers say makes the climate-change debate thornier in those places.

The science standards, which emphasize application, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, were developed by 26 lead state partners and released in April 2013. West Virginia was among the lead partners, all of which committed to giving serious consideration to adopting the K-12 standards “as presented.”

The West Virginia state board put its proposed new standards—a version of the Next Generation Science Standards with some significant tweaks casting doubt on global warming—out for public comment in October, and voted to adopt them in early December. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia had already adopted the standards.

State board member L. Wade Linger Jr., the president of TMC Technologies, an information-technology-services company based in Fairmont, W.Va., who has served on the board since 2008, spearheaded the push for modifications.

“There was a question in there that said: ‘Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,’ ” Mr. Linger said, according to the Charleston Gazette newspaper in the state capital. “... [T]hat presupposes that global temperatures have risen over the past century, and, of course, there’s debate about that.” (Mr. Linger could not be reached by Education Week for comment.)

States Adopting the Next Generation Science Standards

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Source: Education Week

The rewritten standards, titled “Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives for Science in West Virginia Schools,” referred to “the rise and fall in global temperature[s] over the past century.”

Another change to the standards was within a high school standard on weather and climate. The original NGSS document asks students to: “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.” The edited standards asked students to analyze data from “computer climate models to assess their creditability [sic] for predicting future impacts on the Earth System.”

Stephen L. Pruitt, a senior vice president at Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that oversaw the science standards’ development, said that states “have a right to make changes they think are appropriate.” Achieve does not officially track state adoptions, in part for that reason, he noted.

However, the National Science Teachers Association took a harder line, stating that it would not consider West Virginia an adoption state if it kept the revised language.

“Our position is that to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards is to adopt what the writers wrote and what was endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences,” said David L. Evans, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based NSTA. “The NGSS really does represent a very well-vetted body of scientific knowledge and practice combined with well-researched background in science pedagogy, and it’s hard for people who aren’t experts in some of those areas to make useful changes.”

Many educators in West Virginia were unaware changes had been made to the original Next Generation Science Standards, and so did not review them during the comment period, according to Gayle C. Manchin, the president of the state board. “That was an error on our part,” she said.

Once the changes came to light, “we began to hear from the science community that changing the wording at all tampered with the integrity of the standards,” said Ms. Manchin, who is also the former first lady of West Virginia. “The science community of West Virginia, which I have great deal of respect for, their recommendation was to retain the standards in their original form.”

On Jan. 14, the state board voted 6-2 to revert to the original standards and put those up for another 30 days of public comment. Ms. Manchin said that the next vote will take place in February, and that she expects the original standards to pass.

Is There Debate?

Marc Morano, the executive editor of ClimateDepot.com and a vocal climate-change skeptic, traveled from Virginia to attend the recent board hearing and argue on behalf of keeping the altered standards.

“The West Virginia board of education was being intimidated and bullied by educators who wanted to enforce conformity,” he said in an interview. “It’s the kids who are going to suffer. They’re going to be told there’s no debate, there’s no dissent.”

But proponents of the standards say the language on climate change is based on scientific consensus.

Brian J. Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who worked on the National Research Council document that led to the development of the standards, said “there really isn’t debate” among scientists about whether global warming is occurring.

If legislators remove climate change because it’s labeled a theory, “then should we take out [the theory of] gravity?” he asked. “Theories are the most important product of science. We should be careful to distinguish a scientific theory from a theory in the everyday sense.”

Joseph Krajcik, a professor of science education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who served as a writing-team leader for the Next Generation standards, said “we were extremely careful in what we were saying.”

As for whether climate change is occurring, he said: “The data’s there. Are you going to deny the data?”

Wyoming Reconsiders

In March of last year, the Wyoming legislature passed a budget with a footnote prohibiting the board of education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards. Republican Rep. Matt Teeters, who proposed the footnote, told the Casper Star-Tribune that the standards “handle global warming as settled science. ... There’s all kinds of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.”

(Mr. Teeters was not re-elected to the legislature in November and could not be reached for comment.)

In response, a group of retired science and math educators from the University of Wyoming, a coalition of Wyoming churches, and others came out in support of the standards.

State Rep. John W. Patton, a Republican, led the charge on a new bill to repeal the budget footnote. Mr. Patton, who is the chairman of the House education committee and formerly served on the state board of education, argues that the legislature should not interfere with the board’s ability to review standards.

“That’s a statutory responsibility,” he said in an interview.

Fossil-Fuel Industry

South Carolina legislatively blocked adoption of the new standards as well—though Mick Zais, the state superintendent of education, said in a press release that’s because the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank, gave the national standards a C grade, while the state’s standards received an A-minus.

Climate change is a particularly sensitive issue in West Virginia because of the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, said Ms. Manchin.

The same could also be said for Wyoming. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Wyoming ranks first for domestic coal production, and West Virginia ranks second. They rank eighth and 18th, respectively, for crude oil production.

But Mr. Evans of the NSTA said that, “by and large, the big players in the fossil-fuel industry seem to be pretty supportive of the Next Generation Science Standards and improving science education.” The Chevron Corp. and ExxonMobil—the two largest American oil companies—have publicly endorsed the standards.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as W.Va. Undoes Rewrite Of Climate Standards

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