GUEST OPINION: Support bill to embrace science standards

By on January 27, 2015

012815guestop.leadJackson Hole, Wyoming – It looks as if the Wyoming Legislature will undo the damage done last year when it used a budget bill footnote to exclude some academic standards for consideration by the Wyoming State Board of Education.

But some of the debate on a bill (House Bill 23) to remove that footnote indicates some legislators still struggle with the notion they should let the State Board of Education use its robust process for review and approval of science standards. The process involves assembling about 30 Wyoming scientists and educators who study standards and make recommendations to the SBE. There is public comment.

In 2013-14, the SBE science review committee looked at many science standards and found Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) pedagogically sound and vastly superior to current science standards, which are universally described as abysmal.

Praise is due to several people and to the SBE, which tried but finally concluded it couldn’t do its job to review and approve high-quality science standards while hamstrung by a prohibition in the 2014 budget bill against considering the Next General Science Standards.

Praise is due for Rep. John Patton, of Sheridan, new chairman of the House Education Committee, who is the sponsor of HB23. Praise is also due for the Education Committee, which approved it 9-0, and for House Speaker Kermit Brown, who has tried to keep the focus on restoring the SBE’s ability to diligently use all resources when it sets standards for Wyoming schools.

HB23 simply repeals the footnote. But some lawmakers continue to declaim their duty to protect students from some part of science. One referred to the “company” that wrote the standards. There is no “company.” Another criticizes “off the shelf” standards. The SBE review committee actually analyzed the standards.

HB23 is up for a final vote Monday in the House, where it has overwhelming support by representatives, including many who voted for the 2014 footnote. They thought it was harmless and only later realized the damage. In fact, that has raised awareness of the bad business of hitching substantive policy onto a budget bill in the form of footnotes.

Footnote defenders don’t cite specific standards in NGSS as scientifically or pedagogically defective. In 2014, some legislators didn’t like the inclusion of climate science and the warming effects of carbon dioxide. Some thought it was a slight to the industry that extracts Wyoming’s fossil fuels. The beauty of science is it yields to new evidence, so climate-warming critics are welcome to produce credible, reproducible evidence to support their own theory.

One House member this year complained that a petition urging the Legislature to approve HB23 called the original footnote “anti-science.” She does, too, like science, she said. She just doesn’t like NGSS.

Another House member proclaimed he wants science standards that are “unique to Wyoming.” That’s going to be tough: identifying and teaching science in a way that no one else in the world is doing it. I believe we want our students to master the knowledge and practice of science that other students around the world are mastering.

Here’s what the National Science Teachers Association says about science: “Science is characterized by the systematic gathering of information through various forms of direct and indirect observations and the testing of this information by methods including, but not limited to, experimentation. The principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related to those concepts.”

There’s nothing there about editing pieces you don’t like or changing research outcomes according to local geography or politics. At that point, it stops being science.

A word about NGSS. The National Research Council wrote the “Framework for K-12 Science Education” based on input from the academic and business world about what young people in the United States must know and how they should be able to think — how they should be able to do science and engineering. Then scientists and science educators designed the standards.

The National Science Teachers Association urges adoption of NGSS. The American Meteorological Association has written that the climate change science portion of the NGSS is “firmly rooted in peer-reviewed scientific literature; as science, it is as sound as other NGSS subjects such as earthquakes and the solar system.”

But let’s refocus on the 2014 budget bill footnote and the poor ability of a political body to write academic standards that stand on their own merits to educate our young people to compete among the world’s best and brightest in academics, business and engineering.

As debate began on HB23, Patton said he received an email saying climate science was bad for Wyoming. “The lack of knowledge carried to extreme — ignorance — is our enemy,” he countered.

If approved, the bill will move to the Senate for consideration.

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