The past year and a half has been marked by more controversy over the direction of Wyoming’s public school system than any other time. The state has previously had many conflicts over funding and testing and a host of other issues, but nothing like the wedge that has divided Wyoming as the high-profile political and personal fight between Gov. Matt Mead and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill carries over to the governor’s primary race.
Remarkably, despite the rancor and bitter feelings, Mead, Hill, the Wyoming Board of Education and the Republican-controlled Legislature that tried and failed to take away the superintendent’s ability to head the Department of Education have all come to an agreement on one vital educational issue. What a relief — consensus at last!
Yes, they all agree that Wyoming students should be denied the opportunity to receive the best science education possible because they collectively believe if we don’t bow down to the fossil fuels industry and ignore scientific facts about global climate change, it will wreck the state’s economy.
Not exactly the outcome we were hoping for. For starters, it doesn’t make any sense, given that many huge energy corporations like Exxon and Chevron endorse the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that are at the heart of the controversy.
This sudden unity among Republican officials who want us to bury our collective heads in the sand is a terrible development, at precisely the time we need some sane leadership from people who care about Wyoming’s students and want them to be able to learn modern science and compete on a global level with their peers in other countries – people who accept the reality that a) climate change is caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels; and b) without significant, immediate worldwide changes in how we generate our power, we most likely won’t have to worry about our state economy. How many tons of coal or barrels of oil do we expect to sell to the world when we can no longer support major portions of the world’s populations?
Here’s the kicker – just when it appears the state’s position on teaching climate change can’t get any more idiotic, it does. A volunteer committee that has already twice recommended the state adopt the NGSS is now being reformed, with a ridiculous edict from Hill that under no circumstances will the panel be allowed to even mention the NGSS.
At a Wyoming Board of Education meeting in Casper in April, it appeared that the reconstituted panel would at least be allowed to incorporate a portion of the other NGSS concepts into its recommended state standards. It wasn’t a good solution, but at least supporters of the NGSS had hope that some of the science standards developed by 26 states and the District of Columbia might be successfully adopted by Wyoming.
Not only will that not happen now, there is the very real possibility that the new review committee will be stacked against NGSS. The original panel of 30-plus members was comprised of teachers and administrators. Only 18 of the members are returning, and the committee has been increased to up to 45. Members of the Wyoming Citizens Opposing the Common Core — mostly parents who are also histrionic that evolution is taught in school and creationism is not — have volunteered to serve on the panel.
It’s great that more parents are getting involved, but we hope there’s a fair representation of views here that do not exclude parents who support the NGSS.
Fortunately, Wyoming school districts are free to create their own science standards, and several are already teaching many of the ones contained in the NGSS, including what causes climate change. In Gillette, the school district has had about 30 teachers testing higher level standards based on the NGSS for the past year in grades three through six, as part of a three-year federal grant. The project will be expanded next year. Thank you, federal government! Who says you don’t help us?
But part of Wyoming’s decision to kick NGSS out of the state means that money won’t be available to train other teachers here how to use the standards in ways that most help students. That’s the real handicap the Legislature, Mead, Hill and the Board of Education put on Wyoming school districts.
Teachers involved in the Gillette project told Casper Star-Tribune education reporter Leah Todd that it has changed how they teach science in an extremely positive way, as they stress the development of critical thinking skills instead of learning to recite information from a textbook.
Shawna Cates, a Gillette elementary school teacher, told Todd that pretending climate change is a dirty word does a disservice to students. Climate change is part of the real world, even if Wyoming officials refuse to accept the facts.
Anyway, the focus in class is on how to think, not what to think. “If you saw the curriculum, you would know that there’s never anywhere where we tell people what to think,” Cates said.
Here’s what we would like to tell all state officials and those who support the ban on NGSS, who have unilaterally decided they CAN tell people what to think. It’s part of a commentary by Michael Mann, meteorology professor at Penn State University, on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes Show” Tuesday.
“Science isn’t a buffet,” Mann explained. “You don’t select from the world of science those findings which you are going to accept and those that you’re not.”
Then Mann quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the foremost science communicators in the world, who said, “The great thing about science is that it’s right whether you believe it or not.”
“And so, we can’t pick and choose which science we’re going to teach our students today,” Mann concluded, “or we are not going to be equipping them to compete in this new world where science and technology are going to determine whether we can compete in the world marketplace.”