Terry Branstad and his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, have been pushing Iowa educators to do more to engage kids in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The idea is to have a well-trained workforce for all those high-tech jobs they want to bring to the state.
So far, they’ve accompanied the drive with action, starting the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, handing out grants to scale-up activities, like FIRST LEGO League, that are designed to engage and attract students to technical fields, and holding annual summits of educators, administrators and business people.
Now, however, Branstad may face the biggest test of his resolve to make Iowans STEM leaders. His administration will have to decide if and how to adopt new science education standards – guidelines and goals that have prompted controversy elsewhere and could upset the conservative base of Branstad’s Republican Party.
For Iowans who support the standards, there have been reasons for despair – and perhaps for hope.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) aren’t a federal dictate. The extent of federal government involvement is the support of the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, a congressionally chartered independent organization designed to support government decision-making on science. It joined with the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to establish a framework for standards development.
The groups sought input from the states, and 26 – including Iowa – participated in drawing up the standards. An Iowa Department of Education press release says about 240 Iowa teachers, school administrators, consultants and others provided input. Achieve, an independent educational organization, coordinated the standards development.
They got support from mainstream foundations and business with a stake in a well-educated, science-literate workforce.
With such broad-based input, the lack of a federal agency driving it (or “liberal educators shoving it down” on Iowans, as some Republicans charge about the Common Core State Standards), it might seem the NGSS would find wide acceptance.
Except we’re talking about science here, and some people don’t want to accept evidence if it challenges their own beliefs and preconceived notions.
There’s really no argument in the scientific community that evolution is the best explanation we have for how life sprang up on the Earth. There also are no real disagreements (only manufactured ones) among climate scientists that human activity is contributing to global climate change.
With both questions settled science, the NGSS says students should learn about both evolution and climate change. That doesn’t mean “teaching the controversy,” as some right-wing educators, legislators and ministers suggest. There is no controversy in the science community.
Sure enough, when Kentucky’s Department of Education held a hearing on the standards last month, people claimed they were fascist and would even lead to genocide and murder.
The encouraging news: Kentucky’s board adopted the standards (although that decision is subject to review). Another surprise: Kansas, where the board of education has a history of science ignorance, also is one of the first states to adopt the standards.
But in Iowa, Reynolds announced on May 1 that a task force would review the standards and determine “whether they are the right fit for Iowa.”
As a former reporter, this instantly set off an alarm for me. It’s been my experience that when a politician wants to kill something without taking the blame, or just let it die a slow death, he or she assigns it to a task force. My fears only got worse when weeks went by with no word on the task force composition.
The names finally came out last week. There are reasons to cheer, but also reasons for fear.
The cause for encouragement: There appear to be some solid educators on the panel – people who, on the face of it, are unlikely to support weakening standards for teaching evolution and climate change. As Education Week reporter Erik Robelen noted, it appears there are no actual scientists, but there are science education professors, science teachers, and students.
The cause for worry: It’s a huge panel – 28 people. That just seems unwieldy and strange. And Reynolds’ language about it judging whether the standards are a right fit seems to imply doubt that they are. But perhaps I’m being paranoid.
We’ll find out soon. The panel holds its first meeting on Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines.
There may be legitimate questions about the standards. The Fordham Institute, which supports the common core standards, is critical of the NGSS and gives them a C grade. The standards focus more on learning some concepts deeply, especially how science works and how science reaches consensus. Among other things, the institute says the standards skip key concepts.
But my fear is conservatives will use this criticism to kill the NGSS entirely. If you hear people repeatedly cite the Fordham report as a reason to reject the standards rather than tweak them, my fear will become reality. It will be clear then that Branstad’s task force was designed to sandbag the proposal to avoid upsetting the Steve Kings and Bob Vander Plaatses, as my reporter’s cynical news sense told me.
I wouldn’t bet against it. But what do you think? Should Iowa adopt the new standards? Should our schools teach evolution and anthropomorphic climate change?