Thursday’s meeting of the Iowa Board of Education was almost as notable for what didn’t happen as for what did.
The board voted to adopt a modified version the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as the science criteria for Iowa students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It was unanimous.
In adopting the standards, the board followed the recommendation of two Iowa Department of Education panels. The most recent one worked since last fall to weigh numerous sets of science education standards – including those Iowa currently uses – and chose the NGSS. The board of science educators and industry representatives said the NGSS are best suited to help Iowa children grasp not only science’s fundamentals, but also how science works and how to weigh evidence, making them better prepared to learn on their own and judge competing scientific claims.
The outcome was not completely unexpected, but the way it happened surprised me. It could foreshadow a change in the debate over science and climate change.
I attended Thursday’s meeting determined to be an observer only. The board sets aside time at the beginning of each meeting for public comment and those wishing to speak must fill out a slip of paper. I chose not to, unsure whether my voice would be needed to counter criticism of the NGSS.
Over the last two years I’ve watched as conservative groups sought to organize opposition to the standards. It first came to my attention in 2013, when a task force was assembled to consider whether the NGSS were suitable for Iowa. Conservatives were raising the alarm, upset by the standards’ content on evolution and human-caused climate change, their link to the despised Common Core State Standards and the supposed infringement on local control.
That task force supported the NGSS. A few months later, a second panel was organized to review Iowa’s science standards, as required by an executive order from Gov. Terry Branstad.
Once again, conservatives seemed poised to take on the panel and the standards. The acme of their resistance occurred at a public forum the review panel staged in Waukee.
But other forums found more support for the NGSS and most participants in an unscientific on-line survey also supported them. The review team chose the NGSS, with some modifications to set specific standards for each middle school grade rather than have a band of expectations. The team also recommended providing professional development opportunities and resources to implement the standards.
The team’s report (PDF) lays out its reasoning. It’s long, but it’s mostly supporting material. The key parts are pages 5 and 6: the recommendations. To me, the important section relates to preparation of scientifically literate citizens:
“The integration of science and engineering practices, cross-cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas within each standard provides students with ‘the knowledge and skills required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity’ (definition of science literacy from literacynet.org).”
At Thursday’s meeting I was steeled to hear a phalanx of critics blast the NGSS. My voice may have been needed to refute the denunciations, but I wouldn’t know until people actually spoke – and it would be too late for me to get on the list.
Here’s the surprising part: No such opposition appeared. Only three speakers addressed the NGSS and two – a mother and daughter – were in support. The only opponent, central Iowa telecommunications engineer Heather Stancil, objected to how engineering is integrated into the NGSS and to their presentation of climate change. But even she said, “I have no issue with the standards,” only with what she perceived as “presenting only one side.”
The Des Moines Register’s Mackenzie Ryan and the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Erin Murphy both have good accounts of the meeting. They noted that the speakers in favor, Maria Filippone of Des Moines and her daughter, Eleanor, are affiliated with Climate Parents, a group organized to support the NGSS’ standards related to climate change and to advocate measures to slow global warming. They gave the board a petition supporting adoption.
So there was little protest at the meeting and the state board adopted the NGSS with little fanfare.
It appears conservative education activists just lost interest. The main website in opposition, IowaRestorEd.com, made its last post on the standards on March 25, when activist Shane Vander Hart questioned whether the review team had ignored public input when backing the standards. (They didn’t, as I wrote in an examination of comments from forums, written communications and an on-line survey.)
The Iowa conservative activists aren’t alone in crumpling under the weight of support for the NGSS and climate change action. As the liberal website ThinkProgress reported, there has been a backlash against attacks on evidence for human-caused climate change and on the standards. Even lawmakers in coal-producing states like West Virginia and Wyoming have backed off on blocking the standards or their climate-change content.
Why did Iowa opponents give up? The public feedback may be one reason. Naysayers couldn’t argue that public opinion was strongly on their side. Even I was surprised at how strongly (although not overwhelmingly) people came out in favor of the new criteria.
Perhaps it was that the argument about local control also withered under scrutiny. As review team member Jim Pifer, a science teacher at Southeast Polk Community Schools, told the board, the NGSS are not curriculum, but standards – “what students are expected to know or be able to do.” How schools and teachers decide to meet those standards – the structure and content of lessons – is up to them.
It also may be how the NGSS were developed. The federal government wasn’t the driver; nongovernmental groups like the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science led the charge. Twenty-six states, including Iowa, helped write them. It was hard to argue that the U.S. Department of Education is forcing this through.
And I wonder if they’re turning their attention to other education issues – specifically the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a new standardized test. At Thursday’s meeting the board also voted to move ahead with adopting the test for Iowa students.
But perhaps there’s something else going on. Maybe opponents are coming to realize that teaching evolution isn’t a threat to students’ faith. Maybe they understand that the threat from human-caused climate change is real, as storms become more violent, sea levels rise, droughts stretch out, and millions of people suffer in the resulting political unrest and dislocation.
Could the tide be turning toward accepting human-caused climate change and dealing with its consequences?