Thomas R. O'Donnell

Iowa approves NGSS as opposition fizzles

In STEM on August 10, 2015 at 7:38 am
An April 2015 photo at California's Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming persists.

An April 2015 photo at California’s Lake Isabella. Once a tourist destination, the lake is going dry in an inexorable drought. Climate scientists say such severe weather episodes are more likely as global warming rises. Photo credit: Chris Wronski via photopin (license).

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?

 

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  1. Excellent points. I too was surprised that the opposition so completely fizzled. I like your supposition that this represents a turning of sorts toward acceptance of climate science. Let’s hope, given the stakes and the urgent need for action. After all, it’s happening whether people “believe” it or not, and kids have a right to learn why it’s happening, and what they can do about it. 12 y.o. Eleanor Filippone said this at the meeting: “If we do not inform kids about climate change, how will we be able to save our home? We need to inform my generation and generations to come about climate change so we can put this ticking time bomb in reverse, and try to slow the opening of the window of no return.”

    • Thanks, John. The truth is, however, that climate science was only one reason conservative groups opposed the NGSS. I suspect they backed off because there were other issues, like testing and the common core, that distracted them from the NGSS. But I also fear they may try to block the standards, in one way or another, at the local school board level.

      TO

  2. I don’t think opposition has fizzled – I think it has more to do with the fact that the BOE meeting was all day during the workweek, as opposed to the public forum in Waukee that was wisely held after work hours. In order to attend the public would have to take vacation days from their real jobs.

    Also, you severely misquoted that engineer. She DID have concern over the standards containing too much engineering and not enough science. She also had concern that because of this, a blurring of the lines was occurring between fact & theory on the climate change topic & therefore triggering the public concern. Since climate change is still a theory, with respected scientists on both sides speaking to it, it therefore should not be presented as a fact (like one does in engineering) and students allowed to test the theory. She thought that if it was presented as a theory, rather than a fact, less folks would have concern over the standards on this subject matter.

    Also, even some BOE members agreed with the concern on the amount of engineering required, the professional development that would have to occur as a result (science teachers are not engineers- these are 2 separate education tracks), and the additional cost to districts as a result. Yet they still voted in favor, rather than addressing a fix to these concerns. That is alarming in & of itself, especially since it is a struggle to get funding for districts as it is.

    The SBAC & the NGSS will double whammy our teachers & districts financially, and our BOE does not seem to care.

  3. The engineer who spoke wrote an article that articulated her concerns here.
    http://iowarestored.com/2015/08/iowa-adopted-subpar-standards-for-science/

    • Hannah,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Throughout the debate over the NGSS, I’ve watched opponents’ actions to see what they might do to try to stop the NGSS. There was much action during the early deliberations: People attended the first task force meetings to watch their deliberations, even though those, too were held during the day. (I was there, taking vacation from my full-time job.) There were posts to the IowaRestorEd website raising questions about the standards and urging people to weigh in. But until Heather Stancil’s August 21 post, the last IowaRestorEd NGSS post was in March. There were no posts, no calls to action and no reports on the standards’ progress, even thought they were progressing to approval. It’s my observation that opponents to the standards have typically been more organized and more motivated than supporters, yet they didn’t press people (many of whom, like Shane Vander Hart homeschool their children and therefore could have pulled away for a couple hours) to attend the August meeting to oppose the standards. (I again sacrificed precious vacation time to attend.) That sounds like they lost interest… i.e., the opposition fizzled.

      I don’t think I misquoted Ms. Stancil. My summary of her comments is pretty much in line with what she said and with what you say. My reading of the standards is that engineering comes into play when students construct experiments to test concepts. I don’t think that’s overweighting the curriculum with engineering.

      I also disagree with Ms. Stancil’s assertion that engineering and science are so different that the two can’t be brought together. No engineer gets his or her license without a deep understanding of physics – a pure science. No chemical engineer graduates without multiple courses in chemistry – also a pure science. Science and engineering go together like a hand in a glove. As to whether engineers would act on a project with discrepancies and disagreements: Engineers deal with uncertainty every day. That’s why they build conservatively, with large margins of error. (Nuclear reactors are a great example of this. The models of neutron transport and other factors are so uncertain reactors typically are overbuilt, at great added expense.)

      Ms. Stancil’s real objection is revealed in the example she chooses to illustrate her problem with the engineering standards: Climate change. She – and you – misunderstand what scientists mean when they use the term “theory.” It does not mean “guess” or “supposition.” A theory is an explanation of what scientists see and observe. It’s supported with evidence. Theories can be tested, tweaked and challenged. Evolution has been challenged repeatedly, but it’s still the best explanation for the diversity of life we see on Earth.

      Climate change also has been challenged and tested, and withstood every challenge so far. A “simple Google search” reveals disagreements only because there is an active industry, supported by the fossil fuel companies, to generate doubt and questions. They’re following the example of the tobacco industry, which enlisted scientists to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking, stalling regulation for decades. (See “Merchants of Doubt,” http://merchantsofdoubt.org/.) The fossil fuel industry is out to do the same: Forestall regulations that would make them change the way they do business.

      By the way, many of the scientists challenging human-caused climate change aren’t climate scientists, but scientists in other fields – and often are well-paid by the fossil fuel industry. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html?_r=0) It’s like asking your doctor for an opinion on what to do with your plumbing.

      The overwhelming evidence is that humans are causing climate change. The scientific consensus is that humans are causing climate change. See: http://www.skepticalscience.com/settled-science.htm and http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm. The only argument in climate science circles is how bad it’s going to be and whether it’s too late to stop the worst effects.

      My reading of the NGSS is that students will be presented the evidence for climate change and asked to run their own experiments. The problem opponents seem to have is that the preponderance of the evidence is on the side of human-caused climate change because, well, the preponderance of the evidence says humans are causing climate change.

      As for the professional development: Any new standards would have required professional development. It goes without saying. The only thing that wouldn’t require it is staying the same, and everyone seems to agree Iowa kids would be at a disadvantage if that were the case.

      I understand that for many people, accepting the evidence human-caused climate change is a difficult thing. Their opposition has become woven into their social fabric. Their friends, family, colleagues and neighbors all have the same opinion. Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and more have told them it’s bunk – an attempt to force them to drive electric cars and take shorter showers. Going against this view could threaten a person’s standing in their social group, so they refuse to believe otherwise.

      But it’s a fact that humans are causing climate change. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. We’re already seeing the destabilizing effect it has on our planet and political system.

      TO

      • A theory is something that has not been both 1) proven wrong and 2) approved for viewing by the public. (There are plenty of theories never published because the evil elite want them to be stifled.)

        Also (3) A theory is something that, if proven wrong, such proof has not been approved for view by the public (this includes other scientists), by the evil elite.

        In order to see all scientific works, one must look for self-published works of all scientists.

      • Your comments need no reply. Thank you.

  4. Do you really think the opposition has “fizzled?” I assure you, it has not. Here I am, one of them.

    • Lisa,

      Thanks for your reply. While I’m sure you — and others — continue to oppose the NGSS, the state board of education has adopted them, albeit in modified form. So the opposition, as organized or disorganized as it is, matters little now. Since you homeschool your children, the standards are irrelevant to your family anyway.

      Thanks again,

      TO

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