When Montana education officials proposed new science standards Thursday, they emphasized the standards' local roots.
“They are truly Montana’s science standards,” said Jael Prezeau, the Office of Public Instruction director of content standards and instruction.
The standards also bear a striking resemblance to Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed by a 26-state group in 2013. The proposed standards, which the Board of Public Education signed off on, are endorsed by many education and industry groups, including ExxonMobil, and are praised for being more rigorous and encouraging more critical thinking.
They have also been controversial, particularly for linking climate change to human activity and for explicitly addressing evolution.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau emphasized that committees who wrote the standards reviewed examples from 17 states; she never actually used the phrase “Next Generation Science Standards” during repeated questioning about the relationship with the proposed standards.
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“That was one of the resources that they looked at,” she said. “There was tons of opportunity for people to have input into this. At the end of the day, whatever the draft looks like, that’s what it reflects.”
University of Montana education professor Lisa Blank noted that changes between Montana’s proposed standards and NGSS mean that you can’t use the terms interchangeably, despite similarities. Other states have adopted standards that draw heavily from NGSS, but they aren’t included in the official tally of 16 states who have adopted NGSS.
Whatever their name, it’s clear that the standards are built on the back of NGSS. While a handful edits significantly change the language from NGSS and the proposed standards don’t include NGSS engineering standards, most changes clarify language like adding “and contrast” to “compare,” or adding provisions for Indian Education For All. Significant sections read verbatim from NGSS.
Scott Dubbs, the curriculum director for Lewistown who was involved in writing the proposed standards, called them “Montana’s take on what we think is important in NGSS.”
In at least one area, a tweak appears to back away from human-caused climate change.
The final NGSS standard in the "Earth and Human Activity" section reads, "use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity."
The proposed Montana standard that appears to correspond reads "create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, biodiversity, and investigate and explain how some American Indian tribes use scientific knowledge and practices in managing natural resources."
The phrase "modified due to human activity," is gone.
However, NGSS and the proposed standards match up on other standards in the section, like "evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems."
Perhaps state officials have reason to be wary of comparing the proposed standards to NGSS. In 2014 Wyoming education officials signed off on NGSS, only to watch the state legislature torpedo the standards by banning the state from spending money to review or adopt NGSS. Some lawmakers from the coal-producing state blasted language regarding climate change and humans as a leading cause.
However, individual Wyoming school districts appear free to adopt the standards on their own, which several districts have done, and state officials have resumed work on crafting new standards. The budget language banning NGSS funding has since been removed.
Montana's legislature has little power over Montana's education standards. When a legislator declared in 2013 that he was going to defund Common Core, Juneau said that there was nothing to defund; the legislature didn't dedicate any specific money to its implementation.
Angela McLean, the former lieutenant governor and chair of the Montana Board of Regents who now works for the Commissioner of Higher Education, praised members of committees who crafted the proposed Montana standards for their “bravery.”
“(NGSS) shook up the education community, perhaps moreso folks in the political arena,” she said.
Laurel, home to the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that frequently advocates against federal education policy, is known as a hotbed of anti-Common Core sentiment in Montana. While several districts said they work to balance community views with state standards, schools are ultimately beholden to state officials.
“From my perspective, we’re gonna follow what the state standards say,” Laurel Superintendent Linda Filpula said. “We follow the Board of Public Education. Whatever shakes out, we’re accredited by the Office of Public Instruction.”
She and other administrators said that there are sensitive ways to address controversial topics like evolution and climate change.
"What we would like to do is work from an evidence-based approach and encourage students to learn to be consumers of the information and to critically think and evaluate and use evidence to make judgments,” said Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane. Missoula recently adopted NGSS.
“We’re trying not to force science on everybody — that this is the only way to believe it, but (instead teach) this is what science is,” Dubbs said. “We’ve really tried to walk the fine line and not just rub things into peoples’ noses. I just think the critical part in that is respecting where each other’s at.
“It’s very easy to take the high road and just not teach that (controversial) stuff, which some districts do,” he said. “They just try to not offend anybody.”
Thane said that Missoula had no major opposition while considering NGSS.
When there is opposition, it's not just about external debate, Dubbs said. It can affect classroom relationships and student learning.
“There’s a tendency to kind of forget (opposition) is there,” he said. “It creates a level of distrust, that’s it’s just a black-and-white issue. That isn’t the world. That isn’t how it works.
“You have to work with all of those kids and all of the things that they bring with them.”