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A group of Wyoming educators has asked state education leaders to rethink their stance on a controversial set of science standards.

The 36-page paper, which was sent to the state Board of Education last week, is titled, "Why the Critics of the Next Generation Science Standards are Wrong." It is signed by 46 current and former science and math educators at the University of Wyoming.

The professors say the state board is working under difficult constraints, having been prohibited by a last-minute budget footnote from adopting the Next Generation standards, a set of K-12 benchmarks developed by 26 states and several national science education agencies. Ten states have so far adopted the standards.

"We are concerned, however, that you are moving forward on this project without fully understanding the research upon which the NGSS are based," the paper states. The paper's author, educational consultant Peter Ellsworth, said the professors who signed the paper spoke as private citizens, not as representatives of UW.

The authors say the recent debate regarding the scientific validity of climate science and how it should be taught in Wyoming classrooms is largely semantics, and that those who argue the state's science standards must reflect the role of energy and agriculture in Wyoming's economy do not understand the nature of science.

Though global climate change is a theory, that word means something very different in scientific terms than in common parlance, Ellsworth said.

A theory is an idea that has been so thoroughly tested that it's highly unlikely it will ever be refuted or discarded, Ellsworth said.

"But it's the job of scientists to continually reevaluate it in light of new evidence," he said.

Understanding how the energy industry supports the state's economy is an important issue, he said. But Ellsworth thinks it belongs in a social studies curriculum, not in the state's science standards.

The paper praised the Next Generation standards for emphasizing science and engineering practices over textbooks and vocabulary lists -- techniques real-world scientists rarely use.

Children learn science best while doing science, Ellsworth said. 

"Whether it will change any minds remains to be seen," he said of the position paper, which he sent Friday to the state Board of Education and the state's curriculum directors.

State Board of Education Chairman Ron Micheli said his stance has not changed regarding how climate change should be taught in Wyoming. He has previously called for "Wyoming" science standards that recognize the benefits natural resource extraction have brought to Wyoming while also teaching its environmental impacts.

"I still don't have a problem with teaching [climate change] in our schools," Micheli said. "I don't have a problem examining it from all sides, as long as it's represented in a fair and balanced approach."

Ultimately, districts will adopt the curriculum they see fit, Micheli said. Fifteen of Wyoming's 48 school districts are already implementing the Next Generation standards, according to a letter from Gov. Matt Mead's education policy advisor, Mary Kay Hill. A district in Gillette has been implementing the standards for more than a year.

But the state's role is to put forth an appropriate framework, Micheli said.

"I think it just gives people more comfort to know that these are standards written for Wyoming people, by Wyoming people," he said. "And I think there is some symbolism in that."

Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, one of the footnote's authors, did not return a call for comment Monday.

Censorship?

Pete Gosar, a member of the state Board of Education and chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, has called the footnote censorship and said the professors' paper deepened his understanding of the standards.

The Wyoming Department of Education recently sent out a call for new volunteers to review Wyoming's current science standards, which were last revised in 2008. A committee of about 30 teachers and administrators previously reviewed and unanimously recommended the Next Generation Science Standards last year. This latest push for volunteers is meant to broaden the committee's demographics to include more parents, business leaders and other community members, the agency has said.

The department has also said no part of the Next Generation standards will be considered during the upcoming review. That is a departure from advice of the Attorney General's office, which said the state could consider parts of the Next Generation standards while still following the legislative footnote.

"That wasn't what was told to people when the budget footnote was passed," Gosar said.

Mead, too, has said he understood parts of the standards would at least be considered during the upcoming review.

"I think they can look at the Next Generation Science Standards and they can go through them and say, you know, these things look good to us," Mead said during an April 25 interview with Wyoming Public Radio. "And these things we may want to add to and make more rigorous, or these things we don’t think are right to science standards."

Mead told the Star-Tribune in an email through his spokesman, Renny MacKay, that new science standards should be Wyoming-specific and should raise the bar for students. 

"We will not get to such standards if we manufacture obstacles to the process," Mead said.

Gosar said he's concerned the state does not have the time, resources or human capital to start from scratch and hope to match the years of planning that went into developing the Next Generation standards.

"You hate to be negative, but I don't think that we'll come out with a product that's anywhere near the Next Generation Science Standards," Gosar said. "And that's unfortunate."

The department has said it will introduce information regarding current or former science standards from California, Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina and the District of Columbia, in addition to a framework from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Any committee member can bring any set of standards they would like to consider, except for the Next Generation Science Standards, the department has said.

 

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