Lawmakers should have done homework before banning NGSS
by Kerry Drake
— July 1, 2014
The bitter fight over changing science standards in Wyoming’s public schools was an unlikely subject to emerge as one of the most controversial topics from the Legislature’s budget session this year. It’s likely to get more intense as the summer heats up.
Typically, reviewing standards the state uses to assess students’ progress in nine different subject areas is a pretty mundane affair that doesn’t draw the attention of too many people outside of teachers and members of the state Board of Education.
Two things happened to dramatically change that situation. One was Wyoming’s adoption, without much debate, of the “Common Core” national standards in reading, math and language arts. Opponents across the nation have disingenuously — but successfully — labeled Common Core as the federalization of our public school system.
The second, which has had an even bigger impact in Wyoming than Common Core, was the specific recommendation of a Department of Education committee to the Board of Education to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Opponents of the proposed science standards convinced Republican lawmakers in the final days of the session to block the Board of Education from even considering funding the switch to the NGSS. They used two lines of attack against the standards, which have been generally accepted even though both have little grounding in reality.
The more sensational and headline-making charge is that the NGSS was dropped because it’s critical of the fossil fuel industry because changes in our energy supply are needed to combat climate change. This strikes me as a red herring, or at least an overreaction to a small portion of the overall standards that deal with teaching about the impact of climate change.
There was still room to discuss the issue and come to a reasonable compromise without throwing out the entire NGSS. But climate change skeptics like Gov. Matt Mead and fossil fuel boosters like Board of Education Chairman Ron Micheli were very vocal in their belief that the NGSS was the doctrine of climate change activists who would throw the primary driver of Wyoming’s economy under the bus. Of course, the idea Wyoming officials would ignore scientific facts to the detriment of students in an attempt to keep the coal mines busy has helped make our state a laughingstock.
It would take a poll of legislators to determine exactly why they made the stupid choice to ban all discussion of the NGSS, but a more likely reason was the claim by Wyoming parents they were blindsided by the new science standards. Only it turns out not to be true, either.
“I get so tired of hearing [parents] say, ‘We never had a chance to voice our opinion.’ In fact, they did have that opportunity,” said Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody), co-chairman of the Joint Education Interim Committee, at a meeting last week in Casper.
Paige Fenton-Hughes, coordinator of the state Board of Education, said public notices and press releases were sent out about the proposed science standard changes. She agreed with Coe that parents had an opportunity to participate, but added, “It’s almost like the running debate we have in education: Do you have an opportunity to learn, or do we have an obligation to make sure you learn?”
She added, “Discussions were held, hearings were held. There’s still the perception that didn’t occur. Of course, if that’s your perception, that’s your reality.”
Fenton-Hughes is right about the perception — a few hours after the committee adjourned, I attended a forum in the same room organized by parents opposed to the NGSS. Not only did some argue they had no input, one accused the state of selling out local control of education.
Fenton-Hughes said part of the confusion parents have about the process stems from their difficulty “distinguishing between standards and curriculum, and separating assessment issues.”
“The standards are what we’re shooting for, and the curriculum is how the local school district chooses to get there,” she explained. The state Board of Education is prohibited from proscribing the curriculum and textbooks to local school districts.
“We’ve heard that standards keep teachers from being creative, that they ruin the magic,” said Fenton-Hughes. “Good teaching has never really been about magic, it’s been about skill and hard work. [Standards don’t] keep you from being fun or engaging to your students at all. How you do that is still up to you in your classroom.”
Fenton-Hughes is trying to develop a formal, written process for reviewing state school standards; as difficult as it is to believe, one does not exist now. It’s definitely needed, and it should at least lead to investigation of any future criticism from parents or others that they were excluded from the conversation.
“We need to figure out a better way to get more people involved, and get the word out,” Fenton-Hughes explained. “The process needs to be more clear and transparent. … But I think parents also have a responsibility to keep informed about their kids’ [education]. It’s a two-way street.”
It’s also not only parents who feel left out of the process. Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) said when he was a teacher, he watched as the superintendent would tell a principal to form a standards review committee, and the principal would automatically turn to their favorite teachers to lead the effort and ignore others. “It’s almost gospel,” he related.
Coe complimented the state board for how it gets the word out now about reviews of school standards. “After the fact information gets out, and it turns into a rabble-rousing situation, when [people] just weren’t paying attention,” he said.
“There are national groups out there that are operating on budgets of millions of dollars, who tell their constituents that they were not allowed to have input,” said Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper). “They’re very good; they’re professionals.”
Fenton-Hughes appeared to convince a majority of committee members that every five years is too soon to implement new subject standards. While the review of the standards actually begins sooner than is required under state law, by the time new standards are designed and implemented, she said they’ve only been in use for about a year before students are tested under the new standards. Several legislators said seven years between new standards might be a more appropriate period to assess whether students are actually learning the new standards.
It’s easy to see how the lack of a definitive process to change standards left open an opportunity for a battle over the NGSS. Establishing standards update process will hopefully prevent future fights over a basic element of improving public education.
But the fact remains the Legislature’s decision to simply accept complaints that parents didn’t have a chance to comment about the NGSS has led to a situation in which no one — school districts, teachers, parents and particularly students — will win. By outlawing the state Board of Education from even talking about the proposed science standards — and the board’s subsequent decision, contrary to an attorney general’s opinion, that the department’s committee can recommend any other standards except the NGSS — lawmakers have assured this year’s decision will be flawed.
The more parents and others learn about the NGSS, the more it becomes clear that instead of outright banning the standards, adding some Wyoming-specific standards to them might have been the best solution for our students. That absolutely cannot happen now, even if some parents want it to. Legislators may have thought they were responding properly to outrage from constituents, but they should have taken time to find out if that outrage was real or manufactured.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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