Climate

West Virginia Alters Curriculum To Cast Doubt On Climate Science

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

The West Virginia Board of Education appeared to stand up for science education when it adopted new education standards based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) last month.

But West Virginians soon learned that the state’s education on climate change would stray from the standards. The new standards were altered, at the request of one school board member, so that they cast more doubt on climate change as a settled science. As the Charleston Gazette reported, board member Wade Linger requested climate-specific changes to the standards before they were released for their month-long commenting period.

“There was a question in there that said: ‘Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,” Linger said. “… If you have that as a standard, then that presupposes that global temperatures have risen over the past century, and, of course, there’s debate about that.”

Of course, there isn’t a debate about whether temperatures are increasing and whether human beings are contributing to that increase — at least, not among climate scientists, 97 percent of whom say that climate change is “very likely” caused by humans. 2014 was just declared the warmest year on record by the Japan Meteorological Agency and 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century.

The West Virginia school board added “and fall” after “rise” in the question Linger referenced, and also made multiple other alterations to the standards, including changing a ninth-grade requirement that asked students to “analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems,” to one that prompted, “analyze geoscience data and the predictions made by computer climate models to assess their creditability [sic] for predicting future impacts on the Earth System.”

Tom Campbell, a member of the school board, told the Charleston Gazette that he understood why Linger was concerned about the standards’ treatment of climate change, and said that he thought schools should “stick to the facts” when teaching science and not dwell on “unproven theories.” He also brought up the role the state’s coal industry plays in schools, saying that it provides money to the education system.

“West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups,” Campbell said.

According to the Charleston Gazette, not all school board members reported knowing that the Next Generation Science Standards had been altered before voting on them, and school board members didn’t tell groups that helped write the state’s standards that they had been altered.

The Next Generation Science Standards, which were put together by 26 states — including West Virginia — and several science and education organizations, serve as guidelines for teachers and school administrators and seek to standardize the science education students receive from state to state. Many climate and science education groups have been pushing for the adoption of the standards because they include the teaching of climate change in general curricula, rather than relegating it to specific classes that aren’t required of all students. So far, the standards have been adopted in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and last March, Wyoming became the first state to reject them.

Some of the groups in favor of NGSS adoption have come out in opposition to West Virginia’s choice to alter the standards. Lisa Hoyos, director of Climate Parents, a group that works to push the adoption of NGSS standards and seeks to improve climate education in U.S. schools, said her group would be circulating a petition against West Virginia’s decision this week. She’s hoping that the petition, along with work Climate Parents plans to do with West Virgina-based groups and individuals against the state’s newly-adopted standards, will get the education board to revoke their decision.

Hoyos said she was particularly concerned about school board members’ opinions that the changes would create debate in classrooms about climate change.

“It’s cynical for education officials to teach false science under the guise of promoting debate,” she said. “This is not social studies — this is science, and you build upon accurate science to educate kids properly.”

Mark McCaffrey, Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education, said that West Virginia’s altering of the NGSS makes him concerned that other states might alter the standards before adopting them. This was the first time, he said, that he had heard from those who helped create the standards that states could modify the standards and still refer to them as Next Generation standards. That’s what Chad Colby, director of strategic communications and outreach for Achieve, an organization that helped create the standards, told the Charleston Gazette.

“The overall integrity of the standards is really compromised when [states] start to remove specific pieces,” McCaffrey said. West Virginia’s modification of the standards, he said, “is going to open Pandoras Box to this type of very detrimental modification.”