An Oklahoma House of Representatives committee voted to reject a new set of state science standards for schools this week, a move that, according to the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, is “unprecedented.”
On Monday, the Oklahoma House Administrative Rules and Government Oversight Committee voted 10–1 to reject the Oklahoma Academic Skills for Science, a set of academic standards that had been developed by a committee of teachers, community members, as well as business and industry representatives over the last year and a half. The standards had been approved unanimously by the state board of education in March, and it’s not yet clear how this House committee’s ruling will affect the future of the standards, though, as the National Center for Science Education points out, the blocking of the standards would need to be passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the Governor to go into effect.
One of the things brought up in the House Committee meeting was concern over teaching climate and weather subjects in early grades.
Oklahoma Rep. Mark McCullough expressed his concern over the sections in the standards that deal with climate science, sections he said make references to “human impacts on the climate” in third, fourth, and fifth grades. He also said he thought references to human activity related to the environment focused on negative aspects of human involvement, such as the over-spraying of pesticides, and said “positive” examples of humans intervening in the environment to produce a change, such as flood control, weren’t as common, a focus that could end up leading to an “agenda-driven curriculum” that teaches students that “people are the problem.”
“There’s been a lot of criticisms, in some sectors, as to maybe some of the hyperbole — what some consider hyperbole relative to climate change. I know it’s a very very difficult, very controversial subject,” he said, going on to ask, “do you believe that those sections specifically relating to weather and climate particularly at the earlier ages…could potentially be utilized to implicate into some pretty young impressionable minds, a fairly-one sided view as to that controversial subject, a subject that’s very much in dispute among even the academics?”
Tiffany Neill, director of science education at the Oklahoma State Department Of Education, who was testifying on behalf of the science standards, said that though the standards do deal with climate, they do not focus on the causes of climate change in earlier grade levels — rather, they give students in earlier grades an “awareness of weather and climate” and encourage students to analyze data and construct their own explanations as to what causes climate change or contributes to extreme weather.
Neill said the new standards introduce a level of exploration and analysis to schoolkids that wasn’t there in the previous set of standards. Those standards, she said, were so focused on memorization of information that some projects — such as an experiment in which students worked to find out whether plants would grow in the dark — would occur in multiple grades, so that students would in some cases have to repeat the same lesson over and over.
“This is what’s right for Oklahoma kids, and we need this for Oklahoma kids,” she said of the new standards. “We don’t currently have standards in science that give kids that opportunity [for exploration].”
Neill also noted that Oklahoma’s previous set of academic science standards received an “F” in 2012 from the Fordham Institute, a blow that prompted the education committee to reevaluate the standards.
Some committee members were also concerned about the use of the Next Generation Science Standards as a resource for the Oklahoma standards. One committee member in the hearing pointed to several sentences that were the same in the NGSS and the Oklahoma standards, concerned that the some parts of the two sets of standards are “amazingly, almost identical.” The NGSS were developed by 26 states and a number of science and education organizations, and aim to provide national guidelines for science education that include the teaching of climate science and evolution, topics that might otherwise have just been taught in specialized classes such as Earth Science that aren’t required of all students. The standards have been adopted by ten states and the District of Columbia so far, and Wyoming became the first state to strike the rules down in March.
Lisa Hoyos, Director of Climate Parents, a group which advocates in favor of the NGSS, said in a statement that lawmakers “have no right to interfere” with children’s science education.
“Climate Parents will be working with families in Oklahoma to sound the alarm about these harmful and disingenuous political games,” she said. “We expect state leaders to act responsibly on behalf of our kids and defeat any efforts to censor science education.”
Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, another pro-science standards group, is also working to ensure this House committee ruling doesn’t lead to an outright rejection of the state science standards, urging Oklahomans to contact the Speaker of the House, the Senate President pro tem and Governor’s office to voice their support for the standards.