McCaffrey: Protecting Wyoming's most valuable resource

2014-05-04T11:45:00Z McCaffrey: Protecting Wyoming's most valuable resource Casper Star-Tribune Online
May 04, 2014 11:45 am

What is Wyoming’s most valuable resource? It’s tempting to cite energy: After all, the state is second only to Texas in its total energy production, and first by far in its coal production, outstripping West Virginia by a factor of four. But really Wyoming’s most valuable resource is its children. 

About 90,000 of these children attend Wyoming’s public schools. Each of them deserves the chance to become scientifically literate. Despite the efforts of their dedicated science teachers, however, they have not been well served by their state’s science education standards.

These standards provide guidelines about what knowledge and abilities students are supposed to acquire through the course of their science education. Historically, Wyoming’s standards have been less than ideal, receiving the grade of F in national evaluations of the quality of state science standards.

That’s why it was such a disappointment to educators in the state when the Legislature decided, at the last moment, not to fund review or adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, a new, rigorous, and acclaimed set of science standards developed by scientists and teachers across the country, already adopted by 11 states.

Why did the Legislature take its hasty decision? Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, who crafted the footnote to the budget that defunded the standards, acknowledged that he feared that adopting state science standards that “handle global warming as settled science” would “wreck Wyoming’s economy.”

It’s true that the standards incorporate global climate change. Middle schoolers are expected to learn, for example, that “[h]uman activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).”

But when upward of 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activities are changing the planet’s climate, it would be absurd to reject a set of state standards that reflected the scientific consensus. After all, students take science classes in order to learn the basics, not to be exposed to debunked ideas and fringe notions.

Moreover, it’s absurd to think that teaching students about climate change is going to wreck Wyoming’s economy. True, Wyoming’s economy depends in large measure on the fossil fuel energy industry, to which the reality of climate change is definitely a challenge. But it’s a challenge that cannot be confronted in the style of the proverbial ostrich.

Indeed, as the Star-Tribune editorially observed recently, energy companies themselves “realize the Earth is changing and are basing multi-decade projections and business decisions on the expectation of climate change. If the companies themselves are acting on this, it’s safe to say they won’t mind if our children learn about it, too.”

Despite the shaky reasoning, the Legislature passed the budget complete with the footnote defunding the new standards, and Governor Mead—who is on record as holding that state science standards should provide “both perspectives” on climate change—signed it into law without exercising his line-item veto to strike the footnote.

The Legislature evidently—and irresponsibly—gave no thought to what would happen next. There is, for example, still no authoritative word on whether the law prevents the state from adopting any part of the Next Generation Science Standards or only from adopting the standards wholesale.

Instead, the question was referred to the state board of education, which in turn punted it to a committee of science education specialists—the same committee that previously unanimously recommended the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards—with no instructions except not to recommend the standards again.

This is no way to make decisions about state education policy. Fortunately, local school districts around the state are taking matters into their own hands. Governor Mead’s education policy advisor recently acknowledged that districts are allowed to implement the standards themselves, and at least fifteen have already opted to do so.

In Laramie, for example, local science teachers have already been using the Next Generation Science Standards to update their science curriculum. Such updates are badly needed, since Wyoming’s existing state science standards, with all their flaws, have not undergone a substantial revision for a decade.

And these teachers are also appreciative of the standards’ coverage of climate change, one telling the Laramie Boomerang, “If we don’t teach all of our students about the pros and cons associated with fossil fuels, and also look at possibilities for addressing rising CO2 levels, … we’re doing our students a disservice.”

Such actions on the part of local school districts are good news for the scientific literacy of the students they serve. But without a statewide policy of teaching students about the science of climate change, whether using the Next Generation Science Standards or not, Wyoming will indeed be doing a disservice to its most valuable resource.

Mark S. McCaffrey is programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. perfo
    Report Abuse
    perfo - May 05, 2014 9:06 pm
    Very good commentary, Mark. Now get ready to be verbally lambasted by the crowd that continually whined in class "why do I have to take this stuff, I'll never use it anyway".
  2. wyotruth
    Report Abuse
    wyotruth - May 04, 2014 9:40 pm
    Well said.
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