No heated debates or controversies about climate change have overshadowed the development of Wyoming’s K-12 science standards this year, which appear months away from adoption.
The language on climate change is not vastly different from the Next Generation Science Standards that caused a political storm two years ago. But the process for developing the standards has been more transparent, officials say.
Multiple public comment periods were offered, and the people who developed the standards represent a cross-section of Wyoming, from educators to industry representatives.
The proposed standards are in their final public comment period, which ends Aug. 12. Gov. Matt Mead and the State Board of Education will review comments before making a final decision to adopt or amend the standards this fall.
When the Next Generation standards were proposed in 2013, public reaction was explosive. A number of groups sprang up, both in defense of the standards discussion on climate science and in opposition. Ultimately, Wyoming lawmakers blocked adoption of the standards via a budget footnote that cut funding.
But that was a different time, said Walt Wilcox, member of the state board and vice superintendent for the Natrona County School District.
Common Core standards had provoked controversy nationwide, with many people confusing standards, a set of benchmarks for each grade level, with curriculum, a specific set of teaching materials and methods, he said.
A change of leadership
When the Next Generation standards were considered two years ago, the state’s education agency was in turmoil. The year prior, lawmakers stripped then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of her authority in a bill that was later ruled unconstitutional. Many department employees resigned under Hill’s tenure, complaining of a hostile environment.
Some credit this year’s lack of controversy to Department of Education staff and Hill’s replacement, Jillian Balow, Wilcox said.
“In her leadership role, I believe (she) has worked hard to stay informed and be part of the communication loop,” he said. “That’s a stronger effort than we’ve seen in some of the previous superintendent roles.”
Balow said she fully supports the standards and is particularly pleased with the open process that got them this far.
But the superintendent has played both sides of the fence on the issue of climate change, careful not to take a side during educational discussions but openly speaking on behalf of industry in others.
“We have worked to make sure that we take away the rhetoric — the liberal rhetoric — around climate change and around output carbon emissions and make sure that our kids get a balanced approach to science,” Balow said at a recent coal meeting in Casper.
In particular, the schools chief has been outspoken in her support for the coal industry. Energy taxes, from coal to natural gas, have contributed more than $3 billion to education since 2003, she said.
But the public shouldn’t confuse her role as an advocate for the industries that fund education and economic development in the state with her role on the state board approving science standards, Balow said.
“I want to clarify the difference between science and industry,” she said. “We are not teaching kids about the industry, we are teaching them about the science that exists in our state.”
The past controversies over climate change occurred outside of the board’s work, said Pete Gosar, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Education. Gosar was a member of the board during the previous standards development.
“I think the controversy was outside of the board,” she said. “I think not much has changed with regard to the board. We’ve been fairly successful in my time there checking our political identities at the door.”
As far as balancing the politics of the state with the science standards, Gosar said there need not be a dispute.
“I think many times people confuse science with political agendas,” he said. “I think science comes down to the idea of an observation of the world, an idea, a testing of that idea and either a modification or an affirmation of your original thought.”
A complex relationship with climate science
But in Wyoming, opinions on climate science are not simple, said Erich Frankland, chair of the International Studies, History and Political Science department at Casper College.
“Wyoming used to lead the country in climate deniers,” he said. “The coal industry is a powerful industry in the state. Natural gas is also a powerful industry, and they are benefiting from the market shift because of climate change. Wyoming is kind of in an awkward position, part of our industry is benefiting and part of it, obviously, is hurting.”
That conundrum is felt in education, the teacher said. There is some debate even among educators about the validity of climate change as a man-made dilemma versus a natural cycle of events, he said.
“What is interesting is the younger generation, at least the ones I run into at the college, the high school. There isn’t that resistance,” he said.
Ana Houseal believes in being true to science and the scientific method. The University of Wyoming Outreach Science Educator was on the committee that developed the new standards.
Committee members were conscious of former debates, but climate change was a modest part of what they accomplished, she said.
“The climate standards, I think there are two or three. It’s less than 5 percent,” she said. “We looked at them, and we looked at the language. And we listened to the comments and tried to remove what people considered inflammatory.”
The actual content in the proposed standards is not different than last time, she said.
“We were very careful, but we were also careful about the science,” she said. “You can’t change the science.”
The value of these standards goes beyond setting a list of goals for each grade level, Houseal explained.
These standards don’t stop at memorization and lecturing and they don’t rely on a textbook. They are built to develop engaged thinkers, able to connect information across disciplines, she said.
“They mirror better what science is. For example, scientists themselves don’t just read content or textbooks … without some sort of context,” she said. “They are trying to ask and answer questions. Science is all about asking and answering questions.”