Wyoming Continues Battle Over Science Standards

Published July 2, 2014

A 21st-century version of the classic range war is playing out in Wyoming. This time, the state is divided over rejecting the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of science curriculum and testing mandates intended to spread nationwide. The battle is enjoined on one side by NGSS opponents emboldened by a recent victory against national math and English curriculum mandates called Common Core, and on the other side by environmentalist activists.

Wyoming is the first state to reject NGSS. Because Wyoming is rich in minerals, coal, and other natural resources, opponents objected to what they consider climate-change indoctrination in the standards rather than objective science. Other groups took issue with NGSS treatment of evolution, which they say promotes atheism. The Wyoming Association of Churches (WAC), an ecumenical group comprised of 10 Protestant denominations with the goal of promoting social justice and environmentalism, however, favors the NGSS.

“Parents took very seriously the findings of a lack of sufficient content for important high school classes–notably chemistry and physics–and very poor connections between science instruction and the mathematical concepts needed to master them,” said Cindy McKee, a spokesperson for Wyoming Citizens Opposed to Common Core. “While we are continuing to discover missing foundational knowledge and skills, probably the most alarming aspect of the science standards is their subjective treatment of controversial scientific issues, such as origins and environmental science.”

The Wyoming legislature attached a provision to the 2014 state budget banning NGSS at the state level, but it left school districts free to choose their science curriculum. One-third of Wyoming school districts are currently phasing NGSS into their curriculum, according to the governor’s office.

On One Side: ‘Think Critically’
According to news reports, state lawmakers rejected NGSS primarily because it pushes theories of human-caused climate change. Mary Walker, chairwoman of On Sacred Ground, a socio-environmental committee of the WAC, claims it’s necessary to teach children the perils of global warming.

“Parents have the right to agree or disagree with science, but the state does not have the right to deny our children the opportunity to learn about science, in this case climate-change science,” said Walker. “Doing so is to deny our children the opportunity to think critically.”

“No one would ever want to take away the ability of someone to be able to put food on the table, and we do need a game-changing renewable energy technology to take the place of coal,” Walker said. “But rather than declare war, Wyoming should see this as a tremendous opportunity to become a 21st-century energy leader.”

The Other: ‘Outright Propaganda and Indoctrination’
McKee said teaching children to accept one of many theories about climate change defeats the purpose of science, which is to observe reality and compare conclusions about those observations.

“Parents understand that science sometimes asks both religious and political questions, and proposed answers are opinion science,” she said. “What is the cause and nature of life? Is the current warming trend of the earth part of a cycle or caused by human activity?  The list goes on. When it comes to controversial issues, parents should be able to trust that their children are being informed, not indoctrinated. We should know that these topics won’t be introduced until our children are mentally mature and equipped to make informed decisions about these types of questions.”

An independent review of NGSS by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found NGSS omits key elements of a science curriculum, including much of high school chemistry and physics, and makes significant errors.

NGSS contains significant factual errors, besides “outright propaganda and indoctrination,” and therefore cannot prepare students for science careers or majors in college, said Jim Nations, a Casper scientist who has been involved in science and math education initiatives for decades.

“We should have confidence that our science standards are not set up in such a way as to exclude scientific evidence, and that’s exactly what the NGSS does,” McKee said. “If we allow that practice to be enshrined, what does that say about the future of education in our country? If science can’t be taught objectively and neutrally, what can?”

Image by Rigers Rukaj.