Political debates surrounding climate change and creationism are now making their way into America's schools, as more states are deciding whether to adopt or reject new common science standards that put a greater emphasis on controversial topics like global warming and evolution.
Critics of the standards have said they do not present the issue of human influence in global warming objectively and do not consider "all sides" when discussing evolution.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have already adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (or science standards influenced by the NGSS) which were developed by a group of national science and education organizations, including Achieve – one of the groups involved with the development of the Common Core State Standards. But Wyoming became the first state to officially reject the standards when Republican Gov. Matt Mead approved a budget in March precluding the use of state funds to review or adopt the science standards after they were heartily endorsed by the state's teachers union. South Carolina lawmakers blocked the adoption of the standards in 2012, before the final draft was published.
And in Oklahoma, a group of lawmakers tried to pass a measure that would repeal the state's current standards, which were modeled after the NGSS, despite the fact that they were unanimously approved by the state board of education. But after being amended in the Senate, the House failed to take action before adjourning May 23. A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin told U.S. News the Republican governor on Thursday signed a rule request from the state education department adopting the Oklahoma Academic Standards for Science, which were developed with the input of state science educators and used the NGSS as a reference.
But in Wyoming, a group of current and former science and math educators at the University of Wyoming is asking the state to reconsider its position, saying many of the critiques of the standards demonstrate a misunderstanding of the nature and language of science. The educators said in their letter to the state board of education a major goal of science education is to transform classrooms to "communities of scientists, where students use scientific practices in concert with the crosscutting concepts and core knowledge to develop their understanding … of scientific literacy."
"The actions of the legislature and Gov. Mead have denied teachers and students access to the most powerful tool available to make this happen," the letter said. "As a result, our students will not be as well prepared for college or the world of work as students from states who have implemented NGSS."
It's not the first time divisive social issues have come into play in public schools.
A 2012 poll from Gallup shows nearly half of the American public – 46 percent – holds a creationist view of the origin of the human race. Another 32 percent said they believe humans evolved "with God guiding," while just 15 percent said they believe humans evolved and that God had no part in the process. Meanwhile, although nearly all climate scientists agree that climate change trends are very likely due to human activities, 1 in 4 Americans are solidly skeptical, an April Gallup poll shows.
And those beliefs are apparent in some of America's schools.
At least two states – Louisiana and Tennessee – have laws in place that allow alternatives to evolution to be taught in public schools.
Louisiana's law, the Louisiana Science Education Act, was signed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in June 2008 and allows teachers to use additional materials that challenge the ideas of climate change and evolution, which could permit the teaching of creationism. In 2012, a bill allowing Tennessee public schoolteachers to teach alternatives to scientific theories took effect when Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican, decided to allow it to become law without his signature. Meanwhile, a charter school system in Texas teaches creationism, and several private schools that accept public funds through scholarships and vouchers teach creationism, according to reports by Slate and Politico.
Several major court cases – including a 1987 Supreme Court case – have found the teaching of creationism or "creation science" in public schools to be unconstitutional.
The debates have also been attracting more national attention as of late.
In February, Bill Nye – the star of the 90s television show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" – debated Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum, who believes the world is just thousands of years old – not billions – and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Nye has also made appearances on television – on CNN and John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight, for example – to debate human involvement in global warming trends. During a phone interview, Nye told U.S. News he believes the group of people who oppose the Next Generation Science Standards, which he says as they stand "are great, they're fine," are already "outside of the mainstream of scientific thought."
"There are people who perceive this as the big government telling them what to do, how to conduct their lives," Nye says. "These are people who want their religious beliefs to supplant scientific discovery. So it’s a very difficult thing when you’re trying to encourage people to embrace scientific discovery rather than what their ancestors believed without question."
While not developed by the same entities as the Common Core State Standards for English and math, the Next Generation Science Standards are similar in that they outline academic benchmarks for what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know about different topics including physical, life, earth and space sciences, as well as engineering and technology.
The adoption of the science standards has happened at a much slower pace than Common Core – 10 of the 26 states involved in developing them have adopted the standards, compared with nearly all of the 48 states that worked on Common Core – and the backlash hasn't been nearly as vitriolic or political.
Many states have adopted the standards without much debate – and New Jersey is on the verge of doing so after its public hearings conclude this month – but legislators in several states are pushing back because of the manner in which they present climate change and evolution, as well as the broader content of the standards. The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the standards a C, citing their "acute dearth of math content, " among other issues. The same review gave both Wyoming and Oklahoma's current science standards an F, and found three states that have adopted the NGSS (California, Kansas and Maryland) as well as the District of Columbia to have "clearly superior" standards in place.
In a publication critiquing the science standards, the group Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core said the standards do not present "legitimate scientific critiques of materialistic theories regarding the origins of the universe, of life and its diversity," that they fail to present controversial issues objectively and "disproportionately focus on the negative effects of human interaction with the environment."
James Taylor, a senior fellow for environmental policy at The Heartland Institute, said in a release when the final version of the standards was unveiled in April 2013 that they convey "an anti-human message regarding human activities, population growth and environmental impacts that is not scientifically justified."
"They certainly convey an environmental activist bias," he said.
A group that opposes the NGSS also filed a lawsuit last September in Kansas – one of the states that has already adopted the science standards – claiming the standards promote atheism and are therefore unconstitutional for violating the separation of church and state. But not all religious groups are opposed to the standards. The Wyoming Association of Churches this month released a statement in support of the standards, and is asking the state board of education to adopt them, the Casper Star-Tribune first reported.
"WAC believes that God gave us the responsibility to serve as stewards of the created order," the group said in its statement. "Science, on the other hand, is not based upon a belief system but rather a field of study dedicated to the understanding of how the created order works. Therefore, WAC strongly supports the advancement of an education system founded upon 21st century evidence-based science standards, like NGSS, which encourage Wyoming students to think critically, and through greater knowledge, foster stewardship of the created order."
The nation's two largest teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – have also expressed their support for the standards.
"The Next Generation Science Standards have seamlessly incorporated science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts into each performance expectation," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a June 2013 statement, while urging caution during curriculum development and implementation.
"Critical thinking and problem-solving are embedded throughout as students use mathematical and computational thinking to construct explanations and design solutions based on understanding of concepts rather than coverage of topics," she added.
Still, Jim Nations, a Wyoming resident and father to a 15-year-old boy, says the manner in which climate change is presented "seems to be nothing more than indoctrination."
"What I found in the few hours I've spent looking at these is … it's just terrible," says Nations, a private consultant who used to work for NASA. "If you’re trying to teach science, you should always teach reality. If you’re going to teach reality, make sure the students have the tools to do what’s being asked. But neither of those things are there."
"In the higher grades … equating human activities with natural processes seems to have a preponderance in a lot of the standards," Nations adds.
Critics of the NGSS have said the issue of human involvement in climate change has yet to be proven and is still being debated, but the Wyoming educators in their letter attempt to debunk that perception, along with the idea that teaching evolution could be unconstitutional.
But Christy Young Hooley, a former teacher from Wyoming, says it's about more than the politics of the issues. When it comes down to it, she says, the standards push teachers to take on more of the role of parents. Hooley says she resigned at the end of the 2012-13 school year, due to concerns about the implementation of Common Core.
Although she primarily taught English and social studies to fifth- and sixth-grade students at a public school in Green River – a small town in southwest Wyoming – Hooley says she also taught first-grade science while working in Utah, and noticed a difference in the demeanor of students.
"When I taught first grade, everything teacher says is true and there’s no reason to question – they’re so sweet and innocent and love what their teacher says," Hooley explains. "As I see teaching things that could be an uncomfortable topic, such as evolution, and not letting them know there are other choices out there and to speak with your parents – it’s easy to have that conversation with upper grades."
Topics such as climate change, humans' impact on the environment and evolution are introduced in younger grades in the NGSS. A kindergarten earth science standard, for example, requires students to be able to "communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air and/or other living things in the local environment."
"To me that’s concerning that they’re not developmentally at that ability to separate what a teacher says and maybe what the family values are or where parents stand on it," Hooley says. "I live in an area that a lot of families don’t see climate change or evolution as necessarily a settled science. It’s hard, it’s very difficult for teachers to teach that very objectively."
Pete Ellsworth, the author of the document from Wyoming educators and a retired senior lecturer from the University of Wyoming, says those debates have "no business" in a science classroom.
"The reason is that as soon as you introduce God or miracles into the equation, it's no longer empirical and it's not science anymore," he says.
However, that's not to say the topics couldn't be discussed in schools at all, Ellsworth adds.
There are aspects of climate change, particularly the role the energy industry plays in state economics, that can and should be discussed, he says – just not in a science classroom.
"These are issues that need to be thoroughly discussed and they need to be discussed in the classroom, but it's up to the districts to do that at the curriculum level, rather than doing it at the state level in the standards," Ellsworth says. "The exception to that is that it could very well fit in the social studies standards. It has to do with geography and economics and history."
As for creationism, Ellsworth says the idea could be presented in a social studies class (under "contemporary social issues") or in a science class discussing pseudoscience.
"I guess it's important for kids to understand why it's not science," he says. "But it cannot be presented as an alternative to evolution."
But according to Hooley, that kind of background context is important in a set of standards that emphasizes project-based and hands-on learning.
"When you remove the content to allow for those kinds of learning, it doesn't just automatically generate in students’ minds. They have to get that content somewhere," she says. "It's interesting to see that there’s such an uproar that we’re going to be hurting students by not adopting something. I think that’s just a fallacy and I think it’s been overdramatized that some horrid thing is going to happen because we haven’t adopted the latest and greatest supposedly science standards, when we all have the capabilities in our own states to create something unique to each state and to be strong."
Corrected on June 20, 2014: The map in this story has been corrected to accurately reflect the geographic orientation of the Pacific Northwest.
Clarified on June 23, 2014: This story has been updated to clarify Oklahoma adopted science standards modeled after the NGSS that were written by state educators.