NEWS FEATURE: Agreeing on science, Budget bill paves way for adoption of updated education standards

By on March 10, 2015

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The tables were turned for Next Generation Science Standards in Wyoming when Governor Matt Mead signed House Bill 23 into law on March 2. This new bill effectively countermands the ramifications of a footnote in the 2014-16 State Budget used to defund the new standards.

NGSS has been a hot button topic since its introduction to the State Board of Education in 2014. The new criterion would have revamped outdated science standards in Wyoming public schools. Until Mead repealed the budget footnote, there had been a financial restriction on the State Board of Education, forbidding any future financial expenditure on the review and implementation of NGSS.

NGSS has been controversial in the Cowboy State, where oil and gas is the predominant industry. Its modernized curriculum includes teachings that climate change is a man-made problem and the teaching of evolution. The new standards would also change the way science is taught, sponsoring a more interactive environment and emulating the way scientists in the field actually work. NGSS would redefine the minimum science criteria covered by public schools across Wyoming.

Mead’s communications director David Bush explained, “Wyoming law allows local school districts to adopt local standards that are as good or better than the state standards. Many Wyoming districts went forward with the adoption of science standards similar to the NGSS.”

However, Bush does not believe individual district adoption is enough. “It is time for state standards to catch up to the districts.”

Wyoming science standards have not been updated since 2008. Few would disagree that the standards are in need of updating, but which standards to adopt has been a point of serious contention. Last year Wyoming Representative Matt Teeters spearheaded the budget footnote that stymied the implementation of new standards.

Marguerite Herman has had a front row seat to the proceedings surrounding NGSS. As an active lobbyist, she fought for its passage and found it disconcerting that Teeters’ budget footnote could have such serious consequences. She enumerated several reasons the addendum was attached, citing Teeters’ need to appeal to a conservative district and a statewide fear of offending the mineral and fossil fuel industries. Wyoming is the number one producer of coal in America and ranks seventh in oil production.

“We were fortunate when the bill didn’t die with the footnote,” Herman said. “Very few thought it would survive the process. [According to the footnote] we couldn’t spend any money to change it or even meet, so it ground the science review to a complete halt. That’s using the budget to dictate policy.”

Herman is not the only one crying foul when it comes to the budget footnote. As a member of the Teton County School Board and former Wyoming state representative, Keith Gingery questions the legality of the footnote outright.

“I strongly disagree with any policy statements being made in a budget bill,” Gingery said. “The Science Standard amendment was actually a footnote in last year’s budget bill. When I was in the legislature, I argued for years that policy decisions should not be in the budget. Policy decisions should be debated through an actual bill.”

But Gingery does not believe controversy surrounding the bill stops with budget policy. He questions whether statewide curriculum should exist at all.

“[T]he more interesting discussion was on the issue of who should be deciding standards,” Gingery said. “The standards only came into being in the 1990s. The State Board of Education decides the standards. Is that the right body to be deciding the standards? They are unelected and are political appointees.”

The State Board of Education has heard this argument many times from many different sectors, but Board Chairman Pete Gosar thinks that individual districts are more than capable of addressing this problem. “I think if you look at education in Wyoming a lot of it is rightly determined at the local level, because this is just a baseline. For me, as a board member, I’d love to see districts go above and beyond. You will always see that. One will unpack it one way and say, ‘Hey, this really worked for us this way,’ and hopefully you will see that spread. You’ll see NGSS as the requirement, and the way they unpack that and explore it will be up to them.”

With the budget release now enforced, debate over NGSS can resume and Gosar is thrilled about the panel representing NGSS.

“We had a good balance of scientists and education experts balancing content with learning,” Gosar said. “We set up a K-12 system where learning builds on the previous year’s curriculum each year. There’s been a lot of good work done to get quality science standards to teachers and school districts.”

Gosar listed several important aspects of NGSS that get washed over. “As a former social studies teacher, I think these new standards mark a return to exploration with the scientific method and hands on learning, with testing and evaluating the way science is done in the field,” Gosar said. “Not just listening to someone lecture or watching on a screen. That was a really strong part of these science standards before they were stopped.”

Few people realize there has been a lot of public opinion factored into the passage of these standards. Fifteen of the 48 Wyoming school districts have already adopted these new standards without the monetary support of the state.

Herman does not believe individual district passage is enough. “There is a value to statewide standards that would aid individual districts, because statewide standards carry a lot of support. Then those districts have expertise, aid, and support and don’t have to do it all alone.”

Teton County School District is not one of the 15 to autonomously adopt NGSS. According to Teton County School Board trustee Kate Mead, Teton County will wait until the State Board of Education finalizes a new set of science standards before adopting them.

It makes sense that the director of curriculum for Teton County schools, Tracy Poduska, is waiting to update local science standards until the State board of Education has reached a consensus on the new state requirements.

The current standards Teton County uses as a baseline are those last passed by the state of Wyoming in 2008. Poduska is waiting to realign the district’s standards in order to best comply with the state’s new standards.

“We just have to wait to see. It’s too soon to tell what direction [the State Board of Education] will take,” Poduska said. “What we do currently have, and is really exciting about NGSS, is a STEM program. That’s science, technology, engineering, and math. We look forward to getting to align that with our current program.”

Amidst Common Core fears, Poduska thinks it is very important that people in Teton County understand that statewide standards do not dictate local curriculum. “There’s a common misconception when it comes to the words ‘standards’ and ‘curriculum.’ The way we implement those standards, the amount of time we take on certain topics, when we introduce that information, that’s still all up to us. What we’re looking for is a challenging and rigorous program through challenging and rigorous standards.”

Teton County seems to have found the right formula. US News and World Report ranked Jackson Hole High School the number one public school in Wyoming in 2014.

Wyoming could be the 14th state to implement NGSS. There are still questions to be answered and kinks to be worked out as the standards go before the State Board of Education once again. The curriculum itself is still under scrutiny as well as some of the methods that will be used to implement the new material, but panels of education experts and scientists will reconvene to hammer out these issues. Implementing NGSS has been a lengthy battle but Gosar hopes it is now possible to get new science standards to the districts within months, rather than years.

“After two plus years in development, for me, time is of the essence,” Gosar said. “Quality is always going to be a concern, but there’s been a lot of good work done, and I’d like to think what we finally give back will meet that level of quality.”

About Natosha Hoduski

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