It seems Oklahoma may be following in Wyoming's bold footsteps after a committee in the state's House of Representatives rejected a set of new science teaching standards, mainly due to their framing of climate change.
Earlier this week, the Oklahoma House Administrative Rules and Government Oversight Committee voted 10-1 to revoke the Oklahoma Academic Skills for Science, a set of academic guidelines developed by a committee of educators, community members, industry and business representatives over a year and a half.
While the committee's decision was a blow to many of the state's educators and climate advocates, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) pointed out that it would also have to pass the Oklahoma House and Senate for the standards to be completely nullified.
"A rejection of proposed education standards by the legislature is unprecedented and at this point the real impact and implications are unknown," stated a blog post on the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association website.
The standards -- adopted March 25 by the Oklahoma State Board of Education -- were considered by many to be a much-needed upgrade from the past standards, which received an "F" in the Fordham Institute's 2012 study of state science standards.
"The Oklahoma science standards were outdated," said Lisa Hoyos, director and co-founder of Climate Parents, a climate change advocacy organization. "Legislators are standing in the way of kids learning comprehensive science that they need to accelerate academically."
'Hyperbole' of climate change?
But regardless of the perceived improvement, various committee members picked apart the new science standards when they were presented Monday as part of a routine resolution, called H.J.R. 1099, meant to review rules that had been proposed for state agencies.
During an intense back-and-forth inquiry in which the director of science education at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Tiffany Neill, was questioned about the standards' validity, Rep. Mark McCullough (R) said, "There's been a lot of criticisms, in some sectors, as to ... what some consider hyperbole relative to climate change," and said the guidelines "seem to emphasize the negatives of human involvement in the environment."
He added: "This could be used solely for, perhaps, an agenda-driven curriculum demonstrating that people are the problem."
McCullough criticized teaching lessons he found to be "Malthusian," such as: "Construct an argument supported by evidence for how our increase in human population and per capita consumption of natural resources impacts Earth systems."
But Neill defended the curriculum, which she said "doesn't lead students to any acceptance for causation" and, unlike the past standards, encourages students to come up with their own findings.
A major point of contention stemmed from the fact that the state's new academic standards had used the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of national guidelines developed by 26 states and several organizations that include climate science and evolution in the curriculum. So far, they've been adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia.
"I find the Oklahoma academic standards and Next Generation standards to be almost identical. ... Why would you jettison all the past standards?" remarked Rep. Gus Blackwell (R), the committee chairman. The interrogation continued when Rep. Gary Banz (R) insisted that Neill tell them the percentage of NGSS inclusion into the new guidelines.
According to Mark McCaffrey, NCSE policy and programs director, Blackwell has a history of anti-science legislation, adding, "It's very unfortunate, given all the hard work people in the state have put into crafting updated standards."
Connecting the dots
When Wyoming became the first state to reject the NGSS in March, many speculated that the decision was influenced by the state's significant economic dependence on fossil fuels, and particularly coal (ClimateWire, March, 18).
Now, some are wondering if the same may be true for Oklahoma. While Oklahoma is not as rich in fossil fuels as Wyoming, Climate Parents pointed to a breakdown of finances that show over a million dollars from the oil and gas sector was pumped into the Oklahoma Legislature during the 2012 election cycle.
"I believe that the vast majority of Americans believe kids have the right to learn accurate science without political interference from allies of the fossil fuel industry," Hoyos said.
But it's not only the fossil fuel industry that could be influencing states' decisions regarding NGSS. McCaffrey said that many of those who had led the charge against updated science standards in Wyoming have also been pushing back on the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which details what K-12 students should know in the realm of mathematics and English language arts at the completion of each grade.
"The anti-Common Core community may well be comparing notes on how to derail updated science standards," he said.
McCaffrey added, however, that even states that have adopted NGSS, like California, face major challenges in terms of providing teachers professional development, addressing inequities between schools and districts and finding effective ways of ensuring that students gain the know-how to make informed climate- and energy-related decisions later in life.
The good news, he said, is that whether or not a state formally integrates NGSS into its academic practices, school districts and individual teachers can take it upon themselves to incorporate the standards' central ideas into their curriculum.
"I would say this is what's right for Oklahoma kids," declared Neill, "and we need this for Oklahoma kids. We don't currently have standards in science that give them that opportunity."
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