New York Times: W.Va. to revisit science standards

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By John Schwartz
The New York Times 

West Virginia joined 25 other states several years ago to help develop a set of standards for teaching science across the United States. Among other topics, the standards acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and has been profoundly affected by human activity.

And last month, the West Virginia Board of Education announced that it was among the first 13 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the “Next Generation Science Standards,” which it said would “equip students with the critical thinking and analytical skills they need to be successful in college and to compete for today’s most rewarding jobs.”

But before the standards were adopted, board members quietly made some changes that science educators say substantially weaken the current state of climate science and introduce far more doubt than is warranted.

The board’s decision has come under fire and prompted a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, when the board will reconsider its action. The board could decide to go back to the original language of the curriculum, to do nothing or to drop the new standards altogether.

The changes go far beyond mere tweaks and have importance beyond the boundaries of West Virginia, said Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, based in Oakland, Calif.

“They are taking the standards, they are calling it the next-generation science standards, and they are changing the composition of the science to match their own personal views,” she said. “That defeats the purpose of having standards developed by scientific advisory boards.”

L. Wade Linger Jr., the board member who asked for the changes, said in an interview that members had improved the curriculum. “We simply added some balance, to get the politics out of it,” he said. “Adding balance to the classroom is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

One part of the altered standards, he told The Charleston Gazette, told sixth graders to “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.” Mr. Linger had “and fall” added after “the rise.”

He said he had called for the inclusion of “and fall” because satellite data shows temperatures going up and down. “We shouldn’t be having a standard that implies there’s just a steady rise in temperature, as opposed to what the data shows, which is the temperature rises and falls all the time.”

The changes also call for discussion of Milankovitch cycles, which are extremely long-term variations in climate. Those cycles are often cited by people who deny the scientific underpinnings of climate change and note that factors other than human actions can also have a powerful effect on the climate.

Mr. Linger, who is a technology entrepreneur, said he had come to his conclusions about warming after doing research on the Internet and comparing data from satellites, weather balloons and ground sensors over time. Last month, Mr. Linger told The Gazette, “We’re on this global warming binge going on here.”

Amy Hessl, a professor of geography at West Virginia University who studies climate change, said that while temperatures might vary from year to year, the overall trend over time clearly shows warming.

Ms. Hessl said she taught her students about Milankovitch cycles — but to prove the human effects on climate, not to disprove them. According to the science of those cycles, the earth should be in a stable period or even a period of cooling, she said.

Mr. Linger’s arguments, she said, were “exactly what the problem is with regard to teaching our students.” Students “need to have the understanding, and the ability, to discuss these things in an intelligent way,” she added.

Ms. Hessl said she was unimpressed with the argument that the changes in the curriculum introduced balance, which she compared to “bringing someone into the classroom who says smoking is actually good for your health.”

Bobbi Nicholson, a professor of education at Marshall University’s graduate school in South Charleston, criticized the board, saying that “they see their primary constituency not as West Virginia students, but as the fossil fuels industry.”

Mr. Linger said that being accused of doing the work of the state’s powerful coal interests was “a little frustrating,” considering that he had no connection with the industry.

The board, he said, acts “in the best interest of the kids,” and adhered to its usual processes, including a 30-day public comment period and a vote by the full board.

The West Virginia Science Teachers Association, however, issued a statement complaining that although it had been involved with previous stages of the process, the board “made these final changes unilaterally,” without consulting or informing it.

“The science was compromised by these modifications to the standards,” the teachers’ group stated in a letter signed by its president, Libby Strong.