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Evolution and Climate Science Make the Grade in State Education Standards

Officials in Rhode Island, Kentucky, Kansas, Maryland and Vermont have approved standards to introduce climate change science and evolution in science classrooms well before high school



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Five U.S. states have adopted science education standards that recommend introducing two highly charged topics—climate-change science and evolution—into classrooms well before high school.

Released in April, the Next Generation Science Standards are the first effort in 15 years to overhaul U.S. science education nationwide. Twenty-six states, working with non-profit science and education groups, developed the guidelines on the basis of recommendations from the U.S. National Research Council. And the measures are being adopted, even in states where climate change and evolution tend to be avoided in the classroom.

In the past two months, education officials in Rhode Island, Kentucky, Kansas, Maryland and Vermont have all approved the standards by overwhelming margins. At least five more states—California, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Washington—may take up the standards in the next few months.

“Whew,” says Minda Berbeco, programmes and policy director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. “So far, so good.” Swift adoption of the guidelines has been surprising but welcome news for many supporters. Evolution has been a controversial topic in U.S. education for decades, stretching back to the 1925 "monkey trial" in Tennessee, where the state prosecuted high-school teacher John Scopes for violating a statute that barred the teaching of evolution. In the past decade, those who oppose evolution have sought to enact "academic freedom" laws that would allow creationism to be taught alongside evolution.

Increasingly, that sort of legislation also seeks to promote criticism of mainstream climate science (see "By design"). Berbeco says that this allows opponents of evolution and climate-change education to band together. “More people hate evolution and climate change than just evolution alone,” she says.

Laws passed in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee last year allow teachers to present material that undermines global warming and evolution, two subjects that have been specifically singled out in the statutes. Similar bills were introduced this year in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The standards are the first national guidelines to incorporate climate change, which is already taught in some schools. But it has proved daunting for many educators, because the subject requires teaching aspects of biology, physics and chemistry. “It’s a little piece of everything,” says Rouwenna Lamm, deputy director for national outreach at the Alliance for Climate Education in Oakland. The guidelines recommend introducing the subjects early on, teaching students in middle school that human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, have warmed the planet. As students get older, that idea should be expanded to encompass discussions of climate models and potential policies to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Likewise, the guidelines recommend teaching evolution before students reach high-school biology classes, the point at which many states tackle concepts such as natural selection and adaptation.

The standards have faced legal challenges in some states, although the framework has so far escaped unscathed. For example, Kansas lawmakers last month narrowly defeated a measure to block state funding to implement the guidelines—quashing the proposal just hours before lawmakers adjourned for the year. In Kentucky, the state board of education unanimously approved the standards on June 5, but they must now undergo a public hearing and a subsequent legislative review before teaching can begin.

That places the guidelines squarely in the path of a high-powered critic who will help to steer the legislative review: Mike Wilson, Republican state senator and chairman of the Kentucky Senate’s education committee, who is a climate-change sceptic and advocate of intelligent design. “Political correctness bears watching and should never be the arbiter of learning,” he wrote in a May article published in The Courier-Journal, a Kentucky newspaper.

Robert Bevins, a toxicologist and president of Kentuckians for Science Education, an advocacy group formed in February in part to push for the adoption of the standards, says that he is gearing up for a hard fight. “Kentucky has a love–hate relationship with science,” he says, noting that the state has a thriving coal industry that has opposed greenhouse-gas regulations and is also home to the Creation Museum near Petersburg.

Richard Innes, an education analyst with the conservative Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Lexington, Kentucky, predicts that the guidelines will be sent back to the state education board for revision after the public hearing this month. But ultimately, he says, “I think the science standards will go through."

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on July 3, 2013.

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