Tempers warming: Will a debate over climate change stall a long-overdue update of Pa.’s science standards?

By: - October 16, 2019 7:11 am

LANCASTER, Pa. — Jeff Remington was nearly a decade into his teaching career when Pennsylvania set out to create a new set of guidelines for science education.

That was in 1996, the same year that the first USB port appeared on computers and that a pair of Palo Alto programmers launched the internet search engine that would become Google. Dolly the sheep was born, making mankind’s first successful clone of a life-form, and Nintendo 64 reigned supreme among gamers.

Those milestones have come and gone. But the science education standards that Pennsylvania adopted remain in place to this day, informing school curriculum and statewide standardized tests for nearly 2 million children.

“We’re still testing kids in Pennsylvania from this era,” Remington, a middle school science teacher in Palmyra, Lebanon County, said in early October, when he and a hundred other science educators convened for an annual statewide conference in Lancaster. “It’s absolutely crazy.” 

At a time when Pennsylvania is injecting more money than ever into STEM programs, experts and educators say the standards that guide their teaching are wildly outdated, and fail to account for recent scientific developments or contemporary understandings of how children learn. 

One expert estimates that Pennsylvania may have the oldest science standards in the United States. 

“The current standards are based on the best of what we knew back in the ‘90s,” Carla Zembal-Saul, a researcher at Penn State University, said. “But a lot has changed since then.”

State policymakers seem to agree. 

Pennsylvania’s State Board of Education voted in September to launch a review of the decades-old science standards, kicking off a years-long process that educators hope will end with the General Assembly adopting new guidelines for science education. 

The vote was the result of a diligent lobbying campaign waged by educators — including Remington, a STEM ambassador for the National Science Teachers Association — who hope the new standards will prioritize creative problem-solving and make Pennsylvania more competitive in a global workforce.

But they also fear it could ignite political battles over what’s taught in science classrooms across the state — including material related to evolution and climate change. 

A ‘compass’ for learning

Pennsylvania’s current science standards have been on the books since 2002, when the General Assembly voted to approve a 35-page document outlining key terms, concepts, and methods that children should master during their K-12 science education. 

That document was the result of years of work by a committee of educators and scientists, which was convened when the review launched in 1996. The guidelines don’t tell Pennsylvania teachers what to include in their curriculum or lesson plans, but do offer a “compass” for science education in the commonwealth, Remington said.

“They get students to an endpoint,” Remington said. “But local districts have a lot of latitude in how they want to get them there.”

Educators say it’s important for school districts to set their own curriculum and priorities for science education. 

But according to Remington, that freedom also has its drawbacks. He says districts devote most of their resources to help students prepare for statewide standardized tests — a type of teaching that emphasizes rote memorization of facts over experiential learning and creative thinking. 

Those skills serve students well when they need to pass a test in Pennsylvania, where 64 percent of high school students had better than “basic” proficiency in biology as of 2018, according to Keystone Exams data from the state Department of Education. 

But it’s hard to say if this type of learning gives them an edge over students in over other states. 

The commonwealth is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t participate in a national assessment of science education, even though it participates in similar rankings for math and reading skills.

Even without hard data, experts say it’s easy to tell that Pennsylvania’s science education isn’t working for its students.

“One of the things I see with my students is that they don’t know how to solve problems,” Andrew Walton, a ninth grade environmental science teacher in Doylestown, Bucks County, said. “In Pennsylvania, we’re not promoting that scientific thinking process.”

Walton and other teachers say that puts students at a disadvantage when they leave school and enter the workforce, whether they choose to pursue a science career or not. 

“A lot of industries have let us know that we don’t have a prepared workforce,” Penn State science education professor Kathleen Hill said. By reinvigorating the topic across the state, “we’re really listening to what industry is saying our students need to do,” she added.

Educators say the gold standard for science education is the Next Generation Science Standards, a framework developed by 26 states and research organizations that emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning and engineering in technology and the natural sciences. 

The guidelines have already been adopted in some form in 44 states, according to Penn State’s Zembal-Saul. A decision to adopt them in Pennsylvania, she said, would bring the state in line with the best practices in science teaching and the most up-to-date understanding of scientific advances.

But educators also know it would ignite a political battle over what’s taught in Pennsylvania’s classrooms. 

“I’d be shocked if Pennsylvania just adopted [those standards] straight up, because of politics,” Walton said. 

The climate for change

Educators expect that climate change education will be a major sticking point in the overhaul of Pennsylvania’s science standards, which currently lack any mention of human-caused global warming. 

The scientific community agrees that climate change will lead to catastrophic sea-level rise and ecological disruption if humans don’t drastically curb their carbon emissions. But since it’s not mentioned in Pennsylvania’s science standards, some students may never learn about it in school. 

“Right now in the state, it is a total random act of teaching climate change,” Remington said. “There’s no consistency. There’s no formal training.”

Teachers know they’ll have a hard time passing climate change education standards through Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly, where committees still hear testimony from researchers who reject mainstream climate science

The same goes for topics related to evolution, which was a point of contention during the last revamp of science standards in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, according to Kathy Blouch, a professor at Lebanon Valley College who was on the committee that promulgated the current science standards.

“I think that’s why the state didn’t want to open the science standards again, because it was so contentious,” Blouch said. “But it’s been so long, and our current standards haven’t held up.”

In an attempt to avoid a political fight, educators like Remington are making workforce development a cornerstone in their campaign to adopt new science standards for the state. At a time when workers from across the world are vying for jobs and autonomous technology threatens to upend entire industries, Pennsylvania isn’t preparing its students to compete, they say.

“If we want to sell this, we sell it through workforce development,” Remington told a roomful of educators at the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association conference. “It’s all about jobs.”

Gov. Tom Wolf made the same pitch in September, when he announced the state Board of Education vote that kicked off the review process. Modernizing Pennsylvania’s science education standards would prepare students “for good careers in emerging industries,” the Democrat said in a press release.

Lawmakers are still years away from voting on new standards for Pennsylvania. The Department of Education first has to convene a committee to lead the review and write new guidelines to send to the General Assembly for consideration.

While educators are eager to see that day come, they also don’t want to skirt consequential topics to secure a swift victory in the statehouse. They argue that science education in Pennsylvania should prepare students for any challenge that lies ahead — whether it’s a transforming workforce or a warming climate.

“If we are going to produce the next generation of [the] workforce, we have to prepare those students with climate literacy,” said Leigh Foy, a high school science teacher in York County who advocates for better teaching of climate science. “Because that is going to be our challenge. No matter what workforce they find themselves in, we have to prepare them.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.