Later this year, the Arizona State Board of Education will consider adopting new K-12 standards in both Science and History/Social Studies.
The consideration of standards for these core subjects has nearly always met increased scrutiny and controversial consideration from segments of the population with different perspectives because these disciplines touch on topics that can potentially challenge a person’s or group’s belief system.
This year is no exception as the new proposed Arizona K-12 Science Standards have invited negative reactions from members of the mainstream education and science community because of the terms and concepts it has attempted to strike away and the closed-door process Superintendent Diane Douglas’s unknown internal reviewers adopted after being presented with the original draft version of the standards.
Forbidden terms, reworded behind closed doors.
Evolution is the most prominent term altered in the proposed new Arizona K-12 Science Standards. Stricken mostly wherever it is mentioned and redefined as the Theory of Evolution, the word is not even included among the many key terms the reviewers added. Several standards and terms pertaining to the process do remain in a more openly worded form. (Changes in green writing can be found on pages 4, 20, 27, 30, 32, 42, 44, 46, 64, 69, and 72 of the Proposed Science Standards)
The term Climate Change is nowhere to be found. There is a sentence that includes the phrase change of climate and there are standards that allude to it and some concepts/terms. However, discussion of alternative energy options, depending on the grade level is nonexistent, stricken, or reworded. (Changes in green writing can be found on pages 21, 25, 40, and 60 of the Proposed Science Standards)
The Big Bang Theory: Stricken entirely and the more ambiguous consideration of all theories of the universe has been substituted in a probable attempt to appeal to the proponents of Intelligent Design. (Page 62 of the Proposed Science Standards)
One saving grace in these standards is at least we have progressed since the time of the Scopes Trial that the geological ages of the planet and continental drift are included and do not seem to be in question.
The Open and Closed Process of Developing the Science Standards
At first, according to Lacey Wieser, a former Biology instructor, 110 educators worked in an open (with published agendas and meeting summaries on the Department of Education website) yearlong process to develop Science Standards per grade level based, in part, on the higher thinking skills of Blooms Taxonomy. Wieser, had spent 14 years at the Department of Education before resigning as the Director of K-12 Science and S.T.E.M. Education at the Arizona Department of Education this last January.
Items like key concepts and terms were to be included in supplemental instructional guidance pieces for local districts to consider when developing their local curriculums. On average, 25 to 30 Science Educators would convene in each meeting, discuss progress, and develop the new standards. Wieser would act as a facilitator and routinely update Education Leadership at the Department on their progress.
A member of this committee, Barbara Reinert (a Science Curriculum specialist in the Scottsdale Unified District with more than 20 years of teaching Science at all levels), echoed about the openness of the process and how it drew educators from over 80 school districts and 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties. The educators utilized many sources, mainly drawing from the research-based The Framework for K-12 Science Education and Working with Big Ideas in Science. During this period, when the committee met, there was no active involvement or feedback from the Superintendents office.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Wieser met with Superintendent Douglas and submitted the proposed new K-12 Science Standards so there would be time to place its review before the State Board of Education at its December board meeting. However, department leadership contacted Wieser the next day and informed her that the Superintendent had reservations about the current draft and pulled it from the December board meeting agenda.
After the Thanksgiving Holiday, the proposed standards were placed into internal review where reviewers not connected to the original committee examined them. This non-transparent process went from late November to the end of January. No changes were made to the document at this time and Wieser and the other original committee members were not involved during this period. At the end of January, Wieser was summoned by Department leadership and directed to edit the standards based on the discussions of the internal reviewers. The original committee of 110 instructors was not invited to participate in this phase.
Rather than complete revisions in a nontransparent fashion that she felt would hurt the standards process and minimize the efforts of the 110 science specialists that devoted a year into composing the first draft, Ms. Wieser resigned four days after receiving the document. An Arizona Department of Education “internal process” composed of ADE staff completed the revisions people can see in green ink after Wieser left.
Negative and hostile reaction
The negative and hostile reaction from the Educational and Science instructor Communities has been near unanimous.
The two major Democratic Candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, and David Schapira, have both criticized Superintendent Douglas for the closed-door process she conducted on their Facebook pages. They are both calling for the public to contact the Department of Education by the end of the public comment period on the standards (May 28) and ask them to address the issues pointed out by Wieser and other science educators and organizations.
A return to an open process
Wieser, Reinert, and other educators through organizations like AZSELA (Arizona Science Education Leadership Organization) recommend several options to remedy the situation. All agreed that there needs to be a return to the open process with the 110 qualified and dedicated science educators from the original committee reconciling any differences or inaccurate content in the current draft. All agree with the jettisoning of the Key Concepts section the unknown members of the Internal Review installed.
Wieser favors the inclusion of supplemental instructional guide districts can draw the key concepts from. AZSELA favors the continuance and expansion of professional development opportunities for science instructors. They all favor the restoration of topics like evolution and other key topics. As another educator, Michael Vargas, a Physics instructor from the Paradise Valley District interviewed pointed out “you can’t teach Biology without evolution” and you cannot, using the analogy of dentists performing open-heart surgery, have non-science educators writing the Science Standards.
In all fairness, a case can be made that the inclusion of key facts and concepts within the standards may be better than having it in supplemental documents. Having all students master the same concepts, terms and standards is a strong foundation that would lead to students developing the higher critical thinking skills in the upper range of the Blooms Taxonomy scale. There is also the added consideration of students moving to different districts where the specialists in that school system may have a slightly different strategy to master the standards with a somewhat different set of terms.
However, while including the key facts and concepts within the standards may be appropriate, revising these standards in closed-door non-transparent meetings by analysts whose science background is in question is not. Striking out scientifically accepted terms like evolution and Big Bang Theory is also not conducive to providing a high-quality education.
The consideration of Science (and History) Standards for the classroom has generated heated reactions from certain reactionary communities for the last 100 years and they, unfortunately, will probably continue to do so. Below are links to the scenes from the movie “Inherit the Wind” and the television show “The West Wing” to illustrate that. In his interview, Vargas rightly comments that “science does not care about your belief system…It is not a left or right thing. Science is science. When we turn our back on that, there is a problem.”
The reactionary groups that want to shape science education by omitting terms like evolution and The Big Bang in Science Education Standards have no place in shaping public education policy. If they want a school that follows their beliefs, they should build their own private school with their own money and recruit families who will pay their own money to have their children enroll. Public Education is for children of all families, with different belief systems, to attend and receive instruction from Highly Qualified Content and Instructional Specialists who are equipped with a quality and updated well-rounded curriculum.
People should follow the advice of the people interviewed for this piece and read the proposed standards. The link to them is below. If you have comments to make, please do so by May 28. More importantly, please pay attention to when the latest version standards come before the board and how the members debate the issue of adoption. It is through active and informed citizenship that sound decisions are mostly made.