Next Generation of Science-Religion Conflict over School Standards

Some scientific theories offend people.  Evolution offends people! Climate change upsets them! So the publication of the Next Generation Science Standards this week was immediately met with news analysis that virtually promised conflict.  A New York Times article published Tuesday claims that the standards represent “sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States” and tantalizes with a whiff of controversy by noting that the standards include teaching about both evolution and climate science (and won’t some conservatives just hate that!) USA Today breathlessly moved the controversy into its headline, promising that the standards are “likely to raise ‘ruckus’.”

Of course, conflict sells newspapers, but these analyses of the science standards are missing out on a larger picture.  The culture-war drama that conditions the way that we typically look at education controversies helps reinforce the idea that the source of conflict is in specific topics.  This interpretation holds true not just for science education, but in controversies over the teaching of history, literature, and even mathematics.  But the bigger story isn’t the fact that these science standards emphasize the truth of evolution or climate change, or even that they encourage a scientific way of critical thinking.

Historically, the real source of controversy comes from the very fact that these are education standards, whose nationwide adoption is encouraged.  Standardization offends people! There have been several previous efforts to introduce standardization across the states in the past century.  While the creation of Next Generation Standards seems to avoid some of the problems that older efforts encountered, I don’t think it will avoid a similar backlash.

National doesn’t mean the same thing as federal.  The Next Generation Science Standards very prominently includes the tagline “for states, by states”

and emphasizes the fact that this is not an initiative of the U.S. Federal Government in its FAQ.  These standards weren’t written by the Federal Government, they weren’t written by people funded by the Federal government.  It’s a preemptive strike against those who are likely to see the standards as a government takeover of schools.

This language seems to be sensitive not only to recent anti-Federal government rhetoric, but also to the great federal science education initiatives of the early Cold War era.  The Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) were NSF-funded initiatives to improve science education.  (Typically these are described as being reactions to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, but they actually began earlier; Sputnik did influence the adoption of BSCS and PSSC materials by states and schools.)  These initiatives led to the creation of curricula and standards, and textbooks that were rapidly imitated by other publishers.  They were widely successful, but many have argued that the BSCS “reintroduction” of evolution helped pave the way for antievolution trials in the 1960s.  (it’s also been argued, rightly I think, that the extent of the absence of evolution before the BSCS has been largely mythologized.)  Coming shortly after Brown v. Board of Education, the federal creation of science education materials was seen as another step to wrest control of schools, who could attend them and what they taught, away from states.  So the “for states, by states” rhetoric is designed to disavow association with the BSCS/PSSC, and perhaps also give some coded reassurance to those still upset about Brown v Board of Ed.

But to presume that the problem with nationwide science standards in the past was the role the federal government played in it is the wrong lesson to learn from the history of American education.  it makes sense not only to look at the federal efforts of 50 years earlier, but the efforts of the National Education Association 50 years earlier.

100 years ago, the NEA organized the Committee for the Reorganization of Secondary Education.  The Committee went on to issue a variety of reports and suggestions for modernizing the American high school. In 1920, a subcommittee for the Reorganization of Science Education issued its first reports.

Much like the standards released this week, there was an emphasis on using real-life examples in the classroom, and on teaching science as mode of thought, and not as the rote memorization of facts about nature.  This was not considered uncontroversial.  The committee was chaired by Otis W. Caldwell, a member of the faculty at Teacher’s College and co-author of one of the first “general science” high school textbooks.   It also counted as members James E. Peabody, who was the coauthor of several influential biology textbooks; and general science textbook author and former American Book Company science editor Walter G. Whitman.  Members of the committee had a variety of intellectual influences that figured in their work, including the pedagogical theories of John Dewey, the Ethical Culture Society, the labor movement and the rise of teachers unions, and increased concern about sanitation and public health. Many of the suggestions that the Committee made regarding science education incorporated those values.  The result was, in part, that the new modes of teaching sciences, especially the relatively new school subjects of biology and general science, were seen as part of a progressive agenda centered in New York, focused on urban youth, and not really suitable for other parts of the country.

In this, the Next Generation standards demonstrate a lesson learned.  By drawing from a variety of states, there’s less accusation of regional or cultural bias that can be attached to the standards.  But the story in the 1920s grew more complicated: Many states adopted the committee’s recommendations in part because not doing so would give the appearance of not supporting education.  More importantly, textbook publishers started producing and marketing books based on these recommendations (put another way, the recommendations reflected the textbooks that members of the committee had already written.)

This is why the media reports that are promising a fight over evolution or climate science are missing the bigger picture.  In the 1920s, the primary backlash was against the lack of local control and the perceived ideology of education reformers, especially as compulsory schooling became widespread in the rural South.  The antievolution movement, including the law that resulted in the 1925 Scopes trial was a secondary result of that movement.

I question whether it’s going to be enough reassurance to say that there’s an effort to create nationwide standards, but that their adoption will be voluntary and their content will not be dictated by the Federal Government.  It was not enough in the 1920s.

Very recent history has suggested another reason why those who fear federal government input into education might resist the new science standards.  The Common Core State Standards initiative for mathematics and English language were crafted in a way similar to the Next Generation Science Standards, with development headed by the National Governors Association and state boards of education.  Soon after the standards were announced, and after several states embraced them, adoption of the Core Standards was incorporated into the grant competition component of the White House’s Race to the Top Initiative. This has led conservatives in some states to advocate pulling out of the standards.

The website for the NGSS don’t explicitly say that the standards are meant to be the equivalent of Common Core Standards for science however, the answer they give to that question, that the standards are “internationally benchmarked, rigorous, research-based and aligned with expectations for college and careers.” is precisely the language used by Race to the Top.  Along with a claim that the science standards are meant to complement the Common Core Standards, this is likely to give the people opposing the content of the science standards and those opposing federal standardization of education a common cause in opposition.

In the 1920s, the science education overhauls with a nationwide influence helped lead to the Scopes trial.  In the 60s, federally developed science curricula helped trigger another antievolution trial, and helped intensify the culture wars.  The new standards are going to offend people.  But I don’t think their content is going to be the only reason why. News accounts of the potential controversy illustrate how ready we are to accept a science-religion conflict narrative, and how much less interested we are in a deeper conversation (and controversy) about the role of schools in American society.

p.s. I want to talk about the content of the standards, including the scant attention to the history of science, in a future post.


1 thought on “Next Generation of Science-Religion Conflict over School Standards

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s