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Kentucky Leads Charge in Next Generation Science Standards, Despite Challenges

MC1 Charlemagne Obana

Kentucky is among several states preparing to introduce new science standards in public schools and, like many of the others, the state has seen opposition to the standards from a vocal minority.

But the debate has been a bit more heated here and some have even called the state's adoption of the standards the most contentious in the country. “Everybody is watching what everybody else is doing,” says Josh Rosenau, policy director at the National Center for Science Education. At least seven states have already adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, to some degree but other states are being very careful, Rosenau says. Kentucky has been called a leader for being first to implement the Common Core standards in English language arts and math. It’s also among the first states to adopt the NGSS. “If Kentucky had backed away from it or turned it into a political controversy it would have shaped perceptions in other states as well," Rosenau says. The NGSS are about imparting analytical skillsand are more about the scientific method than about memorizing the atomic number for boron.  “It’s not saying just tell us the difference between a solid, a liquid and a gas because any kid can just Google that,” says Karen Kidwell, who is in charge of implementing the new standards for the Kentucky Department of Education. “We don’t need kids who can just regurgitate definitions or other people’s points of view or ideas about how the way the world works." The NGSS were developed by an independent non-governmental group of 26 states, including Kentucky. They're similar to the new Common Core standards in English and math—which have now been adopted by most states—in that there are fewer standards that are explored in more depth. Some state lawmakers did nearly turn it into a larger political controversy this year after receiving pressure from constituents and Kentucky made national headlines regarding opposition to the inclusion of evolution and climate change in the standards. During the comment period the Kentucky Department of Education reminded the state school board that evolution is already included in the current standards and has been assessed since 2006. KDE staff added that the vast majority of scientists back it up.   That’s also why there are more lessons on climate change, officials say. “They’re confusing science with other ways of thinking,” said Tom Tretter, a professor at the University of Louisville who was part of Kentucky’s team that reviewed and made recommendations for NGSS. “A religious way of thinking is not in conflict with a scientific way of thinking," he says. "It’s simply different. Any teacher or group of teachers who choose to ignore the best science and choose to teach non scientific ideas is really doing a disservice to their kids." Kentucky’s education department received thousands of written and recorded comments many from scientific organizations and educators.  Only around 300 were in opposition.  But that didn’t stop a small legislative committee (the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee) from rejecting the NGSS in a 5-1 vote in September. Gov. Steve Beshear quickly said he would veto that decision, a move that was commended by education commissioner Terry Holliday. A larger 40-member Interim Joint Education Committee could have also voted on the standards this month, but it declined to do so and co-chair Rep. Derrick Graham said “it’s a done deal.”  Critics say the standards aren't advanced enough.  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute—which supported the Common Core standards— has given the NGSS a C grade, which is better than the D grade it gave to Kentucky’s science standards, but not as strong as grades given to states like Massachusetts and South Carolina. “The NGSS folks made a conscience decision to give greater priority to what they would call the practice of science rather than the knowledge of science. And they believe that’s the right way for science education to head and I guess our reviewers don’t agree,” says Fordham Institute President Chester Finn Jr. But those in the science community like Rosenau say “that’s not testing what people really know about science.” He adds, “that doesn’t help people be life long science learners and appreciate the relevance of science to their lives.” Opposition is dormant, for now. Technically, the joint education committee has until Nov. 1 to hear the standards in committee but it’s not guaranteed a vote. After that, state lawmakers could open up the issue for discussion when the General Assembly is back in January, but the education department is already preparing to implement the standards and Gov. Beshear has made clear his intent to move forward.