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It’s textbook approval time again

You know what that means, because we can’t do this sort of thing without controversy and a generous side order of knuckleheadedness.

Bowing to public pressure, the world’s largest textbook publisher has revised misleading language on global warming in a proposed Texas reader. But another major imprint has yet to do the same, worrying scientists and educators just a week before new textbooks are approved in the state.

Proposed wording in Pearson Education’s English textbook for Texas fifth-graders described climate change as a concern of “some scientists.” It then went on to say: “Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change.”

That wording rankled several leading scientific organizations, which point out that 97 percent of qualified scientists say that humans are overwhelmingly to blame for climate change.

The American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education raised complaints with the Texas State Board of Education, urging that the language be changed.

“For these textbooks to present climate change as a ‘debate,’ or to suggest that there is scientific uncertainty around the drivers of climate change, is to misrepresent our scientific understanding and do a disservice to our children,” AGU Executive Director Christine McEntee wrote in a recent letter to the board’s leadership.

In response, Pearson submitted a revised text to the Texas education board on Wednesday — less than a week before the agency votes to approve textbooks to be used at the start of the 2015 academic year.

The new language discusses climate change far less equivocally.

“Burning fuels like gasoline releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, which occurs both naturally and through human activities, is called a greenhouse gas, because it traps heat,” it says. “As the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase, the Earth warms. Scientists warn that climate change, caused by this warming, will pose challenges to society. These include rising sea levels and changes in rainfall patterns.”

[…]

Another industry heavyweight — McGraw-Hill — is sticking with language that scientists and some educators find objectionable. The sixth-grade geography text asks students to compare texts from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won a Nobel Prize in 2007, with one from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank that has misrepresented climate science and attacked the reputations of climate researchers.

“It’s certainly encouraging that most of the publishers are making changes and revising their materials on climate change,” Quinn told VICE News. “It would be unfortunate if McGraw-Hill is the lone holdout at the end of all this.”

In the end, McGraw Hill came to their senses. There’s still room for improvement overall, but this was a nice result. Today is the day that the SBOE meets to approve (or not) new textbooks, and there are other bones of contention to be dealt with as they debate. As that Chron story notes, a 2011 law allows school districts to buy their own textbooks and not the SBOE-sanctioned ones if they want to. Local action is an option if you think it’s necessary. TFN, Newsdesk, Grist, and the National Journal have more.

Who sets the standard for science?

I don’t get the fuss over this.

Many say students need to be science literate so they can innovate, compete and maneuver with the latest technology. If the United States wants to compete on the world stage, teachers and science lessons must evolve, too.

It’s largely with this agenda in mind that the National Research Council, states, educators and scientists are updating national standards in science instruction.

The Next Generation Science Standards involve identifying what all K-12 students must know in physics, life science, Earth/space science and engineering. It is a collaboration among the council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Achieve, an independent, bipartisan education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. Once completed, the standards will be ready for adoption by the states.

“We want to make sure our students are going to meet the demands of the 21st century,” said Stephen Pruitt, Achieve’s vice president for content, research and development.

Talk of national science standards, however, is stirring a debate in Texas, where members of the State Board of Education say they don’t plan to adopt them anytime soon, in part because the state recently overhauled its science standards.

State officials are also concerned that Texas, by agreeing to go along with the standards, would surrender too much control to outside sources, possibly the U.S. Education Department.

Board member Thomas Ratliff said an overhaul would “throw professional development and teachers and students in an absolute freefall.”

“I just can’t imagine there is any likelihood or chance that it could happen,” Ratliff said. “I think the further away from the children the standards are developed, the worse they are. They have to be all things to all people.”

[…]

State board member Patricia Hardy of Weatherford said it is too soon to overhaul science education again, noting that it would cost textbook companies and other providers of materials.

Texas last reviewed its science standards in 2009.The contentious process drew national attention, and the board eventually adopted science standards that encourage study of all sides of scientific theories.

“If we were to jump ship and go over to this other [set of standards], we would have wasted a lot of time and energy,” Hardy said. “When we push back against national standards, it is not really the elements that are in the science standard we are opposed to. It’s the idea that we prefer a state-run educational system.

“We want the state to be responsible for education. That isn’t to say that we can’t take ideas and consider them,” Hardy said. “We don’t want the federal government telling us how to run the schools. They can tell us this is being developed by outside sources, but I don’t … believe the Department of Education doesn’t have its thumb on this.”

I sort of understand Ratliff’s objection. He’s right that the broader an audience there is for a set of standards the harder it is to get everyone to buy into it and the more likely that it will be watered down or overloaded with parochial concerns. But honestly, what is there to be gained by having fifty individual science standards? Biology, chemistry, and physics don’t vary from state to state. The downside to letting everyone do their own thing is that it opens the door for various local yahoos (*cough* *cough* SBOE *cough* *cough*) to impose their own whacked out world view. I’m not going to say that one size fits all, but I definitely see value in an effort like the NGSS to create a standard that states can emulate. Science isn’t subjective – someone needs to say what’s right.

To their credit, neither Ratliff nor Hardy is ruling out using what the NGSS has to offer. Unfortunately, that may not happen any time soon, since the SBOE just finished wasting a bunch of time and insulting everyone’s intelligence with its current science curriculum. This is a good example of why it is best to get things right the first time. Water under the bridge now, but hopefully we’ll be better placed to do it correctly the next time. At least we’ll have something to go by when we do.