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Alabama's Science Standards Get A Makeover

Sep 10, 2015
Originally published on September 10, 2015 7:33 pm

Alabama schools are getting new science standards for the first time in a decade. The state Board of Education voted unanimously today to replace old standards that some teachers say were behind the times the moment they were approved.

As evidence, they point to their students' biology textbooks, many of which currently come with warning stickers that call evolution "a controversial theory." The state's old science standards say students should "wrestle with the unresolved problems still faced" by evolution.

"You might not accept it, but that doesn't change the fact," says science teacher Ryan Reardon, who isn't a fan of the old standards. "Talking about evolution in a classroom is controversial, but there is no controversy about how all the organisms on the planet are related to each other."

Reardon teaches at Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, one of the nation's best public schools. He also helps write textbooks, and he and other science educators say Alabama's old standards were dated and thin on evolution. Not so the new standards, which call it "established scientific knowledge."

"We were really pleased to see that," says Minda Berbeco, program director for the National Center for Science Education. She praises the shift to what she calls "a really positive, pro-science perspective."

She's not alone. All of the nearly two dozen Alabama science teachers I heard from support these new standards.

But what about that other little science debate that's been roiling the nation's cultural waters for years, climate change?

"I just don't think it's taught," says Reardon. One reason, he says, is that "climate science is not something that a typical Alabama science teacher is going to have had as part of their training."

Berbeco says there's another reason it isn't taught widely. "We've certainly worked with plenty of teachers who are really concerned about pushback just for teaching the science."

The three-year run-up to these new standards, though, has been oddly light on pushback. There are a few obvious reasons why. They have the official backing of the Alabama Science Teachers Association. Also, at public hearings where citizens could voice their concerns, the state required comments to be about specific standards. Critics couldn't simply oppose the whole effort on principle.

One more possible reason for the lack of controversy: While the new standards have a little more on climate change, they still don't say humans are a cause. On that count, Berbeco is diplomatic:

"You know, I always feel like standards could be even better, and they could incorporate more concepts and more ideas. But this is a great starting point."

Perhaps the biggest change in the new standards comes in a third area — the "doing of science" itself. There's more focus on hands-on exploration, unifying concepts like cause and effect or structure and function, and a favorite of Reardon's: data analysis.

"I'm gonna let the data smack 'em in the face," Reardon says of his students. "I'm gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I'm gonna ask 'em what the ramifications are."

This may be the biggest selling point with teachers.

"So with the new standards, students are gonna be able to experience science and not just solely learn about it from a textbook, lecture or a worksheet," said Alabama's Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Brown, at a recent public hearing.

Educators hope the emphasis on process and thinking will help kids better grasp all subjects, politicized or not.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Next year students in Alabama may start learning more about evolution and climate change. The state Board of Education voted unanimously today to adopt new science standards, the first change in a decade. Some teachers say the standards they work with now were behind the times the day they were approved. In Birmingham, Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports on their reaction.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Here in Alabama, biology textbooks have warning stickers that call evolution a controversial theory. The state's science standards say students should, quote, "wrestle with the unresolved problems still faced by evolution."

RYAN REARDON: You might not accept it, but that doesn't change the fact.

CARSEN: Science teacher Ryan Reardon is not a fan of the current standards.

REARDON: Talking about evolution in a classroom is controversial, but there is no controversy about how all the organisms on the planet are related to each other.

CARSEN: Reardon teaches at Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, one of the nation's best public schools. He also helps write textbooks, and he and other science educators say Alabama's current standards are dated and thin on evolution. Not so the new standards, which call it established scientific knowledge.

MINDA BERBECO: We are really pleased to see that.

CARSEN: Minda Berbeco is program director for the National Center for Science Education.

BERBECO: So I think we're cautiously optimistic that the Board of Ed moves forward with this really positive, pro-science perspective.

CARSEN: All of the nearly two dozen Alabama science teachers I heard from want that too.

So on evolution, new standards versus current, unofficial survey of teachers says - real improvement. But what about that other little science subject that connects life on Earth? Here's Ryan Reardon tackling climate change in his senior ecology class.

REARDON: Water. What else?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: C-O-2.

REARDON: Thank you. Lord, have mercy.

CARSEN: The thing is, this isn't a typical lesson in Alabama. The current standards barely mention climate change.

REARDON: I just don't think it's taught.

CARSEN: One reason for that, says Reardon.

REARDON: Climate science is not something that a typical Alabama science teacher is going to have had as part of their training.

CARSEN: Minda Berbeco says there's another reason it isn't taught widely.

BERBECO: We've certainly worked with plenty of teachers who are really concerned about pushback just for teaching the science.

CARSEN: The three-year run up to these new standards though has been oddly light on pushback. One reason - they have the official backing of the Alabama Science Teachers Association. Also, at public hearings where citizens could voice their concerns, the state required comments to be about specific standards. Critics couldn't just oppose the whole effort on principle. One more possible reason for the lack of controversy - while the new standards have a little more on climate change, they still don't say humans are a cause. Minda Berbeco is diplomatic.

BERBECO: You know, I always feel like standards could be even better and they could incorporate more concepts and more ideas, but this is a great starting point.

CARSEN: The new standards do make a big change in a third area, the doing of science itself. There's more focus on hands-on exploration, unifying concepts like cause-and-effect or structure and function, and a favorite of Ryan Reardon's - data analysis.

REARDON: I'm going to let the data smack them in the face, I'm going to ask them what that suggests, and I'm going to ask them what the ramifications are.

CARSEN: This may be the biggest selling point among teachers. Here's state teacher of the year, Jennifer Brown, at a recent public hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER BROWN: So with the new standards, students are going to be able to experience science and not just solely learn about it from a textbook, lecture or a worksheet.

CARSEN: So on doing science, new standards versus current, educators say, real improvement. And they hope the emphasis on process and thinking will help kids better grasp all subjects, politicized or not. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.