W.Va. state school board moves back toward original climate change standards

After widespread criticism from teachers, professors and others, the West Virginia Board of Education voted Wednesday to withdraw a set of science education standards containing controversial modifications to the teaching of climate change.

The new version, which will be open for a 30-day public comment period, doesn’t contain the alterations to the three standards on climate change the board earlier approved.

Clayton Burch, executive director of the state’s Office of Early Learning and interim associate state superintendent, said the version will be up for a board vote in March. The standards will go into effect for the 2016-17 school year.

After previously defending the changes as a way to foster student debate and critical thinking on the topic, the Department of Education recommended at Wednesday’s meeting going back on the alterations.

The move comes after the school board and the department caught national attention and considerable criticism from residents and academics about the changes, which were made to new K-12 science teaching requirements based off the National Next Generation Science Standards blueprint. If passed, the standards will be the first time Mountain State students will be required, in non-elective courses, to learn about evidence for human-driven climate change.

At the request of school board member Wade Linger, who has said he doesn’t believe human-influenced climate change is a “foregone conclusion,” the teaching requirements concerning climate change were altered before the board placed them in a public comment period in October and voted to adopt them last month.

The changes, for example, would have added “and fall,” after “rise,” to a proposed standard requiring that sixth-graders “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

Only Linger and fellow board member Tom Campbell, who had brought up coal funding for the state’s education system when he was previously interviewed by the Gazette, voted no on Wednesday’s action.

Campbell told the Gazette he felt his comments about coal were misinterpreted but didn’t specify how Wednesday. He said he didn’t want to get into a debate about climate change and coal. He had argued at first that the alterations weren’t major.

However, board member Bill White, who said he has a background in chemistry, disagreed, saying, “When you start talking scientific facts, it doesn’t take a lot to make a major change.”

“One of the things we did as scientists is, we depended on peer-review,” White said. “Peer-review is really what makes science work.”

The peer-reviewed science overwhelmingly shows that human greenhouse gas emissions are a major driver of global warming. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released dire reports about climate change impacts with a more than 95 percent certainty that humans are the main cause.

After the Gazette first reported on the modifications in late December, the national nonprofit Climate Parents, which has fought attempts to undermine climate change teaching in other states, said it would begin circulating a petition in early January asking the board to rescind the modifications.

Other groups, including the National Center for Science Education and the Citizens Climate Lobby, also spoke out.

Last week, school board President Gayle Manchin — who said she trusted the Department of Education staff’s earlier assertion that the standards changes were sound — said the board would discuss the changes this week in response to the concerns raised. Manchin was the only member besides Linger who told the Gazette she knew about the changes before adopting them.

On Saturday, the West Virginia Science Teachers Association — part of the group of West Virginia stakeholders that critiqued the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint, of which West Virginia was one of 26 lead state partners in creating — told the Gazette it opposed the changes. The association had endorsed the full set of standards before the school board adopted them but said the board had made the climate change alterations without consulting it.

Association President Libby Strong said she and others read the version of the standards that went out for public comment, but perhaps didn’t look closely enough because the alterations were only a few lines among 70 pages and they thought they were reviewing a version the association had already seen.

On Monday, about 100 members of West Virginia University’s Faculty Senate unanimously voted to ask the board to reverse the changes, Faculty Senate Chairwoman Jennifer Orlikoff said.

On Tuesday, a petition by 83 WVU faculty members also asked the board to turn back. The National Science Teachers Association requested the same thing, and the citizen group Friends of Blackwater decided to unveil early its report outlining damage that global warming is doing to the state’s Allegheny Highlands.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Climate Parents presented to the school board petitions, circulated by several organizations and signed by more than 3,500 West Virginia “parents and science supporters,” asking for members to “correct inaccurate and misleading content in the altered climate change standards.”

“Ensuring students are taught evidence-based facts in their science education is a fundamental principle that the Board affirmed today, after veering off course in December in adopting altered climate science standards,” Climate Parents director Lisa Hoyos said in a statement. “Parents by the thousands stood up for accurate climate science education, and we are thankful that the West Virginia Board of Education listened to us.”

Herman Mays, a parent and Marshall University assistant professor, delivered the petition and was one of several individuals to speak against the changes.

Several Marshall students were among those who spoke for them.

Burch told the board that Achieve — the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helped create the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint, along with the national Common Core English/language arts and math standards — told the department that the changes put the standards out of alignment with the national blueprint.

Chad Colby, spokesman for Achieve, said that when the Gazette previously interviewed him about West Virginia’s changes, the organization hadn’t seen them. While maintaining that there’s no punishment for states that customize the national standards, which they voluntarily adopt, he said Wednesday that West Virginia’s changes deviated from the science.

“We said if you change the science, you haven’t adopted the Next Generation Science Standards,” Colby said.

Burch also said that since December, the department had the chance to talk with teachers who worked on the standards before the changes were made. An audience member following Burch angrily criticized the department for apparently reaching out to teachers about the changes only after the board had already passed them.

Manchin said she didn’t want to go against the work that West Virginia teachers did in vetting the standards and called the controversy a learning opportunity.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter