Kentucky's proposed science standards for schools face another hurdle

jwarren@herald-leader.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran of Danville is a spokesman for the Family Foundation.

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Kentucky's proposed Next Generation Science Standards face another hurdle Wednesday, when members of the legislature's Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee will consider the complex proposal.

The standards lay out the science content that all Kentucky students would be expected to master to be fully prepared for college and careers.

A coalition of 26 states, including Kentucky, developed the science standards during the past two years. They would take effect for the 2014-15 school year if approved.

In recent years, Kentucky has adopted new education standards in other subjects — such as math and English — with little in the way of drama. But the science standards have become increasingly controversial as they've moved slowly through the approval process this summer.

The Kentucky Department of Education says several thousand comments on the standards have been submitted by individuals and organizations. Comments run the gamut, from backing the standards as an improvement in science education to blasting them as a "fascist" effort to push evolution and destroy religious freedom.

That divergence is likely to continue during the subcommittee session at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the State Capitol Annex in Frankfort.

Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst with the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky, said he would address the subcommittee to press his contention that the standards emphasize climate change at the expense of basic concepts.

"We're not necessarily against having anything on climate science in the standards," Cothran said Tuesday. "But when a third of the science emphasis is on climate science in kindergarten, and the kids still don't know basic things about plants and animals, that seems to us to be a problem."

In the past, Cothran has questioned the prominence of evolution in Kentucky's science curriculum guides. But he said that while many Family Foundation members are concerned about the teaching of evolution, he is focusing on balance in this instance.

"It's safe to say that the vast majority of our people believe the world was created, although there is some disagreement on exactly how that happened," he said. "But we're concerned with basic educational integrity here."

Cothran contended that science education traditionally included an understanding and wonder of nature, and the technical aspects controlling nature. The Next Generation standards focus almost completely on the technological side, he said.

Another critic, Richard Innes, education analyst for the free-market Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said he also would testify Wednesday. He has several problems with the standards, which he called "probably one of the most controversial regulations to come up in a long time."

Among other things, Innes said, educational standards must be specific and detailed.

"That's basic stuff, and Next Generation doesn't come close to meeting that," he said Tuesday. "Real education standards are the linchpin of everything that follows."

Innes said he feared the new standards could make it unclear to site-based councils at local schools how to write curriculums to meet the new requirements. That would "inevitably result in unequal opportunity" for Kentucky students, he argued.

Whatever the review subcommittee decides, the approval process won't be over. The standards still must go before the state House and Senate's Interim Joint Committee on Education.

According to the education department, representatives of groups including the Kentucky Science Teachers Association, Kentucky Paleontological Society and American Institute of Professional Geologists have submitted comments backing the science standards.

When the Kentucky Board of Education initially approved the standards in early June, only a few people appeared to speak, and all of them backed the standards. But by the time a public hearing was held in July, there was stiff opposition.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said Tuesday that he wasn't surprised by the emerging criticism.

"I'm told that the last time we adopted new science standards we had a very heated conversation, just as we are this time," he said.

While some complaints about the standards can be resolved, it's not possible to rewrite the entire package now, Holliday said.

"We certainly recognize that the Bluegrass Institute and Martin Cothran and those folks have some valid concerns," he said. "We want to address the concerns, but we can't go back and revise the standards because they are a 26-state collaboration."

Holliday said, however, that it should be possible to resolve concerns after the standards have been approved. The state could come up with a model curriculum based on concerns that have been raised, then provide it to local site-based councils for consideration as they write curriculums for their schools, he said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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