• North Carolina’s new science standards add beneficial introductory material about the scientific method and its importance
  • Unfortunately, in some areas the standards seem to promote one-sided discussions of important topics, such as climate change
  • Forthcoming supplementary documents, plus teachers’ individual lesson plans, will determine how the standards are implemented

During its monthly meeting on July 6, the North Carolina State Board of Education (NCSBE) approved the third and final version of new content standards for teaching K-12 science. The new standards will be implemented in the state’s public schools starting in the 2024-2025 school year.

While the standards writing team deserves kudos for adding material about the scientific method to North Carolina’s K-12 science standards, a cursory review shows that writers missed other chances to improve the standards, which continue to facilitate one-sided coverage of important topics, such as climate change.

According to a presentation given during the meeting, writers made two changes to the previous draft: first, they “revised several of the verbs in the standards” to “improve readability”; second, they added a short paragraph about the scientific method to the introduction for each grade level or course.

After examining the writing team’s first attempt, Bob Luebke, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, warned that the draft was a “mixed bag” in which “a progressive environmentalism infects many of the new standards that compromises the clarity, rigor, and specificity which good standards possess.” Luebke pointed out that the first draft didn’t contain the safeguards necessary to ensure that the teaching of certain topics remained “fair and comprehensive.”

One-Sided Perspectives and Vague Language

Unfortunately, the new version that will be implemented in schools a year from now didn’t resolve these concerns and instead will continue to facilitate one-sided perspectives on certain topics.

For example, students taking the Earth and Environmental Science course will be expected to “[c]onstruct an argument to infer how some natural hazards (such as flooding and wildfires) are increasing in frequency and intensity due to human activities.” Shouldn’t these students also be able to explain how forest management practices like prescribed burns can effectively reduce the risk of wildfires?

In a similar vein, one objective to help seventh graders “[u]nderstand the reciprocal relationship between the atmosphere and humans” is to “[a]nalyze and interpret data to explain how changes in the structure and composition of the atmosphere affects the greenhouse effect and global temperatures.” Students taking the Earth and Environmental Science course will be asked to “[c]onstruct an argument to evaluate the ways that human activities influence atmospheric composition.”

The term greenhouse effect is commonly associated with progressive ideas about global warming. According to an article from National Geographic, for example, “Human activities contribute to global warming by increasing the greenhouse effect.” The article goes on to explain, “Since the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s, people have been releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That amount has skyrocketed in the past century.”

As Bob Luebke noted previously, the issue is not over whether human activities impact the environment, but whether classroom discussions remain fair and objective and encourage students to evaluate and engage with diverging, multifaceted viewpoints, including the role that human activity has played in improving and protecting the environment.

As Luebke wrote:

[T]he proposed standards lack the safeguards to ensure that teaching will be fair and comprehensive. Students are asked to understand the environmental implications associated with obtaining, managing[,] and using energy resources. They are also asked to evaluate how human consumption patterns impact the earth’s systems (See page 41, Draft Science Standards). Wouldn’t it be better if students were also asked to explore the real-world economic consequences associated with such actions?

Students are asked to interpret data to illustrate the relationship between human activities and global temperatures since industrialization. The question implies this is a settled scientific question. It’s not. Isn’t it better for students to explore all sides of a question instead of parroting an answer that is far from settled? Yet in too many areas the standards and objectives seem only to mirror one side of a topic or question.

The unpacking documents — supplementary materials prepared by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction — will likely contain material on climate change, too. A Data Review Committee (DRC) report indicated that stakeholders (educators and other members of the public) had recommended additional content on the topic of climate change. Consequently, the DRC suggested that “the unpacking documents … give more guidance to address climate change.” It remains to be seen what guidance will be provided.

Furthermore, the final version of the standards failed to clarify vague language that was included in previous iterations. For example, one objective in the approved standards that is meant to help eighth graders “[u]nderstand the environmental implications associated with the various methods of obtaining, managing, and using energy resources” is to “[a]nalyze and interpret data to illustrate the relationship between human activities and global temperatures since industrialization.” This language, which remained unchanged from the first draft, seems to imply that the only relationship between human activities and global temperatures is a negative one. Such language could compromise the standards’ clarity, one of the requirements for state content standards.

The Scientific Method and Its Importance

One positive change that made its way into the final version of the standards was a paragraph about the process and importance of the scientific method, which was added to the introductory remarks that precede the standards for each grade level or course. The paragraph states that the scientific method involves “asking questions, the collection and analysis of relevant data, the use of logical reasoning, opportunities to communicate and collaborate with others, and the development of explanations.” It explains that this process is important because it “provides a common framework for introducing the traditional experimental design and hypothesis-testing process.”

The inclusion of the scientific method in the standards is a welcome development. Teaching students to approach science through the lens of the scientific method is good because the process helps ensure reproducible research and statistically significant results, as well as a standardized approach to answering scientific questions. The standards could have emphasized the importance of the scientific method even more, however, by including it in the body of the standards themselves, rather than relegating it to the introduction.

While the final version of the standards is now set, staff at the Department of Public Instruction will continue their work by creating “unpacking documents” that explain in greater detail what the standards mean in terms of what students should know and be able to do after completing each grade or course.

Districts and teachers will be free to choose the curricula and materials they use to implement the standards. It remains to be seen how they will choose to do so.