Pandemic overshadows long-stalled overhaul of Pa. science standards

A drawing depicting the making of cave art by ancient humans.

Pennsylvania might finally see an overhaul of its K-12 science standards after 18 years, potentially renewing a long-standing political battle over climate change and evolution.

But the timing of the pandemic has placed the attention of lawmakers elsewhere.

Lawmakers are focused on getting children back into classrooms and securing funding for next year, officials said, after the spread of COVID-19 shuttered schools in March.

"These micro-issues pale in comparison to the overall well-being of our children,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the state’s House Republican Caucus, when reached Friday.

The state Board of Education on Wednesday advanced an update to Pennsylvania’s K-12 science standards. Adopted in 2002, the state's existing standards are some of the oldest in the country.

More:After 18 years, Pa. science education standards could get rewrite

An independent commission will review the proposed standards with input from the state Legislature, which does not need to approve the standards but can veto or propose a bill to kill them.

Gov. Tom Wolf, however, who is in support of the standards, could veto that bill, setting up a standoff between Republicans in the Legislature and the Democratic governor.

"Modernizing standards for how science is taught in schools is vital to the future success of students and important to strengthening Pennsylvania’s economy and creating jobs," Wolf said in a news release Wednesday.

Third graders Wyatt Gross, 9, and Nathan Hobbs, 9, work on computer science activities in Southern York County School District. The district will be one of four in the county to initiate Computer Science for All -- a unit that would integrate computer science with several subjects including math and language arts, in the spring of 2020.

At the K-5 level, the new standards would focus on environment, ecology, technology and engineering. At the 6-12 level, these are broken up into two sets of standards: environment and ecology, and technology and engineering.

The new draft standards are also state-specific, include cross-cutting concepts and teach students to use scientific inquiry to make decisions — elements that some people felt were missing from earlier drafts.

In the past, efforts to change the state’s standards have stalled in the review process, though some schools have adopted draft standards from 2009 and 2010 and the board endorsed computer science standards in 2018.

While most states have adopted versions of the Next Generation Science Standards, Pennsylvania has been notably absent from that list — one of only six states.

The new draft standards are based on a framework from the National Research Council and the Next Generation standards, both of which recognize the impact of human actions on natural systems. 

Evolution through natural selection has been controversial among some religious groups since its inception and sparks continued debate about its teaching. And climate change remains a controversial topic in Pennsylvania's GOP-run Legislature. Some committees have invited climate change deniers to testify.

A collection of ancient skulls from various hominid species.

State House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Bill Patton, when reached Friday, recognized that the topic can generate political controversy but noted Democrats would trust the Board of Education to create unbiased standards.

"We want to give the benefit of the doubt to the educational experts rather than injecting politics into it," he said.

Locally, a West York Area School District board member recently suggested scrapping a geography textbook for its sections on climate change. The board did vote to scrap the textbook but reversed the decision with a subsequent vote.

More:West York OKs textbook after striking it over climate change

A handful of states have updated their standards this summer to include climate change and evolution as a larger part of their curriculum.

But that was when spring shutdowns were still seen as temporary mitigation efforts.

With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing at the start of the fall semester, Mike Straub, spokesperson for state House GOP, on Friday said curriculum has taken a backseat to actually ensuring students are in school.

Legislators are certainly in favor of making sure science standards match the modern challenges, he said, but the focus right now is making sure students are educated.

“There’s still so many questions swirling about,” he said, noting challenges with transportation funding and a need to determine the impact on next year’s budget.

Patton agreed that for House Democrats school reopening is at the forefront of discussion, but he added that the update in standards is long overdue, especially in the current climate.

"The pandemic has demonstrated more than anything else how important and useful science can be," he said.