Evolution and climate change in the NGSS

The final version of the Next Generation Science Standards was released on April 9, 2013 — and the topics of evolution and climate change, as expected, were not neglected. The new standards, as NCSE's Mark McCaffrey discussed at LiveScience (April 5, 2013), are a new set of state science standards based on the National Research Council's A Framework for K-12 Science Education and developed by a consortium including twenty-six states. The New York Times (April 9, 2013) explained, "Among many other changes, the guidelines call for introducing climate science into the curriculum starting in middle school, and teaching high school students in detail about the effects of human activity on climate. The guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution, the central organizing idea in the biological sciences for more than a century, but one that has rallied state lawmakers and some religious conservatives to insist that alternative notions like intelligent design be taught. Though they could become a focus of political controversy, the climate and evolution standards are just two aspects of a set of guidelines containing hundreds of new ideas."

In life sciences, Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity is one of four disciplinary core ideas at both the middle school and the high school level. At the middle school level, the idea "is divided into four sub-ideas: Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity, Natural Selection, Adaptation, and Biodiversity and Humans," and the performance expectations "help students formulate an answer to the question, 'How do organisms change over time in response to changes in the environment?'" At the high school level, the idea is divided into the same four sub-ideas. The performance expectations "help students formulate an answer to the question, 'What evidence shows that different species are related?'"; students are expected to be able to "construct explanations for the processes of natural selection and evolution and communicate how multiple lines of evidence support these explanations," to "evaluate evidence of the conditions that may result in new species and understand the role of genetic variation in natural selection," and "to explain trends in populations as those trends relate to advantageous heritable traits in a specific environment." Evolution occurs elsewhere in the standards as well.

In earth and space sciences, global climate change is one of four sub-ideas in the core idea of Earth and Human Activity at both the middle school and the high school level. The idea is explained at the middle school level as follows: "Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities." The high school level adds, "Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. ... Through computer simulations and other studies, important discoveries are still being made about how the ocean, the atmosphere, and the biosphere interact and are modified in response to human activities." As with evolution, global climate occurs elsewhere in the standards as well.

What's next for the NGSS? Individual states will have to decide whether to adopt them. The twenty-six state partners on the project are committed to giving serious consideration to doing so, and over forty states, including the twenty-six state partners, have expressed interest: shared standards, as McCaffrey explained in his LiveScience article, would promote continuity across states, facilitate international benchmarking, and effect a savings on the development of standards, assessment, and curriculum. And then, as the Times explained, "it could be years before the guidelines are translated into detailed curriculum documents and specific lesson plans, teachers are trained or retrained in the material and centralized tests are revised," quoting NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott as warning, "You can't do education on the cheap." Referring to the NGSS's innovative presentation "of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge," she added, "Teachers are going to need some help in mastering this approach."