Edelblut Criticizes N.H.'s Science Standards, Citing Think Tank's 'C' Grade

Apr 18, 2017

Frank Edelblut
Credit Peter Biello

  New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut is criticizing New Hampshire's new science standards, saying they appear to sacrifice some topics in favor of others, like climate change.

"The term 'climate change' appeared in our old standard one time. In the current standard, it appears 17 times," Edelblut said, speaking to NHPR's Morning Edition. 

  "If you look at our old standard, the term 'human impact' appears one time, and it now appears 16 times in our current standard," he added. "And so what we want to do is we want to make sure that we’re providing our students with a holistic view of science."

Edelblut butted heads with the state Board of Education earlier this month when he proposed a review of the standards, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, which the board adopted last year after a two-year review.

The board rejected Edelblut's proposal, and voted in favor of leaving the NGSS in place, and putting off any review until 2022.

Speaking to NHPR, Edelblut cited his motivation for raising the issue: a poor ranking of the standards from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. The group ranked the standards as "C." 

"I am supposed to be reviewing our standards to make sure they’re current and they’re contemporary," Edelblut said.

Skimming through a notebook of research on the topic, Edelblut said a simple word count reveals an imbalance in the new standards.

"In the old standards if you just do a word search for the term ‘relativity,’ obviously dealing with the theory of relativity, appeared seven times in our old standard, and it appears zero times in the NGSS. So, are we skipping over the theory of relativity? How is that being integrated? I think it’s important that we make sure we haven’t left out any content because we won’t be serving our students well that way."

During his run for governor last year, Edelblut shared his personal view on climate change, saying that while it's a fact that the earth's temperate is rising, it's not clear what the cause is or whether humans have any role in it.

"So I would be very cautious to craft policy around what has become really in many circles an ideology around climate change," he said during an WMUR debate.

Edelblut also finds himself on the defensive over a request he made to restructure the education department. That request came in the form of an amendment attached to an unrelated bill last week. That amendment comes up for a vote today in the Senate Education Committee.

In the entire interview below, Edelblut explains why he feels the change is needed.

When I got there I began to meet with different folks, and what I discovered was that over time commissioners before me had moved activities around in the Department of Education. So while the statute might indicate certain functions should be done by one division, in fact it was being done by another division. I think some of my previous commissioners made some of these changes in order to allow the Department of Education to be more responsive to its customers, but those changes were not reflected in the law. I feel an obligation to have fidelity to the law and so I went to the legislature and said can we make some changes here so we can have fidelity to the law, as well as allow both myself and future commissioners to be able to focus on the mission or providing good, solid support services to our constituents out there.

Democrats and teachers unions have called Edelblut’s request a power grab, saying this will give him authority. We asked him to respond to those claims:

I would challenge them that it gives me any more power, per se. I think what it actually does is it allows the department to functions efficiently and effectively for our constituencies. I find it unusual that folks are concerned that I’m potentially putting things back in line with the law, and yet there was no outrage when individuals took certain functions and moved them around without trying to make them in compliance with the law.

During your confirmation hearing, you described yourself as the implementation guy; that you would be there to execute policy, not make it. Is there a conflict at all there?

I would think this is exactly the kind of implementation you want. You want someone in there who understands an organization, understands the responsibilities of that organization, and is going to structure the organization to deliver well on those responsibilities.

The conversation then turned to the issue of the state's science standards.

We asked him why he raised the issue:

One of the things that I saw in those science standards was that they were rated by an outside organization – Fordham University, I think it’s the Fordham University Foundation (Edelblut was referring to the Fordham Institute, not Fordham University) – and they were rated a C, which isn’t really very high. I am supposed to reviewing our standards to make sure they’re current and they’re contemporary.

But critics have said that’s one study done by a conservative group using a benchmark that wasn’t up to date. Is that a group we should be looking at to inform our standards?

Well, so in fact the Fordham criticism of the standards wasn’t about whether the standards were up to do date or not up to date; the Fordham analysis, if you read the actual research report on it, talked about the fact that our standards in NGSS have incorporated a number of process scientific approaches in them, and they may have sacrificed some content in that process. And so that’s really the criticism, what is that balance that you get.

What specifically do you mean? What was sacrificed?

So again, the standards are focused primarily on process, but the content of the standards is not as strong. As an example, in the old standards if you just do a word search for the term ‘relativity,’ obviously dealing with the theory of relativity, appeared seven times in our old standard, and it appears zero times in the NGSS. So, are we skipping over the theory of relativity? How is that being integrated? I think it’s important that we make sure we haven’t left out any content because we won’t be serving our students well that way.

Science standards can get political, as you know. In Idaho for example, Republicans pushed to remove any reference to the impact of human activity on climate change from their standards. There’s always talk in some states of teaching creationism in class. Is that something you would worry about or you would support?

You bring up some very specific topics and what we want to do is we want to make sure that when we address and we talk about those topics, that we talked about them in a balanced way. And so if I go back again to looking at our old standard and our current standard, as an example the term ‘climate change’ is one that you brought up. So ‘climate change’ appeared in our old standard one time. In the current standard, it appears 17 times. If you look at our old standard, the term ‘human impact’ appears one time, and it now appears 16 times in our current standard. And so what we want to do is we want to make sure that we’re providing our students with a holistic view of science. The fact that relatively doesn’t appear but these other terms appear so much more frequently...we want to make sure we equip our students with good scientific training so that they can be good climate change scientists, right?

You’re not worried about talking about climate change in class, you’re worried about too much talking about it?

I’m making sure that we cover all of the scientific bases so that we can produce students who are well-educated in science.

Would you favor teaching creationism as a tool in science?

That has not come up. I didn’t see it in the old standards or the new standards so I’m not really concerned about that.

You referenced the Fordham Institute’s ranking. It’s an education research group that is fair to say has conservative leanings, but it’s also an organization that supports the Common Core State Standards, which you have been critical of. Why use that group as a bar on one issue but not the other?

I think that’s the question I actually posed to the state Board of Education. When Fordham ranked the Common Core standards high, our own state board said, ‘Well, look Fordham tells us this is a really good standard and we ought to be embracing it.’ There was no discussion about whether they were conservative or not conservative, they were just a third party who was ranking standards. But when Fordham ranks our NGSS standard poorly, all of a sudden they’re not qualified as a standard-ranking organization, and I just think we need to be consistent. And we don’t want to point to one particular ranking of a standard. We need to more broadly look at different folks who have rated standards. We’re not really interested in focusing on standards that are necessarily high in America, as well. We want to target and we want to focus on high standards, but using an international benchmark because we compete in an international world.