If the Trump administration has any influence on curricula, it could well be via the antiscience rhetoric of its inner circle. Pence has publicly supported the teaching of creationism. Myron Ebell, head of transitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and director of the Center of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a vocal climate change skeptic. So is Trump, who tweeted in 2012 “the concept of climate change was created by and for the Chinese.” (The Chinese have corrected him.)
Science education advocates warn the legitimization of such nonscientific views at the highest levels of government could trickle down to local policies. Education boards in several states, such as Louisiana and Texas, have already been battling over how evolution and climate change should be taught, as have state legislatures considering bills that would allow teachers to treat these subjects as controversial. Nearly all of this legislation has emerged in states that were won by Trump. “We see 10 to 12 of the bills every year, and their intent is clearly to give teachers cover to teach nonscience in science classrooms,” says Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). “None have passed recently, but there’s a danger that the people introducing these bills and school boards trying to change standards will be emboldened.” According to Reid, NCSE surveys suggest that many teachers avoid teaching evolution and climate change, concerned that parents will complain. She predicts community pressure around these issues will only increase.
Here is an area where signals from the top and the empowerment of States through the passage of ESSA could have a rapid impact on science instruction in roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the states…. and if the “community pressure” mounts as Ms. Reid predicts, it could have an adverse impact on teachers across the country since many will likely avoid instruction in “controversial areas” altogether. But as Mr. Powell notes, silence on a topic can be as powerful as advocacy:
Just as White House rhetoric could influence what is taught in classrooms, silence on STEM or other education issues like diversity could also have an impact, cautions Quincy Brown, program director for STEM Education Research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She highlighted Obama’s 2011 State of the Union call to train 100,000 new STEM teachers; the coalition of public, private and nonprofit organizations that formed in response, 100Kin10, reported that 30,000 new teachers have been trained to date. “These kinds of initiatives motivate the educational community,” Brown says. “If messages like that are not coming from the top, I wonder whether there will be a shift in priorities.”
I find it hard to imagine President Trump speaking out in favor of more science education and more diversity. And, as Ms. Brown and Mr. Powell note, the silence will serve as a de facto de-emphasis on those issues. Mr. Powell also outlines the collateral damage that Mr. Trump’s vociferous opposition to immigrants could have on science education:
Even Trump’s views on seemingly unrelated issues could affect STEM education. He has called for restrictions on H-1B visas, which allow companies in the U.S. to hire temporary workers from abroad for specialized positions that are hard to fill. But revenue from these visas, amounting to $1 billion, is the sole source of funding for a technical skills training program for domestic workers run by the U.S. Department of Labor as well as a STEM scholarship program for students that is administered by the National Science Foundation.
Mr. Powell tried to put a happy face on what might happen, noting that Mr. Trump has promised to cap student loans and expand the role of community colleges. This would be better news if it was not offset by Mr. Trump’s simultaneous pledge to de-regulate the for-profit schooling and limit the oversight of the Department of Education. And the last two paragraphs of Mr. Powell’s article are, I fear, an indication of Mr. Trump’s thinking on science education:
Hoping to influence policy, a group of organizations representing science teachers has reached out to the new administration. “We have been in contact with the transition team,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We have laid out a paper highlighting the importance of STEM education for the workforce priorities they have.”
Evans has yet to hear back from Trump’s team, which also did not reply to repeated interview requests from Scientific American.
As Mr. Powell noted earlier in his article, silence has an impact.