Is climate change being taught in American classrooms today?

Image from Woo! Jr. Kids Activities

If schools are where young people learn about and prepare to be citizens of the world today, then a crucial element of modern education must be learning about climate change itself. I don’t know about you, but I certainly want my children – and all children! – to be learning about the science of our changing climate, the technological and ecological solutions that exist, the relationship between food production, deforestation and atmospheric carbon, the economics of climate solutions, the potential of policy to address the issue and much, much more – all in an age appropriate manner, of course. In short, I want schools to be a place that explore the realities of today’s world, including climate change, in an interdisciplinary fashion while providing hope and empowering young people to creatively conceptualize and enact solutions. 

According to a recent survey conducted by National Public Radio and Ipsos, most American parents agree. Out of all survey participants, 84% of parents with children under the age of 18 want climate change taught in school. This sentiment crosses party lines, with two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats in favor of climate change in schools, regardless of whether or not they themselves have children. Furthermore, many support addressing climate change as early as elementary school. 

So, is climate change a topic of the American classroom today? Unfortunately, the answer is complicated, similar to – and in part because of – the current politicization of the issue in this country. 

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed beginning in 2011 (and finalized in 2013) by a consortium of states and science authorities to strengthen the teaching of science, providing a framework that does for science education what the Common Core does for English and math education. Since 2013, 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, which instruct teachers to begin covering the facts of human-caused climate change in middle school. And according to an analysis done for NPR Ed, an additional 16 states recognize human-caused climate change in their own science standards. Unfortunately, recognition of the issue in science standards is not enough to ensure that the subject is actually taught in the classroom. 

Furthermore, 14 states do not recognize human-caused climate change in their science standards. For example, in the state of Wyoming, which produces more than 40 percent of the nation’s coal, adoption and implementation of the national standards was heavily fought by lawmakers. In 2014, former Republican Representative Matt Teeters was quoted as saying: “Those standards do not push Wyoming students to where we want them to be. What we really need in Wyoming is our own set of standards.” When Wyoming finally did adopt their own science standards, in late 2016, they included climate change but avoided naming humans as the cause.

NPR and Ipsos’s survey on climate change in the classroom extended to teachers. 86 percent of those surveyed said climate change should be taught in public school classrooms, but 55% said they currently do not cover the subject in their own classrooms – or even talk to their students about the topic. 

Why? The survey was able to identify a variety of reasons, including lack of support from school administrators, concern that their students were too young or fear of backlash from parents. However, the most identified reason for a hesitation to teach the subject was a belief that it did not coincide with the teacher’s subject-area.

This rationale is striking. Climate change relates to more subjects areas than not, just as it relates to every area of our lives. It’s not difficult to imagine how all the sciences could include the topic, but so too could classes on policy, sociology, history and english. 

Concern over backlash from parents makes a great deal of sense. But not only did the NPR study show that the majority of parents believe climate change should be taught, 65% of those who thought climate change should be taught didn’t think parental permission was necessary. Surprisingly, among Republicans only, the corresponding figure was 57%. Certainly, parental backlash will still occur, and that is when support from the administration is essential. 

The concern over parental backlash also highlights the critical role parents can play in encouraging the spread of climate change education in all types of school settings. At the state level, we can inquire into our state’s science standards and work to ensure that they recognize human-caused climate change. At the local level, we can let our school district know that we want our children to be learning about climate change – and in as comprehensive a fashion as possible. And within our schools, we can support the teachers who are addressing the subject and encourage others to do the same. We can join with other parents to amplify the power of our voice and raise communal support.

Categories: Education

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