Missing The Mark On Climate Education - The Years Project

Missing The Mark On Climate Education

By Lizzie Stricklin

There are many proposals to reform the education system in the United States, but there’s little consensus about what issues need to be addressed most urgently. 

One solution recently in the limelight is revising school standards and curriculums in light of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. This came to my attention when a former high school classmate started a petition in June calling for the school district we had attended to go “further when addressing anti-Blackness and racism.” She called for the school district to not only modify its social studies curriculum to incorporate instruction on local incidents, such as the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, but also acknowledge the school district’s presence on land historically occupied by the Lenni Lenape tribe.

This got me thinking. The high school we attended is one of the top 50 highest-rated public high schools in Pennsylvania. If even top PA school districts have work to do when it comes to teaching history and social studies, what does the field look like for teaching other tricky subjects, like climate change?

I remember learning about climate change in high school, but my educational experience is not representative of Pennsylvania as a whole. Of the 50 highest ranking traditional public high schools in Pennsylvania, only 12 of them were not in the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh suburbs. I received a very different education in the Philadelphia suburbs than someone in rural Tioga County, or even in the heart of Philadelphia.

So if there is such a disparity in how students across the state learn core subjects like English and math, how much disparity is there in how climate change is taught across our education system?

In Pennsylvania, educational institutions have room for this kind of flexibility. There is no mention of climate change at all in the state’s science curriculum standards, which haven’t been updated for 20 years. It’s up to school boards themselves to decide whether they want to teach it, forgo the subject altogether, or even have students debate whether the warming of the globe is happening.

Because of this, Pennsylvania’s state science standards have been slapped with a failing grade.

In a report released in October, researchers from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund created a report card to grade each state and Washington, DC on how well their state education codes dictate standards for teaching climate science. The study found that several states – like Pennsylvania – still have no legislation requiring public schools to include climate science in their curriculums at all. Some states, like West Virginia, still require the reality of climate change to be debated. This is especially concerning as coal mining poisons West Virginian communities and Pennsylvania waterways suffer from increased polluted runoff due to intense rainfall.

The study found that when it comes to teaching climate, public school science standards tend to fall into one of three categories. Twenty states and Washington, DC currently use the Next Generation Science Standards, which were released in 2013 and are the result of cooperation between a consortium of states and education experts. They are based on the National Research Council’s 2011 Framework for K–12 Science Education, and as a whole received a favorable rating for addressing “the reality of, the human responsibility for, and the severity of the problem of climate change.”

Twenty-four other states have written their own science education standards based off of the Framework. The remaining six states – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia – use science standards not based on the Framework and were some of the worst at mandating the teaching of climate science statewide.

Grading a state’s science standards wasn’t just based on whether climate change was mentioned. The reviewers also looked at how well the standards mandated the teaching of four factors: “it’s real,” “it’s us,” “it’s bad,” and “there’s hope.”

Surprisingly, the study noted that several states with strong fossil fuel economies – like Wyoming and Alaska – still received high ratings, suggesting that education policymakers can successfully mandate climate education regardless of a state’s relationship to the fossil fuel industry.

But the power of local politics can still stand in the way of states implementing better standards for climate education. The state standards of Arizona, for example, mention climate change but received low ratings for their treatment of climate change reality and solutions. For this, they were given an overall grade of C. 

One of the report’s reviewers wrote that Arizona’s incongruous standards represent a tension between teachers “who want to teach science relevant to their students” and powerful interests who are hesitant to “really admit to the reality of climate change, especially in a state exposed seriously to climate change like Arizona. The teachers and their students did not come out on top of that tension.”

This tension seemed to be clarified outside of the report as well. The Executive Director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, Sara Torres, told Inside Tucson Business, “We knew we wanted climate change in [the state science standards] (and) we know that it’s important for our students to be scientifically literate but we also needed to make sure that we got standards that got approved.”

But there is hope on the horizon. Just three months before this report came out, New Jersey announced new Student Learning Standards which included mandatory climate education across a variety of subjects, including social studies and technology, in addition to science classes. These standards earned a B+ grade in the report, and the report specifically highlighted this example, saying that other states should move toward encouraging teachers to discuss climate change across multiple subjects.

Things could even change in Pennsylvania. In September, the PA Board of Education advanced new science standards which would mandate the teaching of climate science throughout K-12 education. Although they still must go through a public comment and revision phase, these standards are expected to go into place in time for the 2024-25 school year – 22 years after the current standards were put in place. This could transform how nearly two million Pennsylvania public school students learn about the climate crisis, and develop better-informed young citizens.

For the rest of the country, maybe this report card will be the wake-up call state education boards need. If not, other key players are providing backup: as recently as December 3, former US education secretaries have called on the incoming Biden administration to promote more routine lessons on the threats of climate change in US public schools. Intersectional climate education can be achieved, and it may be as simple as updating education standards that have fallen by the wayside.

In the same way that we are grappling with how our schools teach issues of race and discrimination, we must ensure that students can complete their education understanding key truths about the climate crisis and the world they are walking into: It’s real, it’s us, and it’s bad, but there’s hope.