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Public education's climate change learning curve

An unpredictable patchwork of science education laws in the United States will likely lead to big disparities in how young people will approach climate issues as they get older.

There’s great hope that the next generation will be motivated to contain climate change and make the difficult decisions that today’s adults can’t agree on. But the reality is that today’s students will have varying levels of understanding about climate change, depending on the state where they grew up and attended school.

State standards on science curriculum vary by state. An attempt to make a national standard through the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has met objection in some states.

When researching the status of state science standards and the adoption of the NGSS in a project at Earth Day Network, we noticed which states adopted the full standards — including lessons on climate change — and which haven’t yet seemed to correlate with the major industries in those states. States where coal and oil are important industries, such as Oklahoma, Wyoming and Kentucky, have been less willing to adopt them.

School standards and graduation requirements vary throughout the United States, with each state determining its own standards. Most states establish statewide curriculum standards, but in a few states individual school districts make curriculum decisions.

As concern grew about the United States falling behind in the sciences, some prominent education and science organizations recommended the creation of national science curriculum standards to prepare students to compete in the global job marketplace.

Organizations including the National Research Council, part of the National Academies of Science, as well as the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science created the Next Generation Science Standards to help raise the scientific literacy of high school graduates. The goal is to prepare more students for further education and careers in the sciences.

Twenty-six states worked with the consortium to create the standards, according to the National Center for Science Education. They were released in April of 2013. Since then, 13 states have adopted the standards and have begun the process of implementing them, while several other states are studying what adopting the standards would mean for their educational systems, according to the Center.

However, some states have rejected or blocked implementation of the standards or even reviewing them. Because curriculum standards are left up to states, there is no requirement that the NGSS are implemented nationwide.

The NGSS include material that some have titled “controversial” because under the standards high school graduates will learn the science behind global climate change and the ways in which human activity has increased its rate. Legislators in some states have argued against requiring students to learn these scientific concepts, saying that the science is not fully proven or accepted.

Various states have worked to block or weaken the environmental science curriculum in the NGSS to varying degrees. In Oklahoma and Kentucky, state house subcommittees voted to block the adoption of NGSS or NGSS-based standards. In Kentucky, the governor overruled the subcommittee to approve the standards. Oklahoma’s rejection of the standards still must be voted on by the entire State House of Representatives. 

Two Republican representatives in Michigan introduced a bill that would disallow any standards based on NGSS in 2014 but the bill didn’t receive a hearing before the session ended. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill allowing teachers to introduce alternatives to controversial theories such as global warming, although a new bill was introduced that would repeal it.

Lastly, in West Virginia  some members of the state board of education introduced changes to the standards that raise doubt about whether global warming is man-made, but the changes later were voted down.

Wyoming has gone back and forth on the issue of adopting the NGSS. In 2014, the state board of education was reviewing the NGSS. The state legislature then added a budget footnote right before voting on the legislation that prohibited the board of education from allocating funds for adoption or review of the NGSS.

Rep. Matt Teeters, who helped author the budget footnote, told the Casper Star Tribune that including climate change taught as fact would harm Wyoming’s economy and cause unwanted political ramifications.

In March, Gov. Matt Mead signed into law a bill that reversed the footnote, according to press reports, which allowed the state board of education to review and consider adopting the standards. The removal of the footnote is mainly attributed to its unpopularity among Wyoming’s teachers and scientists, as well as the state’s newspapers.

A similar attempt was made in Oklahoma to block the standards but the measure died in Oklahoma’s house after being amended in the senate.

Wyoming is a major producer of coal and Oklahoma is a major producer of oil.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote on its website, “There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is indeed happening and that humans are contributing to it.” Science is based on peer-reviewed work that only becomes accepted once theories have been tested and approved by many other scientists.

The concept that humans caused climate change draws a 97 percent consensus among scientists and the debate is virtually over in the scientific community. This raises the question, why is there so much variation in what science students are taught?

Educators around the country have argued that taking in any political consideration, when choosing education standards, is inappropriate. 

This all means the voters graduating from high school will have varying levels of understanding of climate change.

With the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, climate change is being brought to the forefront of state politics. If a state doesn’t teach its students that humans caused climate change, it’s doubtful those students will grow up to be voters concerned about climate change.

The outcome of this hodgepodge of state adoption of the NGSS with climate change curriculums is a continued debate over a topic that has been accepted in the scientific community so widely it is all but considered a fact.

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