Climate change is widely taught in American public schools—but students are receiving mixed messages

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Only 27 U.S. states received a B+ or better on how they teach climate change, according to a report from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.
Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

By Josh Archote

Roughly 75% of public school science teachers in the U.S. teach climate change and almost all public school students likely receive at least some education about recent global warming, according to a 2016 paper from the National Center for Science Education.

But students are receiving mixed messages from teachers about the causes of global warming, the report found. Among its findings:

  • More than a quarter of teachers give equal time to perspectives that raise doubt about the scientific consensus.
  • Few teachers doubt that average global temperatures are rising, but many don’t accept scientific conclusions regarding human energy generation and consumption as the critical cause.
  • Around 34% don’t believe human activities are the primary cause of recent global warming.
  • As many as 30% of teachers who teach climate change are emphasizing that scientists agree that human activities are the primary causes of global warming while simultaneously emphasizing that “many scientists” see natural causes behind recent warming.
  • Most teachers are unaware of the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change.

This kind of framing is misleading. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the world is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of recent warming.

Carol O’Donnell, executive director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a member of the Interacademy Partnership Global Council on Science Education, said teachers need better training and more complete guidelines to effectively teach climate change.

“It is crucial to educate youth on climate change, one because it’s absolutely important that they understand the data, for example what comes out of the IPCC; and that they understand the implications of climate change in a local context; and that they understand what students can do in their own individual actions and behaviors to mitigate climate change,” she said.

“But there’s this void. And that is teachers’ understanding of climate change and instructional materials to support the teaching of climate change.”

In the U.S., public school curriculum must adhere to state education guidelines and budgets. And each state has its own process for determining standards related to testing, textbooks and classroom instruction ‒ “a patchwork quilt of standards,” as O’Donnell described it.  

When it comes to teaching science, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are king. Forty-four states either use the NGSS explicitly or have written their own standards using the NGSS as a framework.

The NGSS are based on the National Research Council’s “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” released in 2011, the first U.S. science curriculum guide to embed climate change and evolution into its standards.

Using the NGSS doesn’t guarantee climate change will be taught adequately, however.

In 2020, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund graded each state’s teaching of climate change. Fourteen states that use the NGSS ended up with a C+ or worse on addressing climate change. Three received an F.

Overall, only 27 states received a B+ or better, and some of the most populous states like Pennsylvania and Texas received failing grades.

The National Center for Science Education concluded that more clear and complete guidelines on climate education for teachers are needed, and that authors of curricula shouldn’t assume teachers adopting their materials have fully mastered the underlying science.

Laura Tucker, a former science educator and co-author of Understanding Climate Change, a guide for teaching climate change in middle school and high school, said professional development and more complete guidelines for teachers are key.

“You look at other countries that kick our butts in science in math—Japan and Germany being two of them—and they teach about a tenth of the content we teach,” Tucker said. “But they teach it deeply. They teach it in a hands-on, student-driven way. And they don’t have to teach it again because the kids never forget it.”

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