New national standards for teaching science in public schools have sparked backlash in several states, particularly from officials who want teachers to teach climate change as a scientific debate, rather than accepted science.
But several groups that are concerned about the future of climate science education in the U.S. are pushing back. Today, four environmental organizations released the Climate Science Students Bill of Rights, a document that the groups hope will help them rally support around the Next Generation Science Standards from companies, scientific organizations, and local activists, as well as from students, parents, and teachers. The document asserts that students have five rights when it comes to climate education, including receiving high-quality education “free from ideological or political interference,” and exploring “the causes and consequences of climate change.”
John Friedrich, member of Climate Parents, a group that advocates on behalf of science education in schools and was one of the main sponsors of the Bill of Rights, said on a press call that the Bill of Rights represents the launch of a new national campaign to spread the idea that all students, in every state, have the right to learn about climate change.
“It’s unacceptable for students to be denied information about this crisis. Young people need to be given the tools to develop solutions” to help solve the the problem of climate change, he said.
The immediate solution to the climate education problem in this country, the groups say, is the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which were put together by 26 states as well as science and education organizations and seek to provide guidelines for science education, helping to standardize what kids in every state are learning in science classes.
Jennifer McIntyre, Pennsylvania Field Manager for Moms Clean Air Force, works with EPA scientists to conduct presentations on climate change and the EPA’s public commenting system in schools. She told ThinkProgress that her two kids go to a Quaker school, where she knows they’re getting a curriculum that includes teachings on sustainability and, when they’re older, more in-depth teachings on climate science. But she knows there are public schools in the state where teachers might dismiss climate science — which is why, she said, the NGSS are so important.
“I think having some sort of a mandate and a standard about whats taught is really crucial, because there’s a lot of variance in this state — I’m in a progressive area, but in the rest of the state, there are probably a lot of climate deniers who are teachers,” she said. “I think they just need to know that you can have those views but you can’t teach them in school. You have to teach real science.”
Mark McCaffrey, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, said on the call that without these new standards, many teachers don’t know how to incorporate climate change into their lessons. It’s also “hit or miss,” he said, whether students learn about climate change at all. In some schools, students only learn about climate change if they opt to take earth or environmental science — in their required basic science courses, it isn’t mentioned. That leads to a deficit of some climate knowledge in American teens — according to a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication study, 34 percent of teens “don’t know enough to say whether scientists think global warming is happening,” compared to 17 percent of adults.
Some teachers also might face pressure from school leadership, parents, or other teachers to teach the science as a debate, while others might bring their own skepticism into the classroom, showing “An Inconvenient Truth” one day and the climate change-disputing The Great Global Warming Swindle the next.
Seeing and hearing about teachers who are pressured to teach climate science as a debate is a regular part of Leah Qusba’s job. She’s the Strategic Director for the Alliance for Climate Education, a group that puts on assemblies about climate change in schools. Often, she said on the press call, it’s individual teachers who call the organization about hosting an assembly at their schools, teachers who are, in some cases, risking pushback from principles, other teachers, or parents.
“They take this professional risk because they believe science education is that important,” Qusba said. “They shouldn’t have to take that risk.”
Other teachers or administrators who don’t think students should attend a climate change assembly have intervened in the past, she said, interrupting the speaker to stop the assembly, saying the speaker is “brainwashing” the students or, in less aggressive cases, scheduling a climate skeptic to speak immediately after the Alliance for Climate Education speaker was finished.
It’s this type of learning environment that the groups hope to extinguish with their campaign, which will urge states that haven’t yet adopted NGSS to approve the standards, which so far have been adopted by 12 states and the District of Columbia.
In March, Wyoming became the first state to reject the standards altogether, a decision based in part to some Wyoming lawmakers’ concerns over the standards’ inclusion of climate change as a scientifically-accepted phenomenon.
“I don’t accept, personally, that [climate change] is a fact,” Wyoming State Board of Education Chairman Ron Micheli said in March. “[The standards are] very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development.”
Just this Wednesday, though, New Jersey voted to adopt the standards. The groups hope their new Bill of Rights will garner enough support to show other states that haven’t yet approved the NGSS that the standards have strong, nationwide support.