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Climate Change Science Poised to Enter Nation's Classrooms

New standards recommend teaching man-made global warming in all science classes. Some textbook publishers to incorporate curriculum immediately.

Mar 4, 2013
Next Generation Science Standards require teaching man-made climate change.

New national science standards that make the teaching of global warming part of the public school curriculum are slated to be released this month, potentially ending an era in which climate skepticism has been allowed to seep into the nation's classrooms.

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Achieve and more than two dozen states. The latest draft recommends that educators teach the evidence for man-made climate change starting as early as elementary school and incorporate it into all science classes, ranging from earth science to chemistry. By eighth grade, students should understand that "human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming)," the standards say.

They're "revolutionary," said Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit that defends evolution and climate education and opposes the teaching of religious views as science.

The 26 states that helped write the standards are expected to adopt them. Another 15 or so have indicated they may accept them—meaning climate change instruction could make its way into classrooms in 40-plus states.

James Taylor, a senior fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute, which is developing a school curriculum that promotes climate skepticism, said the standards' stance on climate change is based on "unscientific speculation and hype." But he also said the group has no plans to fight their adoption by the states.

The nation's largest education publishers are already studying how to incorporate the new standards into their materials. They will likely appear in some of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's materials as early as next year, said Tony Artuso, director of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for the company.

The standards are also being fast-tracked at McGraw-Hill.

"No one is sitting around waiting for the final standards to start their conversation," said Jeff Livingston, McGraw-Hill's senior vice president of education policy. "They've been studying the drafts so they can start making changes immediately."

Texas, one of the country's largest textbook buyers, is among the few states that don't plan to adopt the science standards anytime soon. Texas also refused to accept the 2010 Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics that nearly every other state has adopted.

"It's not that we don't agree with the scientific information in the new standards," said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "We just choose to write our own. That’s how we've always done it."

In the past, the Lone Star state's refusal might have been enough to keep publishers from using the science standards as the framework for their learning materials. But a 2011 law gave Texas schools the right to ignore the state Board of Education's textbook recommendations and use state funds to buy materials of their choosing. The rise of e-textbooks and other digital learning materials has also reduced the clout of large states, because publishers can create digitized textbooks and curricula for a variety of markets, not just the biggest buyers.

But what has made the new science standards so influential is the role the states themselves played in writing them.

"Texas is obviously important to us since it is such a big constituency," said Kelly McGrath, vice president of science product development at Pearson Education. "But having so many states backing [the standards] is a powerful message."

"We anticipate that 80 to 90 percent of states will either adopt the standards in full or use them to shape their curricula," said Livingston, from McGraw-Hill. "We can't ignore that."

Why the Standards Now?

The idea of federal education standards emerged in the 1980s, following the publication of the Reagan administration's "A Nation at Risk." The blue-ribbon report warned that the quality of public education was slipping compared to other nations, putting American economic competitiveness at risk. Education organizations and federal agencies responded by creating national guidelines for nearly every academic subject over the next decade.

The national standards were never mandatory—they were supposed to serve as guidelines for states' own standards.  

With science, that never happened.

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