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.

Next Generation Science Standards require teaching man-made climate change.
The Next Generation Science Standards, written with 26 states and set to be released this month, recommend teaching the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change in all science classes. The nation's largest education publishers are already studying how to incorporate them into their materials. Credit: woodleywonderworks, flickr

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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.

The first and only federal science standards were published by the National Research Council in 1996 under the name National Science Education Standards. But because they were created without input from states, they were largely ignored by states, said McCaffrey, from NCSE.

In 2010, the council was inspired to tackle the standards again. The Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics had just been adopted by 45 states, thanks in part to an effort by the National Governors Association and others to include teachers and education experts from as many states as possible in the process.

The National Research Council decided to take the same collaborative approach with new science standards.

In the end, 26 states, including seven of the 10 most populous states, committed personnel and financial resources to help write the new science standards, which bear the tagline “For States, By States.” Chad Colby, director of communications and outreach for Achieve, a nonprofit that pushes education reform and helped develop the new science standards, said other state departments of education wanted to participate, but didn’t have the resources.

The council’s priority was making sure the standards were based on the latest science, said Heidi Schweingruber, deputy director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council. This was particularly important for evolution and climate change, which had become so politicized that scientists and educators feared students didn’t know how to separate scientific fact from religious beliefs or political opinion.

The old standards made no mention of climate change because the consensus about whether global warming was happening—and if it was caused by humans—hadn’t been solidified.

“We understand it a lot better now than we did some 15 years ago,” Schweingruber said.

Many teachers have been skipping the subject altogether to avoid confrontations with conservative administrators or parents. Others teach it as a controversial theory, either because they don’t understand the evidence for global warming or because they reject it, educators told InsideClimate News.

In more than a dozen states, “academic freedom bills” have been introduced to mandate the teaching of dissenting views on global warming. Some of them have passed, bolstered by conservative groups that oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. These groups have also developed teaching materials that sow doubts about the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change.

According to strategy documents leaked last year, the Heartland Institute is spending $200,000 to develop K-12 curriculum designed to question the accepted science that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and to cast doubt on the reliability of climate change models. The curriculum is being written by David Wojick, a consultant who has authored dozens of articles, editorials and reports that promote skepticism about global warming.

These efforts to foster climate skepticism among today’s youth could have lasting impacts on our ability to address global warming, said Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Climate is a topic that generations to come will have to deal with,” said Niepold. “Students today will have to be skillful and knowledgeable about the topic to be able to address the challenges it will present. If we don’t educate them now, chances are we never will.”

What the Standards Say

The Next Generation standards require teaching the accepted science that says carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil, coal, and gas is causing the earth’s climate to warm.

Schweingruber said there was no debate on its inclusion. “There was no way we could have left it out,” she said. “It is such an active area of research … and it hit on every criterion we set for whether to include a topic in the standards.”

The standards ask educators to begin teaching about climate change as early as elementary school and to treat it as an interdisciplinary topic that should be incorporated into all science classes, not just earth and environmental sciences.

In high school, teachers are encouraged to frame climate change as a problem to which humans need to adapt, and to solve. Lessons and experiments could focus on preparing communities for coastal flooding from sea level rise or on inventing a carbon capture technique for pulling climate-changing gases out of the air.

McCaffrey, from NCSE, said there are major benefits to having widely accepted standards. If more students are taught using the same scientific information, it will be easier to close state-by-state gaps in student science performance. Nationwide standardization might also help American students rise in global science rankings since most other developed countries use similarly centralized systems.

What About the Skeptics?

So far, the new science guidelines have largely escaped criticism from skeptics of climate science.

Rachel Slobodien, a spokeswoman for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. that has worked to discredit the scientific consensus on climate change, said the group hasn’t looked at the new science standards closely enough to comment on them.  

But McCaffrey believes conservative groups will eventually get involved.

“The standards have been under the radar, and deliberately so,” he said. But “evolution and climate change are politically and ideologically controversial, even if they aren’t scientifically controversial … It is almost inevitable that they will get some pushback.”