Climate Education in America’s K12 System: Moving Forward Amidst a Series of Setbacks
Seventh grade science teacher Bertha Vasquez has experienced firsthand the effects of a warming world on her life in Miami, Florida. Rising sea levels and unbearably hot summers in the city have together made it increasingly clear to her that climate change is threatening not only her own security, but also the security of the many students who fill her classroom each day. Feeling that she could not continue to educate her students without integrating lessons about the climate issues surrounding them, Vasquez instantly found herself face-to-face with a challenge: Florida fails to mention climate change even once in its education standards for students at or below the eighth grade. However, she was not deterred, explaining in an interview with the New York Times that she chose to reinterpret Florida’s science guidelines in a way that integrated climate change with required material. Whether by explaining the contribution of deforestation to carbon accumulation in ecology lectures or contrasting wind turbines with fossil fuel emissions during energy lessons, Vasquez has gradually begun to raise awareness of the devastating consequences of climate change among her students – many of whom lacked any prior understanding of the issue. She maintains that the effects of climate change must be taught regardless of the barriers preventing teachers from best doing so. “I have to find a way to sneak [this issue] in,” she said as she spoke of the need to bring climate change into the classroom (Choi-Schagrin 2022). Witnessing her world under fire, she knows she cannot remain silent.
Vasquez is not alone in her concerns. In fact, a poll conducted by NPR makes clear that 82 percent of American parents and 86 percent of American K12 teachers want climate change to be taught in schools, and thousands of teachers across the country have even begun to successfully do so. Unfortunately, such success stories do not form the majority. In fact, 55 percent of teachers who favor climate education say they have never before mentioned climate change in the classroom due to pressure from school districts to abide by a set curriculum, fears about receiving pushback from parents, or even their own lack of knowledge or resources about the issue (Kamenetz 2019). As America’s youth will increasingly be forced to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change in the coming years, it is now more than ever that educators must arm their students with an understanding of the issue, as well as with the problem-solving skills they will need to navigate their entry into a climate-conscious workforce. Just as clear, however, is that effectively informing young people about climate change will require schools to turn to solutions that transcend politics and emphasize real, community-level change. Though integrating climate change into education is complicated in both the governmental and logistical spheres, failure to do so may rob millions of students of the tools to become more informed environmental decision-makers. By empowering not only students but also America’s educators, school districts and governments alike can prepare young people to effectively respond to a rapidly changing planet – one that is calling for their help.
The challenges teachers face to bring climate change into the classroom are numerous, the main one being that on the surface the issue lacks clear ties to the conventional academic curriculum. In fact, according to the aforementioned NPR survey, nearly 65 percent of teachers believe that climate change bears no connection to commonly-taught academic subjects. Faced with a limited amount of time in the school day to teach an already overflowing curriculum, these educators feel that they simply cannot talk about environmental issues without sacrificing lessons on financial literacy, mathematics, or English writing, among others (Kamenetz 2019). Their burnout makes sense: teachers are already under an incredible amount of pressure from school districts to prepare their students for state-level exams, especially because in many states funding for schools is appropriated based on exam scores. Often overworked, underpaid, and burdened by the stresses of living up to their schools’ expectations, teachers thus find themselves forced to deprioritize climate change as a future issue in lieu of a present one.
Similarly challenging is the lack of sufficient knowledge and resources for teachers to appropriately convey the importance of climate change to their students. As many teachers have never received a sufficient climate education, they feel uncomfortable at the thought of explaining to their students issues that they themselves have never learned (Kamenetz 2019). And accompanying this lack of a sufficient understanding of climate change is a lack of sufficient resources to teach it. In a groundbreaking study published in Science Education in 2018, a team of researchers analyzed nine widely used high school science and social studies textbooks published any time from 2007 to 2012 to determine if there were differences in how they portrayed climate change. Their results sounded alarm: while three of the nine textbooks attributed global warming to human activity, six of them displayed much more uncertainty about its causes. All nine textbooks provided different estimates of projected temperature rise, and none discussed the ways in which humans will need to acclimate to the effects of global warming in the future (Meehan et al. 2018). Given that these resources are commonly used in American high schools, it is worth considering their potential to provide students with misinformation about climate change. Having already recognized these inconsistencies in existing resources, many teachers are hesitant to introduce a topic as divisive as climate change in the classroom, arguing that presenting unreliable or inaccurate information to their students may detract from the credibility of those who support climate education or climate activism as a whole.
Online climate change resources seldom show more promise. According to the New York Times, a study conducted by the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network revealed that of the nearly 30,000 free online resources on climate change, only around 700 met the organization’s criteria to be taught in schools (Choi-Schagrin 2022). This is largely because online resources about climate change often have inaccurate information or are not age-appropriate for younger students. The latter is especially important: there is still a lack of widespread, accessible, and reliable materials about climate change – whether they be books or media or games – that are targeted specifically towards America’s pre-teens. The presence of too much scientific jargon or frightening stories and images keep many such resources far from the classroom, thereby preventing elementary and middle school students from gaining much-needed exposure to the issues that continue to surround them.
Yet the most difficult challenge that teachers face lies neither in their time constraints nor in their own lack of climate knowledge or resources, but rather in the politics of climate change. Many teachers refrain from integrating climate change in the classroom out of fear of how parents will respond: despite that the majority of parents do support providing their children with a background on climate change, there is still a minority that argues that climate change either does not exist – a belief largely stemming from right-wing propaganda – or that it has no place in the classroom. In an interview for Harvard EdCast, journalist Katie Worth illustrated just how powerful climate-denying parents can be in influencing their children to feel the same way, using a seventh grader named Nikola in Paradise, California as an example. Even after listening to his teacher use data from NASA to explain global warming to his class, Nikola wrote, “I don’t think that [climate change] has affected my life at all so far,” despite that only a few days earlier a wildfire had raged through Paradise and destroyed his home (Anderson 2021). Nikola’s story brings to light a sobering reality: parent opinions can make it harder for teachers to persuade students that climate change is a problem, and teachers who push too hard run the risk of angering parents who want their children to share their beliefs. As governments and representatives often heavily influence parents’ views on climate change, educators may consequently find themselves struggling to teach their students about the issue without also addressing its controversies in the political sphere.
However, the politicization of climate change is just a small subset of a much larger problem at play: the politicization of American education as a whole. Republicans and Democrats are growing increasingly divided over the extent – if at all – to which contested issues such as sexual orientation, religion, and evolution should be taught in the classroom, and the strong opinions of political leaders have already led to banned books, a “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida, and many similar changes to statewide education systems. Accompanying conflicts over all of these issues at the governmental level are conflicts about climate change as well – whether it exists, whether it has a place in the classroom, and how much (if anything) students should know about it. The simultaneous occurrence of all of these heated debates only compounds the challenges teachers face in implementing climate-focused lessons in the classroom, as political tensions or the personal beliefs of students and their parents can potentially interfere.
To make matters more complex, the NPR survey described previously reveals that although two out of three Republicans and nine out of ten Democrats agree that climate change should be taught in the classroom, state governments with a Republican majority or a Democratic majority differ widely in the emphasis – if any – that their education policies place on climate change (Kamenetz 2019). Red states are where teachers typically experience the greatest struggles. Apart from highlighting Florida’s failure to update its education standards in over a decade to reflect the climate crisis, the New York Times also criticizes Texas for the power that fossil fuel companies wield over what is – or more accurately, what is not – taught in public schools. In 2021, for example, the arguments made by a lawyer for the oil company Shell directly led to the Texas State Board of Education removing climate change mitigation from its eighth grade education standards (Choi-Schagrin 2022). As fossil fuel companies release a plethora of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through the burning of nonrenewable resources, they likely fear the potential pushback they would receive if their direct contribution to climate change was taught to students. These companies’ influence on education policies may explain the lack of adequate climate education in states with Republican-dominated legislatures, thereby allowing the nonrenewable sector to continue to profit without consequences at the expense of young people’s education. Shell’s contribution to Texas education standards reveals not only the complications that exist in the structure of power governing young people’s lives, but also the alarming extent to which private interests can influence public school curricula. The company’s success makes clear that while education itself is riddled with politics, political decisions can also directly influence what students learn, providing an additional setback for teachers who wish statewide education standards – and thus school curricula – better reflected environmental issues.
Outside of Texas, the influence of political values on education policies continues to shine through. In 2018 in Iowa, for instance, eight Republican members of the state’s House of Representatives proposed that the state quit abiding by the Next Generation Science Standards, which contain one clause requiring that teachers provide basic information about climate change to their students as early as the sixth grade (Salmon et al. 2018). Though these standards or similar ones are currently used by 45 U.S. states, they have been met with continued pushback from Republican representatives who question the existence and severity of climate change. Iowa Representative Sandy Salmon, who initiated the drafting of the ultimately failing bill, even said in an interview with a local Iowa newspaper that “woven throughout the standards are controversial topics of climate change [and] man’s negative impact on the environment,” thereby hinting at her doubts about the effects of climate change (Murphy 2015). New Jersey, meanwhile, is currently heading in a more positive direction. In fact, the aforementioned New York Times article highlights New Jersey as the only state that has officially begun to integrate climate change into social studies, English, and mathematics lessons in all K12 public schools (Choi-Schagrin 2022). In doing so, the state has become a pioneer in climate education, teaching students of all ages not only the challenges that result from a warming world, but also the potential ways in which we can begin to address them.
Though state legislatures are evidently largely divided on their views of the importance of climate change in education, students exhibit much more unity. In fact, according to the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action Plan, which details the Institute’s agenda for making students and schools more resilient to a changing planet, in 2019 nearly 25 percent of teenagers engaged in some form of environmental activism such as school climate strikes or protests, and another 54 percent said that their education system had not provided them with any instruction on climate change. Maya Greene is just one such student who agrees that climate change has wrongfully been deprioritized in the American education system. A South Carolina resident who has experienced firsthand the devastating effects of hurricanes and flash floods on her community, Greene is passionate about the climate crisis and wishes more students were informed about it in an academic setting. “[Our hurricane evacuations] definitely influenced my passion for taking climate action, but the school system has not really provided much of a space for that,” she said (King Jr. et al. 2021). Frightened by the sight of their world crumbling around them, students like Greene are now demanding an all-encompassing climate education that will prepare them to be responsible global citizens in a future in which the planet’s health lies in their hands.
Luckily, the solutions to enhancing climate education are numerous – perhaps more so than the number of barriers preventing it to begin with. Minimizing and addressing food waste is one particular option that has been celebrated by the Aspen Institute for its ability to reconcile experiential learning with reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Schools generate nearly 530,000 tons of food waste annually, much of which is sent to landfills and broken down by bacteria that release methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. While teachers should certainly be encouraged to talk to their students about the breakdown of food waste, a more effective approach involves teaching students how to compost or plant their own seeds – a strategy that has already been successfully employed by Seattle, Oakland, and San Diego school districts (King Jr. et al. 2021). By establishing small gardens and composting programs, schools can enable students as young as elementary schoolers to not only learn how to keep their food scraps far from the landfill, but also to be less inclined to waste what is on their plates. An initiative that transcends political differences, this solution can allow students to develop a more intimate appreciation for the food they eat, helping them become better ecological thinkers and minimize their own greenhouse gas footprint in the process.
Climate change games are similarly promising both inside and outside the classroom. In a study published in Nature, researchers Jason S. Wu and Joey J. Lee analyzed several climate change games that they proposed would help students learn about climate change in a fun and engaging way. Though these games vary greatly in both cost and complexity, they unite in their attempt to teach students about the challenges that arise when balancing climate change mitigation with society’s material demands. In the computer game Clim’way, for example, players consider the environmental impact of sectors such as industry and transportation when building their own city, while simultaneously devising ways to mitigate global warming. Meanwhile, NASA has created virtual climate change games targeted towards a much younger audience: its free Climate Kids games enable students to learn about and manipulate issues as diverse as coral bleaching and greenhouse gas emissions in an interactive yet easily understandable format. Climate change board games are similarly diverse, but they present a financial barrier and are thus often less accessible for students, teachers, or schools with tight budgets (Wu and Lee 2015). More research is necessary to determine how students would rate these games based on enjoyment, as well as just how effective these games are at influencing student perspectives on climate change. However, as many young people frequently find solace in the gaming world, even simply introducing students to these games during break times in the classroom may encourage students to explore them and develop valuable problem-solving skills in the process.
Empowering teachers, however, is just as important as empowering students – and that starts with providing educators with the resources they need to be more confident climate communicators. While several online platforms exist to help teachers develop their climate literacy, ClimeTime is one of the most well-known and most effective ones. Used in Washington state, ClimeTime is a professional development program that provides school districts with additional funding specifically to create and spread lessons about climate change. The program emphasizes integrating the knowledge of the state’s indigenous communities into climate change lessons, while also using local issues such as glacier retreat to increase students’ connection to their environment (King Jr. et al. 2021). Though a few other states have adopted similar teacher training platforms, ClimeTime stands out for its focus on place-based challenges. As the program enables teachers and students alike to devise solutions to problems they have witnessed firsthand, it serves as a successful model for other states that also wish to shape their students into environmentally-aware critical thinkers. And though the program is more likely to be adopted by states with Democratic legislatures than in Republican ones, its focus on tribal knowledge is one that individual school districts, schools, or even teachers across the country can still employ, thereby giving students the cross-cultural, locally-focused climate background they need.
Reducing teachers’ external stressors is yet another way to empower them to bridge the gap between climate change and the classroom. Teachers frequently complain that they have too little time to teach anything that extends beyond the four basic subjects of science, math, English, and social studies. Climate change, however, should not be treated as a separate discipline but rather as an all-encompassing issue that can be weaved into lessons in every subject. New Jersey has already begun to treat climate change as cross-disciplinary, encouraging students to learn about climate policies in government classes and write their own fictional climate pieces in English classes, among others. Individual teachers in other states are now beginning to follow New Jersey’s lead. Among them is Rebecca Meyer, an eighth grade English teacher in New York City who asked her students to read a climate fiction novel titled Not a Drop to Drink and connect the story to widespread problems of inaccessibility to water. Meyer spoke of the assignment positively in an interview with NPR, saying that her students were “very engaged,” “loved it,” and “learned so much they didn’t know” (Kamenetz 2019). Assignments such as this one are especially beneficial because they enable students to develop valuable skills that will accompany them as they grow and enter a climate-conscious workforce. These skills, whether they be creative thinking or cross-cultural sensitivity, are essential to help students become the climate-aware changemakers that the planet demands that they be.
Extending beyond cross-disciplinary pedagogy and emphasizing cross-issue pedagogy shows promise as well. Science teachers in particular may benefit from teaching not only the molecular or atmospheric chemistry of climate-related issues such ocean acidification and wildfires, but also incorporating discussions about the political and social ramifications of climate change in the process. High school science teachers may, for example, ask their students to research policies that have contributed to greater controls on factory emissions, as well as the people or organizations involved in the policymaking process. Likewise, they may teach students about the role that income or occupation plays in determining a community’s contribution to climate change, subsequently using this as a framework for contrasting American consumerism with other lifestyles. In the social sphere, science teachers may choose to discuss the disproportionate effects of climate change on the health or security of disadvantaged groups, as well as the ways in which these groups have responded. Though exploring all of these issues in depth may be challenging below the high school level, middle school and elementary school teachers should nevertheless convey to their students that climate change permeates non-scientific disciplines as well as scientific ones. Broadening science to encompass social, political, economic, and cultural lenses can encourage students of all ages to become more engaged with the real-world issues surrounding them. Though reimagining science education standards is one way to achieve this, it is certainly not the only way: altering lesson plans at the school district, school, or even individual teacher level is an arguably more feasible alternative with similarly promising outcomes – thereby still providing students with valuable cross-issue knowledge regardless of the state where they live.
Despite that climate education is minimally prioritized in the American K12 public school system, the vast majority of teachers, students, and parents alike agree that it should be integrated into young people’s learning environment. However, there is a discrepancy between the large percentage of teachers who wish to educate students on climate change and the percentage of teachers who are actually able to do so. Continued political debate over the existence and severity of climate change prevents it from being universally taught to all American students – an issue that is only compounded by teacher complaints about time constraints or about their lack of personal knowledge or resources about climate change. Though the combination of political beliefs and private interests complicates the conversation around climate change education and can impede the transition from problems to solutions, the seemingly endless opportunities to minimize barriers to climate education make clear that there are ways to move forward. As young people will be forced to face the worst of the climate crisis in the coming years, it is important that they be armed with the knowledge and the skills to respond to the changes occurring in the world around them. Just how supportive America’s education system will be, however, remains up for debate.
Anderson, Jill (2021). “Harvard EdCast: How Climate Change Is Taught in America.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, President and Fellows of Harvard College, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/21/11/harvard-edcast-how-climate-change-taught-america.
Choi-Schagrin, Winston (2022). “Many States Omit Climate Education. These Teachers Are Trying to Slip It In.” New York Times, The New York Times Company, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/01/climate/middle-school-education-climate-change.html.
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