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Climate change in schools where it's 'fake news'

Story highlights

  • Some teachers teach climate change as if it were an ongoing debate
  • There is pending, and failed, state legislation pushing teachers to be less declarative on climate change and evolution

(CNN)Eric Madrid teaches advanced sciences, including topics on climate change and evolution, to high school students in the deep-red Texas Hill Country.

As one might expect in this conservative bastion of the nation, some of the students say it's all lies or fake news.
    "But that's usually in the beginning of the semester," said Madrid, who left a Ph.D.-level research gig to go into public education. "As I show them data and evidence, that tends to go away."
    In fact, Madrid isn't so worrieed about his students. It's the other teachers who concern him: "I get much more pushback from other teachers than students. Adults have already pretty much made up their minds, and we also don't have the time to sit down and discuss the issues."
     
    Madrid's situation underscores the confusion that the climate change issue has presented to many schools across the country. Although 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is linked to the burning of fossil fuels, a majority of middle and high school teachers are not aware of this consensus.
    Many of these teachers teach climate change as if it were an ongoing debate within the scientific community.
    This disconnect between scientists and educators was captured in a recent survey (PDF) by the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that works to promote science over ideology.
    "Our survey found that relatively few teachers had even a college course that devoted as much as a single class to climate change," said Glenn Branch, the center's deputy director, who notes that many teachers present misinformation about climate change or avoid teaching it entirely.   
    "Scientists believe that (climate change) is a really big issue, and it's really inconsistent in terms of how it's being taught," explained Gerald Lieberman, director of the California State Education and Environment Roundtable, which works closely with the California Department of Education on instructional strategies related to the environment.
     
    Nationally, there continue to be tensions surrounding climate change, with the Trump administration expressing doubts about its validity and seeking cuts in climate research programs. This conflict has trickled down to the state level too -- even in the schools.
    A bill in the Texas House of Representatives would allow science teachers to teach "the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories," namely theories around subjects such as climate change, evolution, the origins of life and cloning.
    The bill maintains that "the protection of a teacher's academic freedom is necessary to enable the teacher to provide effective instruction."
    The Texas measure mirrors efforts in Idaho and West Virginia, where objections to the inclusion of climate change in state education standards have met with varying degrees of success. There is also a bill in Florida that would make it easier for residents to challenge school textbooks, including those that discuss topics such as climate change and evolution.
    "That class of bill is couched in the language of academic freedom," said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "But teachers shouldn't be permitted to teach things in class that aren't science."
    Most of these bills in other states have been defeated. In Iowa, legislators canned a measure that would have prohibited the state Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, which include climate change in the curriculum.
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    This year, 11 bills designed to alter science education standards have been unsuccessfully introduced across the United States, by sponsors who perhaps have been encouraged by the Trump administration's stance on climate change.
    Meanwhile, 18 states and the District of Columbia have approved the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed with the help of several national science organizations and unveiled in 2013.
    The main critique of these standards is that climate change instruction is largely relegated to Earth and life science classes, not so much to biology, chemistry and physics -- the science subjects that most students focus on in high school.
    "Classes where it's natural to discuss climate change have been neglected," Branch said.
    But Evans disagrees, saying that lessons around climate change are in "appropriate places in the curriculum, based on what kids can learn when."
    Ann Akey, who teaches Advanced Placement environmental science and environmental chemistry at Woodside High School in California, concurs with Branch, though in her school they are working on weaving climate change into the bio-chem-physics curricula, taking it further than the science guidelines suggest.
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    "California just adopted (the standards) in the last year, so it won't be fully implemented" for a few years, she said.
    Lieberman is less sanguine about the speed of implementation, saying it will take seven to 10 years for California to fully execute the standards and a decade or two for the rest of the nation to follow suit. "These are gigantic (educational) systems," he said, "and that is the core of the problem."
    Evans sounded a more positive note, saying he thinks some school districts will adopt the standards before their own state legislatures do. He cited Wisconsin, where the vast majority of school districts seem to have adopted the science standards, even though the state hasn't done so.
     
    "When we do climate science sessions at our conferences, it's standing-room only," Evans said. "Teachers are anxious to learn the science so that they can take it to their kids."
    But in the interim, those on the front lines stress the need for professional development and support. Some are lucky in that department, like Chris Geerer, who teaches sixth-grade general science at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan.
    "I took a (climate change) class at Michigan Tech a few years ago, but not everybody does that," Geerer said. "Hopefully, as we roll out (our new) middle school curriculum, we will provide teachers with resources and background information, and force them to think about climate change and digest it and be on board and comfortable teaching it, too."
     
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    Madrid adopts a "show, don't tell" approach when teaching his Texas students about climate change. He has them track data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. "I don't tell them anything, just tell them to get the data," he said. "Any location they choose data from will show that it's real."
    Branch added that "state science standards do make a difference, as they influence what's in textbooks, what's in local curricula, and they influence statewide testing, too.
    But at the end of the day, when the classroom door closes, it's really going to be the individual teacher who determines whether or not climate change is going to be properly presented or not."