When they debated what Texas public school students should learn in their science classrooms more than a decade ago, State Board of Education members made clear what they thought of teaching about climate change.
“A bunch of hooey,” the board’s chairman at the time declared. Another dismissed the large and growing body of scientific evidence on human-caused climate change as part of a “political agenda.”
Now Texas is one of six states earning an F in a new report that examines how well science standards across the country help students learn the facts about what scientists warn is a climate emergency.
A panel of scientists reviewed standards from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund and the National Center for Science Education. Those standards guide textbook content and instruction in science classrooms.
The reviewers focused on how well the standards help students understand four key points that form a basic outline of the scientific consensus on climate change: it’s real, it’s serious, human activity is responsible, and there are solutions if we choose to act.
The reality behind this consensus is evident all around us. Climate change is fueling deadly wildfires that have destroyed communities and scorched large swaths of the western United States. Increasingly powerful storms continue to pound coastal areas. Farmers and ranchers across the country struggle with both devastating droughts and massive flooding.
Scientists have long said climate change would lead to increasingly extreme weather events. But too many Texas leaders think that’s “hooey.”
The new report, available at ClimateGrades.org, shows Texas isn’t alone in hiding or downplaying the scientific evidence on human-caused climate change. Public education policymakers in other states are also failing to ensure that science standards forthrightly and accurately address the crisis. The scope and character of that failure are not uniform across the states, but they expose a serious deficit in the quality of science education in our country.
The report identifies several common problems with how science standards in many states address climate change.
First, some states promote the false narrative that climate scientists still debate whether human-caused climate change is happening. Yet virtually all climate scientists agree the evidence is overwhelming that it is.
Related to that is a tendency in standards to muddy the science, suggesting the evidence is not as clear about climate change as scientists have documented that it is. Moreover, some state standards simply fail to address climate change at all or do so only indirectly.
This forces individual teachers who want to teach about climate change to search for ways to fit it into their curriculum.
Finally, too many state standards miss opportunities to inspire hope by helping students learn about ways we can adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change. These potential solutions could reveal career opportunities and boost economic development.
Not all of the news is bad. Five states received an A or A-. Three of them — Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota — show that other states with important mining and fossil-fuel industries do better than Texas on educating students about climate change. Moreover, 20 states and the District of Columbia use the Next Generation Science Standards, which earned a B+ from the reviewers.
Texas, however, clearly is failing students. State board members can correct this as they revise the state’s science standards this year and next. But in a needless rush forward, the board has so far not identified climate change as a key focus for the teams drafting the new standards.
That’s distressing because the purpose of public education is to prepare today’s students to flourish in the world they will inhabit tomorrow. That requires equipping them with the knowledge they need to meet the challenges they will face.
We urge the state board to do precisely this and ensure that Texas students learn what the evidence tells us about climate change.
Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. Ann Reid is executive director of the National Center for Science Education.