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Why isn’t my kid learning about climate change in their high school classroom?
In the U.S., climate change is not a standard part of the public school curriculum in many districts due to a lack of resources, lack of teacher background knowledge, and forces that push against this type of education.
updated July 6, 2022
American teachers and parents want climate change to be taught in the classroom. According to a 2019 IPSOS/NPR survey, 86% of K-12 teachers and 84% of parents of kids under age 18 believe that climate change should be taught in schools.1
Yet despite this support, climate change usually receives little to no dedicated time in the classroom. One survey of 1,500 middle and high school instructors, for example, found that teachers only dedicate about one to two hours to the subject across an entire academic year.2
And this has clear impacts: in one of, if not the, largest survey of middle and high school science teachers about climate education conducted in 2016, researchers found that the majority were unclear about whether there’s scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans.2 One in five instructors chalked global warming up to natural changes in the environment or said that they either didn’t believe it was happening or weren’t sure of the causes.
Lack of training
There are myriad reasons why climate education is not being covered in US schools, says Dr. Liz Potter-Nelson, a former high school chemistry and physics teacher who is now a postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative researching environmental and sustainability education. One of the biggest reasons is that teachers aren't adequately educated about climate change themselves—fewer than half receive any formal instruction about climate science in college,2 and they often don’t have the time, resources, or support to make climate change a meaningful part of their instructional practice, she says.
The situation has also potentially worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as waves of teachers quit their jobs, leaving vacancies often filled by provisionally licensed instructors who have even less subject matter training than typical science teachers.3
It’s the state’s choice
The US doesn’t have nationally adopted science standards, which dictate what schools have to teach. These decisions are made at the state level and these standards vary widely.
In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released, which include the teaching of fundamental ideas that give students the opportunity to engage in learning about earth and human activity, human impacts on earth systems, global climate change and more. As of April 2022, 20 states and the District of Columbia have officially adopted the NGSS into their curriculums, representing 36% of all students in the US. Twenty-four states have adopted their own standards based on recommendations from the NGSS framework, but in some states, these standards, while including instruction on weather and environmental variance, do not draw a direct link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming. (For an overview of which states have adopted which standards and what that means for climate education, see the 2020 report card by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Education Fund.)
The NGSS framework is a step in the right direction, Potter-Nelson says, but simply having standards isn't enough, especially when they’re pitted against misinformation about climate and powerful interests influencing education agendas.
According to a reporting project by Oklahoma NPR stations, over the past two decades, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board has spent close to $40 million on producing education materials that are pro-fossil fuel industry.4
Oil and gas companies also produce their own climate education materials, which have been widely criticized for downplaying the impact of carbon emissions. Teacher workshops provided by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Program and Arkansas Energy Rocks, and children’s books like Petro Pete, are just some of the ways in which the fossil fuel industry has shaped the way climate issues are addressed in many K-12 classrooms. In fact, education journalist Katie Worth found fossil fuel-funded education programs being used in at least 18 different U.S. states.5
Pushing for change
Organizations like the National Science Teaching Association are pushing to bring climate education to schools and sharing their own positions on teaching climate science. Efforts out of MIT (including the SCALES resource, TILclimate podcast educator guides, and CATE climate curriculum), Washington University, and Open Sci Ed are also working to make such education more accessible and equitable, and there’s momentum toward improving climate education for teachers. There’s also action happening on the state level. Numerous states today include climate change in their science education standards, and in 2020, New Jersey became the first state to extend climate education to all its standards, from social studies to foreign languages.
Pushing for better climate education often starts locally, Potter-Nelson says. “I don't think that [high school students] necessarily realize how much sway and power they have in advocating for things, especially at the school board level,” she says, adding that because local school boards have the power to make hiring and curriculum decisions, getting these concerns in front of them is the first step in bolstering climate change education. “Opening up that conversation connects theory to practice,” she says.
1 Ipsos: Teachers agree that climate change is real and should be taught in schools. April 22, 2019. Accessed July 6, 2022.
2 Plutzer, Eric, et al. "Climate confusion among U.S. teachers." Science, vol. 351, issue 6274, Feb 2016. doi:10.1126/science.aab3907
3 National Education Association: Survey: Alarming number of educators may soon leave the profession. February 1, 2022. Accessed July 6, 2022.
4 "Pipeline to the classroom: how big oil promotes fossil fuels to America's children," by Jie Jenny Zou. Published in The Guardian through a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Oklahoma. June 15, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2022.
5 Katie Worth, How Climate Change Is Taught in America. Columbia Global Reports, 2021.