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Report: Climate change politicized in the classroom

Report: Climate change politicized in the classroom

Report argues that teachers may not be prepared, equipped to teach issue
Report: Climate change politicized in the classroom
Photographer: Shutterstock

A report from the state School Boards Association released Thursday suggests politics may be affecting how climate change is taught in classrooms. 

The report, titled “When Politics Enters the Classroom: Teaching about Climate Change," draws on national studies and examples to argue economic and political forces are impacting how climate science is taught. It also suggests teachers could be better prepared to approach the subject. 

“When it comes to teaching about climate change, it certainly appears that politics and economics, not science, are driving the debate,” New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer said in a prepared statement when the report was released. 

But the report also credits New York’s requirements -- that science teachers rack up coursework in the specific field they plan to teach -- and points to the more explicit climate change standards starting to roll out in schools. 

“Learning about climate change is great,” the association concluded. “Acting on it is even better.”

Students and teachers in Ballston Spa, for instance, in May organized a Capital Region Youth Climate Summit, and when school starts up next week, they will jump into planning the next summit for late-March. 

The prevailing goal of the summits is to engage students in learning more about climate science by asking them to identify problems in their schools or communities and design solutions. 

“At the climate summit, it does inspire students to realize they can do something,” said Katie Calhoun, a science teacher at Ballston Spa High School who, along with colleague Judy Selig and students, organized the summit. 

The May summit drew about a dozen districts and around 100 students who heard presentations from experts and learned what other students were doing in their schools to improve sustainability and resilience. It was modeled on a program hosted annually at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, which a Ballston Spa school delegation attended in 2016.

The teachers said the conference – which didn’t achieve the turnout they hoped for partly because of the late-May date – embodies the best kind of climate science education: turning science – and sometimes dire predictions – into student action. 

“My experience is, it’s often gloom and doom. You tell students all these awful things and everyone walks out so depressed it feels hopeless,” Selig said of the curriculum delivered in science classes. 

The state’s new science education standards, adopted by the Board of Regents in December, press educators to work across disciplines and ask students to build models and engineer solutions.
 
“We are looking at data and trying to have students build a case on their own, to come up with their own position based on the evidence,” said Kurt Redman, math, science and business coordinator for Schenectady schools.
 
Redman said teams of Schenectady science teachers are starting to look through the new standards and figure out ways the district can expand its science curriculum in the coming years.

He said those changes will be in the spirit of the climate summit – which he said his district didn’t attend because of the timing last year – asking students to participate in scientific inquiry.

The School Boards Association study cited high levels of support – if still far from unanimous – for teaching climate change in New York schools, based on a poll of school board members. 

Seventy percent of those surveyed this summer said they support teaching climate change in public schools; 16 percent opposed it and 14 percent said they were not sure. Of respondents who supported teaching climate change, 86 percent supported teaching that humans contribute to climate change. 

Regardless of how school board members feel about the issue, the state’s new science standards require that climate change – and humans' contribution to it – be taught in schools. 

“The question is not whether to address climate change in the curriculum, but how best to do so,” the report posits.

But national issues affecting the quality of teacher-preparation programs and textbook quality means teachers “may lack sufficient understanding of the topic” and “may not be equipped to teach climate change accurately,” the report states.

In summation, the School Boards Association called on school boards to focus on how climate science is taught in their schools and to explore areas to improve teacher training, curriculum and student opportunities.

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