Climate Change Needs a Seat in U.S. Classrooms

A big majority of Americans believe U.S. classrooms need to teach climate change, even if politicians don't always agree. In two polls done by media nonprofit NPR and survey company Ipsos — one among teachers and the other among parents — almost nine in 10 teachers (86 percent) and a solid eight in 10 parents (80 percent) agreed that the subject should be taught. Overall, nearly three-quarters of people (74 percent) do believe the climate is changing.

Yet, a number of states are pushing bills and other forms of regulation that would restrict the teaching of climate change, in some cases in opposition to the use of Next Generation Science Standards (Connecticut and Iowa) and in other cases on the grounds of "anti-indoctrination" from a give political party (Arizona, Maine, South Dakota and Virginia) or in an effort to find "balance" in "controversial" science concepts.

The big question in the survey asked of 505 teachers and 1,007 adults in March 2019 was this: "Should climate change be taught in school?" Respondents could choose from among four possible answers:

  • Schools should teach it along with its impact on the environment, economy and society;

  • Schools should teach that it exists but not the impacts;

  • Schools shouldn't teach it at all; and

  • I don't know.

Seventy-four percent of teachers chose that first response, as did 68 percent of parents. However, Democrats chose it 81 percent of the time compared to just 49 percent of Republicans.

Yet, as an article about the results noted, while 36 states have classroom standards that mention human-caused climate change, most teachers don't cover it with their classes. About two-thirds of teachers (65 percent) said the reason they didn't was because it was outside of the subjects they taught. Twenty percent chose the next most common reason: Students were too young. Almost a third of those who teach climate change (30 percent) also suggested that they worry about parent complaints coming in when they cover the topic.

Among those teachers who talked about climate change in the classroom, they were nearly twice as likely to agree that there ought to be state laws mandating its teaching (70 percent compared to 38 percent of educators who don't teach the subject). They also tended to teach at schools that encouraged them to discuss it (64 percent versus 18 percent).

Yet, as the article pointed out, "more and more students" don't have to turn to teachers to learn about the impact of climate change, "because they are experiencing them in their daily lives." According to an analysis by NPR, some nine million students in nine states and Puerto Rico missed out on school because of natural disasters. In fact, a recent Schools for Climate Action Summit that took place in Washington, D.C. last month was instigated by students from Northern California who had come from communities "ravaged by wildfires." Among those who participated were also students who felt the impact of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and farming droughts on reservations in New Mexico.

The full coverage of results is openly available on the NPR website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.