Proposed new science teaching guidelines make case for complex concepts in science education, including, for the first time, climate change.

A new set of voluntary teaching standards, subject to adoption by individual states, for the first time addresses climate change science, but some stronger language in earlier drafts appears to have been left on the cutting-room floor.

Experts from the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science provided input on the “Next Generation Science Standards,” developed with broad support from a number of states and teacher groups. Ultimately, the proposed new standards weakened earlier draft guidelines for teaching human-induced climate change, and some continuing political battles over them appear a certainty.

The new science education guidelines aim to redirect the emphasis and methods of science instruction in U.S. schools, and now include guidance on climate change in public schools. The Next Generation Science Standards open the way for widespread adoption by states, many of which assisted in their development. States will decide individually whether or not to adopt the new standards.

Crafted over the past two years by a 26-state consortium, with broad input from national science and teacher groups, the standards call for a more integrated approach to science education overall. The new standards are expected to replace existing ones, but states must agree to them. The inclusion of climate change science appears a likely sticking point for some.

The new guidelines are the first broad effort since 1996 to refocus science education. They rely less on memorization and more on critical thinking and cross-cutting concepts. The guidelines identify performance expectations of essential science concepts such as global change, climate change and energy.

A report on National Public Radio calls the current hodgepodge of climate science education “abysmal.”

Guidelines raise uncertainties about which way teachers will go on human causation.

Mark McCaffrey, policy and program director at the National Center for Science Education, stressed that the new standards are based on the National Research Council’s Framework for kindergarten to grade 12 education guidelines. And big topics, such as climate change, provide opportunities to strengthen science education as a whole. “The standards go far beyond just heat trapping gases from human activities and look more broadly at how humans have become a force of nature, and what we can do about it,” he said.

In his reporting on the new standards, The New York Times’ Justin Gillis wrote that “the guidelines were intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, to standardize teaching among states, and to raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country’s economic future.” Gillis also reported that the guidelines will help students “become more intelligent science consumers by learning how scientific work is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence, and how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.”

The Times’ education blog, The Learning Network, invited discussion and comments from teachers by asking, “What kinds of support do teachers need to fully implement and teach the standards?” It prompted numerous reader comments, including one from high school science teacher Juan Bacigalupi, who supported the revamped guidelines. “Science is constantly changing,” Bacigalupi wrote. “I must teach a mile wide of stuff but at a depth of about 1 inch. I want to get my students interested in doing science, not memorizing stuff.”

The (U.K.) Guardian reported that climate science was trimmed in the final version of the standards, “cut by about a third the amount of time devoted to a subject seen as critical to future generations.” The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg wrote that the standards are “less explicit than earlier drafts about the human role as a driver for climate change.”

Previous iterations of the standards would have called for introducing global warming in fifth grade. That was removed from the final version. Still, Fox News reported that global warming was covered as an elementary school subject, which is not the case.

“Elementary students are building their understanding of inquiry, observations, natural processes, water cycle, human impacts and how they can be minimized, weather and climate, and how they are related but different,” said McCaffrey. “Introducing them to the complexity of human-induced climate change makes much more sense developmentally at middle school level, which is where they are in the final version.”

Given the political pressures for teachers to “balance” scientific knowledge with opinions on climate change, educators look to science education guidelines for a cohesive examination of the scientific evidence and inquiry.

Each state will evaluate and adopt the standards on its own. Currently, because climate science literacy is widely lacking in state standards, college-bound high school students can graduate without ever learning climate and energy basics.

For States, By States

The more integrated new standards prescribe more depth and fewer topic areas. They include engineering and higher level science concepts like constructing arguments and building demonstrations. For many states that have climate change education spelled out in teaching guidelines, the new guidelines are expected to provide greater clarity. For others, it will open opportunity for climate to be taught in the classroom — and open the potential for political divides.

The website of the Next Generation Science Standards announces they were written “for states, by states,” according to the tagline. Still, many media outlets presented the new voluntary standards as being national in scope or federally-mandated standards, which they are not.

“The nation’s largest education publishers are already studying how to incorporate the new standards into their materials,” Inside Climate News reported in an article picked-up by Bloomberg News. “They will likely appear in some of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s materials as early as next year.”

Reporter Katharine Bagley wrote that the new guidelines also are being “fast-tracked” by McGraw Hill’s education division.

With seven of the nation’s 10 most heavily populated states having been engaged in developing the standards, there appeared to be some optimism that the insistence of some key states, for instance Texas, to proceed on its own may not be a critical blow to the widespread adoption of the guidelines.

According to McCaffrey, educators hoping for greater clarity on climate education may still be disappointed. “The very fact that climate change is included in the standards at all seems to be news,” said McCaffrey. He points to a National Review blog piece by Heather MacDonald titled, “New Science Standards Put Global Warming at Core of Curriculum.” McCaffrey says this article “is wildly overstating the case.”

Numerous hurdles doubtless remain for those committed to sound climate science education, but the new guidelines nonetheless are seen as providing new opportunities for educators to introduce students to the complex climate change societal issues their generation is likely to have to address for years to come.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...