With the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this past April, we at the NCSE offices have been fielding calls from reporters wanting to know the dish. What are these new standards? How will they affect the teaching of climate change and evolution in public schools? Why do we need standards anyway?
The NGSS are a 26-state initiative to create strong and common science standards across the country. With these new standards, students will share a strong background in the sciences that is based on concepts generated from within the scientific community. The lead states coordinated their efforts with the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in order to ensure coverage of quality science. Although the standards have been released, only a handful of states have adopted them yet. There is a long road ahead as interested parties battle for and against their implementation in states across the country.
When it comes to climate, the NGSS aren’t perfect. My colleague Mark McCaffrey expressed dismay at having seen, as the NGSS were developed, the science of climate change turned from a core concept into a minor topic, with key ideas such as the greenhouse effect left out altogether. As a biologist myself, I was disappointed that climate change was limited in the NGSS to the earth sciences. As a young researcher who spent years in the forests on New England and later the vineyards of the Central Valley of California thinking about how these systems will respond to a changing climate, it is hard for me not to be concerned about this serious omission.
But the real question is: are the NGSS generally better on climate science than the existing state standards they’re poised to replace? My answer is absolutely yes. In my review of state standards, I found that many of the states you would expect to have excellent coverage of climate change do not. For example, my home state of Massachusetts, where climate change is predicted to greatly affect the coastline, the only tangential reference to climate change I found in the science standards was in relation to studying carbon cycles. Meanwhile, Rhode Island and West Virginia’s science standards asked students to debate the science behind climate change, with Rhode Island actually asking students to argue “government/big business vs. environmental perceptions of global climate change.” In the case of these two states, “teach the controversy” was written into the standards themselves. Fortunately, Rhode Island was one of the first states to adopt NGSS, which was a considerable improvement.
So what do the NGSS include in relation to human-caused climate change? Well, in middle school, the students learn about the connections between human activities (specifically fossil fuel combustion) and global temperatures. In high school earth sciences courses, they learn how changes due to climate, such as sea level rise, can affect people. Later, they are asked to model human activities and their influence on climate, look at feedbacks (particularly in relation to greenhouse gases), predict climate change rates and associated impacts and illustrate the relationship between humans and earth systems (including ocean acidification). All of these expectations are an improvement on many of the state science standards that they will replace.
It is true that the NGSS are only a starting place, but from our perspective here at NCSE, they appear to be a very good place to start. Standards are the beginning, for they set the expectations for science education within a state. Textbooks still need to be written, curriculums developed, tests generated. So while the inclusion of climate change in the NGSS is a good start, it is up to the school boards, teachers, parents, and students to take the next steps to ensure that climate science is properly taught and learned in their own schools.