One morning back in 2002, Wes McCoy, a science teacher at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, opened the freshman biology book to find a sticker. It read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” The Cobb County Board of Education had quietly voted to place the disclaimer into biology and other science textbooks, enabling creationism to tiptoe into the classroom.
It took four years and a publicized court case to remove the stickers and diminish this particular anti-science war cry in Cobb County. Yet the fight against scientific data and evidence in the public school system is neither new nor over—not countywide, statewide, or nationwide. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has only fanned the flames, leaving many to wonder how her influence could affect science education, especially in regard to climate change.
The conservative South can be fertile ground for “teach the controversy” advocates, who want creationism and evolution to be taught hand in hand, and want the scientific consensus regarding fossil fuels causing climate change to be questioned in K-12 classrooms. The states can cultivate or cull these notions as they see fit.
As it goes, the federal Department of Education has by law virtually zero influence over curriculum, which is left to the states and their school districts. In that sense, DeVos has little sway over the topics taught and how they’re presented. But she could still do damage to Climate 101 in other ways.
One of the main concerns about DeVos is her history of supporting school vouchers, says McCoy, who recently retired after 38 years of teaching and now consults for Georgia Public Broadcasting. In Michigan, DeVos founded the voucher-supporting Great Lakes Education Project. The core concept of vouchers is to allow federal taxpayer dollars to be redirected toward private school tuition, even though the private school may be exempt from any accountability measures.
That means taxpayers could support thousands of private schools in Georgia, and other states as well, without a way to compare one with another, says McCoy. The potential result? Federally funded religious schools that promote creationism and deny climate change.
States usually develop (or adopt) their own set of recognized standards, such as the Common Core State Standards for math and English. These provide accountability for teachers to hit specific targets and codify foundational concepts that may be carried from one curriculum to the next. In 2013, the National Science Teachers Association released the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), based on the National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education.
Under NGSS, students first learn about climate change in middle school. By high school, they are expected to comprehend that as research grows and computer models improve, so does our grasp of how human behaviors affect climate change. They should graduate with an understanding of the complex relationships among the ocean, the atmosphere, and all living things.
Thus far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these science standards. Many others, including Georgia, base their own standards on NGSS’s but don’t adopt all of them. Then there’s South Carolina, Kentucky, and Wyoming. These states blocked the standards in order to resist having to teach climate change as a scientific fact. The outcome is that high school students across the country are graduating with varying degrees of understanding (or outright ignorance) about the causes and effects of climate change—as well as the strategies to combat them. A small percentage of children may never even hear the term mentioned in a classroom setting.
That’s not all. While the rejection of Common Core science standards is troubling, more worrying is the possible changes made to federal departments and agencies that provide information and resources to science educators. These include the Department of Education, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and others, says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “It would be a shame if, owing to science denial in the new administration, that information was removed, censored, or tampered with.”
The topic of climate change has already been softened or removed from federal websites, including those of the White House and the EPA. Federal agencies have also been under a gag order since January. According to a story in ProPublica, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently changed the language on its “Energy Kids” website regarding the links between coal power production and rising greenhouse gases, although the news site later corrected the story to say that administrators were never contacted by the White House regarding the content of the website. Other sites, such as the EPA’s student guide to climate change, have remained untouched thus far. The Trump administration says the changes that have occurred are “routine updates,” but they are still raising eyebrows among scientists and teachers alike.
“The main thing affecting me would be if the resources we use through EPA and NOAA were no longer available,” says Kevin McMahon, a middle-school earth science teacher in Decatur, Georgia. “If it were to happen, it would impact our ability to teach our content because we do rely on those resources.”
For students to excel, they need access to accurate information no matter the subject. “Children need us to stand up and make the absolute best possible decisions for them—and that is to make sure they have a thorough, broad education,” declares McCoy, his voice growing loud. “I’m upset when people shortchange adults, but when people shortchange children I get furious.”
By 2050, the global average temperature rise is projected to break the 2-degree Celsius threshold. At that point, some of the most dangerous effects of climate change will kick in—including the flooding of many coastal cities from rising sea levels. That same year, today’s first-graders will be entering their 40s. Why would we purposely leave them unprepared for the world we will have left them?