Climate Change Puts Florida At Risk. Public Schools Are Not Teaching It The Right Way, Experts Say
From the Unconditional Surrender monument in Sarasota to the parliament in Sweden, the world’s youth are holding weekly protests and highlighting the realities of climate change, a topic of growing importance to young men and women.
More than a dozen states have made climate change a focal point of their science curriculum. But in Florida, a state threatened by intense hurricanes and coastal flooding, elements of the conversation are scarce or nonexistent in the classroom.
Climate education is also perceived and executed differently in each school district.
After inquires from the Bradenton Herald, a science teacher offered insight on her work in Hillsborough County, which developed marine science and climate change curriculum through a partnership with the University of South Florida.
In the School District of Manatee County, spokesman Mike Barber denied the newspaper’s request to observe a classroom lesson on climate change. He instead arranged an interview with district officials.
“Because this can become very political, we don’t want to place a specific teacher or somebody in a position of being caught in the middle,” he said. “Their job is to teach the state standards and a science class, not to get involved in the political aspects of that.”
A teacher in Polk County shared her thoughts on the importance of coupling facts and critical thinking with climate change lessons, while Sarasota County was unable to find a willing participant.
When compared to other states, the topic of climate change is less prevalent in Florida’s classrooms, but the state standards are not devoid of statements about climate education. Often times a standard will cover relevant lessons without specifically mentioning climate change, while other times the issue is combined with other subjects.
Several teachers and experts in climate education pointed to the same text when asked about Florida’s most robust climate change standards:
“Identify, analyze, and relate the internal (earth system) and external (astronomical) conditions that contribute to global climate change.”
Though it starts to broach the subject of climate change, along with greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, even Florida’s strongest climate standard is lacking, according to Rebecca Anderson, a leader with the Alliance for Climate Education.
It falls short of delving into the human-caused elements of climate change, Anderson said, noting that Florida mentions human activity as an aside, whereas other states bring the conversation front and center.
Those states follow the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia. Twenty-four other states were inspired by the same framework, while Florida is among half a dozen states that fall in neither category, according to the National Science Teaching Association.
“Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperature over the past century,” one standard reads, going on to note that “emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures.”
Anderson said the Next Generation standards also hit another crucial aspect of climate education: the ability for students to apply their knowledge and brainstorm solutions.
One standard encourages students to “design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.”
“Here’s the science, here’s the impacts, here’s all of the projections — it is so depressing,” Anderson said, explaining a traditional education. “Young people, they are so ready to move onto the solutions piece of it.”
Moriya White, an 11th grade student at Pine View School, is one of those people. White is also the co-organizer of Sarasota Students 4 Climate, a group that rallies every Friday at the Unconditional Surrender monument to protest the rise of harmful emissions.
“We had one project in ninth grade where we had to pick a topic about the environment and we might have watched a documentary about global warming, but it still wasn’t emphasized and it’s not in our school structure or curriculum,” she said.
White said she took it upon herself to research the topic and become part of the solution, and now she encourages residents to do the same. She recommended starting small by supporting environmentally friendly companies.
She spoke about the problems and solutions during Friday’s protest, as someone yelled from a passing car: “Get a life.”
“There’s a lot of negative responses, but there’s also a lot of positive ones,” White said. “Those are the ones I’m going for, and I’m specifically going for people who are asking questions and who need someone to talk to about the issue.”
WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS?
Education guidelines in Florida — the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards — share a similar name to the more robust standards used elsewhere.
The state adopted its current science standards in 2008, and while Florida uses a name similar to the Next Generation Science Standards, rolled out in 2013, there is a distinction.
That distinction was highlighted about two years ago in a presentation by Patricia Duncan, who worked as the secondary science specialist for the Florida Department of Education.
In her presentation, Duncan said Florida chose to cover more topics, while the Next Generation standards cover fewer topics in greater detail. Education standards are the foundation of Florida’s statewide assessments, meaning any deviation could result in “lowered student achievement,” she continued.
“Because of this reason, there is no way to do a crosswalk between NGSS and our Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards,” Duncan said at the time.
Changing the science guidelines would be no easy task. State law would have to change, teachers would need time for training and Florida’s assessments would need an update.
Anderson said the process could take five years or more, but she also felt the process would benefit generations of students.
“Climate change is now apparent and happening in real time, and they are learning how to connect the dots between extreme weather events, whether it’s wildfires or flooding or hurricanes,” she said. “They’re experiencing it in their own lives.”
HOW IS CLIMATE CHANGE TAUGHT IN FLORIDA’S CLASSROOMS?
Though a majority of climate scientists agree that humans are driving climate change, Florida’s education is hamstrung by the standards, and teachers are challenged by social and political noise outside of their classrooms.
According to recent polls by National Public Radio and the research firm Ipsos, when it comes to teaching climate change, about 30 percent of teachers feared complaints from parents.
But in the same polls, more than 80 percent of U.S. parents supported the teaching of climate change, and 86 percent of teachers felt the same. NPR also called on Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, to analyze state standards.
Branch found that dozens of states recognize human-caused climate change in their standards. In a follow-up response to the Bradenton Herald, he said Florida was among five states that mention human activity in their climate education, “but only as a possibility or in a list of factors.”
“I think there’s multiple issues,” said Candy Morris, an environmental science teacher in Polk County. “I’m not saying it’s all human, that’s my personal belief, but I would never say that to the kids. I just tell them the facts and I play devil’s advocate with them, no matter what side they pick.”
In her ninth-grade classroom, students appear to be neutral on the subject of climate change. Morris said she recognized the controversy outside of school, where people with different educational backgrounds and opinions duke it out on social media or the news.
Morris said the justification — a conclusion based on facts and a thoughtful reflection — is more important than a student’s answer. And when students differ in their opinions, they learn to disagree with respect.
“We give them all the facts,” she said. “We tell them the history of how temperature has changed over time and we talk about how it’s really hard for us to adapt quickly.”
Tracy Flanagan, a science teacher in Hillsborough County, pointed to a standard that directs students to “describe changes in ecosystems resulting from seasonal variations, climate change and succession.”
“It’s vague,” she said. “It just says climate change affects ecosystems.”
“Climate change is huge in itself,” she continued. “You’ve got sea level rise, ocean acidification, warming temperatures, thermal expansion and all this other stuff.”
Flanagan said the current standards don’t encourage teachers to fully explore the subject and impart vital knowledge on their students. But in Hillsborough, with the help of community partnerships and supportive colleagues, she developed a more robust education for area high schools.
She collaborated with several other teachers and the University of South Florida to overhaul the district’s marine science curriculum, rolling climate change into every lesson. The National Science Foundation supported their efforts with a grant.
Climate change often seems like a distant issue, a problem that only affects polar bears and glaciers, but students in Hillsborough receive a more personal education, Flanagan said.
“They start to see this isn’t just burning fossil fuels and then temperatures are going to rise,” she said. “This is going to impact everything. You want the Florida Keys here, they bring in visitors, which means you pay less taxes.”
When it comes to controversy and outside pressure, Flanagan said she was unfazed, giving credit to her school district and its science supervisor.
“He’d point to the state standard and say, ‘It’s right there, they have to teach it,’ so I feel very confident,” she said. “I’m backed up.”
WHAT MAKES A QUALITY EDUCATION?
When a member of the Manatee Clean Energy Alliance reached out to her local school district with a free resource for climate change education, she was disturbed by the response.
Karen Willey, who is also affiliated with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, reached out to a district official by email in June.
She was offering an educational kit developed with support from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.
“I don’t see where this curriculum will fit into our secondary science needs since climate change is not a science standard or integrated into any of our state standards at this time,” Deborah Stevens responded.
Stevens is the secondary science specialist for Manatee County schools. In a follow-up interview, she said the email was commenting on Willey’s offer and not the state standards as a whole.
“The state standard is based on scientific research,” she said. “Her product that she was trying to incorporate into our curriculum was one of the controversial theories and it didn’t fit at this time.”
“I have no idea what she is talking about,” Willey said in a subsequent interview. “As I explained, we’re talking about climate change basics, earth systems, greenhouse effect, ocean acidification and sea-level rise.”
Willey said the free kit — storage bins filled with lab equipment, activities and lesson plans — is available for teachers to use over a two-week period.
Resources and local support are key to a robust education on climate change, according to Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Leaders are calling for this increase, but the teachers are in this kind of a sticky spot where they don’t have the training, even if they agree it’s important” he said, later commenting on Florida’s lacking framework.
“There is some climate in there,” he said. “I think when you compare it to some of the other states that are using the full, new science standard framework, they are probably not as robust.”
Niepold is also the co-chair of CLEAN, the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network. His group hopes to be a valuable asset for the nation’s teachers, providing vetted resources for climate change education.
The group found heaps of information available on the internet, but many online resources were neglected over the past decade, leading educators to faulty links and outdated information.
In turn, Niepold said the group created a process to review “everything that relates to climate and energy literacy.” CLEAN has since reviewed more than 30,000 online resources, and fewer than 800 passed the ongoing review.
CLEAN — with financial backing from NOAA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy — provides a free database of all the vetted resources on its website, cleanet.org.
The database was needed more than ever, as school districts began to place greater emphasis on climate change. Historically, it was taught a sub-unit over the course of one week, requiring only a basic understanding and limited resources, Niepold said.
“From our analysis, both from the research community and the education community, that is inadequate for the depth and breadth and complexity and relevance of this topic,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.