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Some states are trying to downplay teaching of climate change. Teachers see ‘educational malpractice’

Teaching climate change in schools is a hot-button issue in a number of states, including Idaho and New Mexico, where lawmakers have tried to weaken or dismantle science standards crafted by educators and scientists. Amid a climate-change skeptical Trump administration, legislators cite a concern about one-sided arguments. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The politically charged battle over climate change is increasingly spreading to the classroom. At issue, how and whether to teach it, including the scientific consensus about the role of human activity.

    It is a debate playing out in states adopting new science standards, including in Idaho, where a key vote could come this week.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark, of our partner Education Week, reports from Boise.

    It's for our weekly segment, Making the Grade.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    What is Clay?

  • Students:

    The Earth.

  • Lisa Stark:

    These Boise second graders are playing an unusual game of tag.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    On your marks, set, go!

  • Lisa Stark:

    They're pretending to be sunlight. Once they reach Earth, they turn into heat. Some bounce back. Others are tagged and trapped by students masquerading as greenhouse gases.

  • Man:

    Look at all my greenhouse gases.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    Look at that, all right.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The idea is to help students understand global warming.

  • Student:

    The Earth is actually warming up.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    So the more greenhouse gases we add to the atmosphere, what happens to the temperature of the Earth?

    Yes.

  • Student:

    It gets hotter.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    It gets hotter.

  • Lisa Stark:

    What is climate change? What did you learn about that when you were outside playing tag?

  • Karson Bennett:

    It's when people put more carbon dioxide in the air, and it makes it warmer.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Boise State University Professor Jennifer Pierce offers this lesson on climate change to elementary school classes.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    I think it's my obligation as a scientist and as an educator and as a parent to teach our kids about how the greenhouse effect works, how humans and fossil fuels have contributed to the warming of our planet, and what we can do about it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Pierce crafted these lessons after becoming alarmed when Idaho's Republican-dominated legislature moved to soften proposed state science standards to play down the role of humans in climate change.

    Well, the legislature seems to think that, you know, you need to present both sides of the issue, that you need to be even-handed.

  • Jennifer Pierce:

    There aren't two sides of the issue. The global warming is happening, and humans are the cause. There's not another side of the issue.

  • Woman:

    We'd like to call the House Education Committee to order.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The fight over new Idaho science standards for grades kindergarten through 12 has now dragged on for three years.

    You are on the committee that drafted these standards, and redrafted these standards and redrafted these standards.

  • Melyssa Ferro:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Stark:

    What was the problem?

    Melyssa Ferro, an award-winning Idaho science teacher, believes lawmakers have tried to dismantle the group's hard work for political showmanship.

  • Melyssa Ferro:

    The big concern here is, people think we're trying to sneak something by them, we're trying to indoctrinate the children of Idaho into concepts that go against the moral or religious beliefs of the citizens. But I would argue that the science is sound in these standards.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Last year, lawmakers temporarily approved the standards, but removed five sections on climate change, including one that emphasized — quote — "the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures."

    Lawmakers asked for a rewrite.

    Representative Ryan Kerby supported that, saying students were being force fed one-sided arguments.

  • Rep. Ryan Kerby:

    They just said, man has X, Y, Z impact on the environment, or these things are bad, vs. saying, hey, students, look at the data, do some research, and let's talk about the good things and the bad things that man do to the environment.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The public has overwhelmingly disagreed.

  • Woman:

    Science education shouldn't be a political issue.

  • Man:

    Not some watered-down, censored version.

  • Woman:

    I ask that we not only keep the standards, but that we appreciate and accept all that they have to offer.

  • Lisa Stark:

    That didn't sway the Idaho House Education Committee, which this month voted again, this time deleting one science standard that linked air pollution with fossil fuels, and scrapping pages and pages of content that backed up every area of science instruction, including global warming.

  • Woman:

    The motion passes. Thank you.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Representative Scott Syme led the charge, saying he was deleting sections that didn't allow students to do their own scientific discovery.

  • Rep. Scott Syme:

    When you have conclusions in standards, it stifles inquiry. What we're going to see is, we're going to be developing scientists, kids that can think on their own, that come to their own conclusions.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Syme refused repeated requests for an interview, but told a newspaper — quote — "I don't care if students come up with a conclusion that the Earth is flat, as long as it's their conclusion, not something that's told to them."

    The debate over teaching climate change is hardly limited to Idaho. There have been a number of states, as they have been revising their science standards, where this has also become a hot-button issue.

    New Mexico's attempt last fall to weaken climate change instruction generated protests and fierce backlash.

  • Woman:

    The children, the future of New Mexico, deserve better.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Stark:

    Ultimately, the state Department of Education backed down. Recent attempts, in at least nine states, to block, repeal or modify state science standards, partly because of the treatment of climate change, have largely failed.

    All this comes during a government administration skeptical about global warming.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

  • David Evans:

    In the case of climate change, of course, there's been many really concerted efforts to kind of deny the science.

  • Lisa Stark:

    David Evans is the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

  • David Evans:

    When a legislative body decides to recommend against science content that's been well-vetted by the science community and the education community, we undergo a great risk in denying our children really important information that they are going to need.

  • Man:

    Each of these is a type of resource on it. See if you can decide if it's renewable or nonrenewable.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The Boise School District isn't waiting for the state to act. There's local control of education in Idaho, and this district is teaching climate science.

  • Jayden Rehalt:

    I know that global warming, even if it's not caused by humans, it's always happening with like — our Earth is warming up slowly.

  • Jainee Smith:

    I don't generally think of, oh, yes, climate change and global warming, like, yes, I could change that, I could do that. I feel like that's something that everyone would have to come to, not just one person.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Science teacher Nathan Dean says, in more rural, conservative parts of Idaho, global warming will only be taught if it's required by the state.

  • Nathan Dean:

    I feel like we would be really remiss to say that we're preparing kids in science education and science literacy if they aren't aware of global warming and climate change and the science behind that.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Dean bristles at what's been happening in the state legislature.

  • Nathan Dean:

    I think that it would be kind of educational malpractice to pretend that there's two sides to that scientific argument.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Representative Kerby says he's not opposed to teaching global warming, as long as kids figure out the causes based on their own research.

  • Rep. Ryan Kerby:

    We really want the students to protect our environment, to protect our planet, but we want them thinking, not being spoon-fed.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Back in that second grade Boise classroom, students are figuring out ways to help protect the environment.

  • Ryder Pazdan:

    If you want to go to the zoo, you should — you don't need to drive. You can, like, bike there.

  • Stevi Gunn:

    It's basically a cooling vest, so, like, whenever it's too hot, you can put on the cooling vest.

  • Lisa Stark:

    So far, though, there's no indication anyone is cooling off in Idaho.

    It's now up to the Senate Education Committee to decide whether to go along with their House colleagues or leave the science standards intact. The vote is expected as early as this week.

    For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I'm Lisa Stark in Boise, Idaho.

Editor’s Note: After this story aired we heard from Mary Strow from the Idaho Republican Party. While the report explained that many references to climate change and human activity have been altered or eliminated in the Idaho science standards approved by the Idaho House Education Committee, she wished to underscore that some references do remain.

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