Op-Ed: Follow-Up Needed on NJ’s Renewed Commitment to Climate Change Education

Glenn Branch | June 24, 2020 | Opinion, Education
Money is needed to train educators to properly teach on a subject for which they often are not prepared
Glenn Branch

The Garden State just took a huge step forward in preparing students in its public schools to flourish in the warming world they will inherit. On June 3, the state Board of Education adopted revisions to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards — documents that specify what knowledge and abilities students in the state’s public schools are expected to acquire — which incorporate climate change in a systematic and coordinated way throughout, thanks to a proposal from First Lady Tammy Murphy.

Climate change was already present in New Jersey’s science education standards, to be sure. The state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which include global climate change as one of four sub-ideas in the core idea of Earth and Human Activity at both the middle school and the high school level, in 2014. The new revision of the science standards emphasizes climate change even further, offering a few paragraphs of advice to science teachers and encouraging them to incorporate the topic throughout the curriculum.

But what is unique about the latest revisions is the inclusion of climate change in multiple areas of instruction — the standards for career readiness, life literacies, and key skills; comprehensive health and physical education; computer science and design thinking; visual and performing arts; world languages; and (in appendices) English language arts and mathematics. Practically every teacher in New Jersey’s public school system is thus encouraged to discuss climate change, in appropriate educational contexts, with their students.

Throughout, the treatment of climate change respects the scientific consensus — a far cry from Texas, for example, where students are expected to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” In fact, multiple independent studies using different methods have consistently produced estimates of the extent of scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change among climate scientists converging in the neighborhood of 97%.

Most New Jerseyans agree

These revisions ought to be popular both with the public and with teachers. About 81% of New Jerseyans agree that schools should teach about the causes and consequences of climate change, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. And professional teaching organizations like the National Science Teaching Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the National Council of Teachers of English have repeatedly called for climate change to be included in the curriculum.

But having taken such a huge step forward, New Jersey needs not to falter. In particular, it will be necessary to equip teachers to meet the increased demands of the new standards. In a national survey by the National Center for Science Education and Pennsylvania State University, less than half of the teachers surveyed reported having taken a course in college that devoted even a single class session to the topic of climate change. And these were middle and high school science teachers: their colleagues in other disciplines are even less prepared.

Here is where meaningful legislative action would be useful. So far in 2020, 18 bills to support climate change education have been introduced in 10 states — including a pair of identical bills (A–2767/S-1970), currently pending in committee in the New Jersey Legislature. But only a handful of them, in New York and Washington, have specifically sought to fund professional development in order to address the problem of teacher underpreparation to teach climate change effectively.

New Jersey’s climate is already changing, with rising temperatures, increased rainfall, more frequent extreme weather events, and rising sea levels all documented by the Department of Environmental Protection, and it is to the state’s credit that its education standards are changing in response. But it will be necessary for the state to ensure that these latter changes have their intended effect by funding education appropriately: meeting the greenhouse effect with the greenback dollar.