During last week’s climate strike in downtown Spokane, students weren’t shy about sharing what they’ve learned about climate change.
Kids as young as 15 cited statistics and historical trends on everything from increasing carbon dioxide emissions to the extinction of of animal species.
They knew their stuff. But in most cases, they didn’t learn it in class.
“That’s part of the problem,” said Lily Ashdown, a student at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls. “We’re not learning much about this in school.”
That’s true in Spokane and the rest of the nation. According to a recent poll by National Public Radio, more than 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change.
That support is bipartisan; nine in 10 Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans agree the subject needs to be taught.
Teachers are even more supportive, with 86% believing that the next generation needs a better academic background in what could be its most important issue.
And yet, the climate protests highlighted an ongoing disconnect: While most states and many school districts have classroom standards that at least mention human-caused climate change, many teachers aren’t dealing with the subject.
Several students at the climate protest said the subject wasn’t taught in class.
Cerissa Moeller, a senior at Mead, said teachers “don’t discuss it at all.”
Ainsley Johnson, a senior at Cheney High School, said climate change science also isn’t taught extensively there.
“My science teacher discussed it one time, that was it,” she said.
“Maybe it’s an avoided issue,” said Seth Bachman, a sophomore at Lewis and Clark who said he gets much of his information from the New York Times.
Another LC sophomore, Cesca Konshuk-Mas, believes that “it’s an important issue that everyone seems to be dodging.”
Well, not everyone.
LC history teacher Carolyn Petek has made climate change study a part of current-events discussion.
“I welcome that because it’s my philosophy of teaching,” said Petek, who for more than four decades has viewed social studies and history as the proper context for current events – no matter how political they may be.
As a high school student in California in the late 1970s, Petek brought up the still-simmering subject of Watergate. Her teacher replied that the subject was off-limits.
“Social studies is meant to inform students and help them become participants in our political system and make their own decisions,” said Petek, who works hard to present climate change as an exercise in identifying key facts.
That means examining what President Donald Trump said on the subject, as well as comments from former President Barack Obama.
“You need to look at the reasons Trump believes what he does,” Petek said. “That’s a skill: to be able to look at an issue and ask what are the key facts connected to this side and the other side.”
“Sure it’s controversial, but life is controversial,” Petek said.
However, Petek is in the minority. Most teachers say they don’t have the time, while nearly two-thirds of teachers in the NPR study said it’s outside their subject area.
Then there’s the political background. National surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that some students have told their teachers that their parents don’t feel it should be taught.
The subject also faces mainstream opposition. This year alone, several states have introduced bills and resolutions that would restrict the teaching of climate change.
In Connecticut, a recent bill would have cut climate change materials from the state’s standards. An Iowa bill would have directly repealed the state’s use of Next Generation Science Standards.
Legislation in Arizona, Maine, South Dakota and Virginia would have prohibited the teaching of any issue included in a state political party platform, on the grounds of anti-indoctrination.
In Spokane Public Schools, the situation is different: climate change is addressed in a high school ecology-environment section that touches on human impacts and the carbon cycle.
High school teachers also have the option to discuss climate change in certain chemistry, physics and environmental science classes. District middle school teachers have the option to cover climate change in sixth-grade earth and space science, seventh-grade ecology and eighth-grade physics and chemistry.
Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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