May 30, 2016 by

A resolution passed in Portland, Oregon, might be the tipping point K–12 schools need.textbook-climate-change
(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.


Textbooks that cast doubt on whether climate change is real could soon be a thing of the past in the nation’s K–12 classrooms. That’s the hope of environmental activists in the United States, including Bill Bigelow, a Portland, Oregon–based former social studies teacher who is the curriculum editor at the nonprofit Rethinking Schools.

Bigelow helped spearhead last week’s passage of a groundbreaking climate justice resolution by the Board of Education for the Portland Public Schools. According to the resolution, all schools in the district will “abandon any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity.”

“So much educational material is soaked in doubt,” Bigelow told TakePart. “There’s too much at stake for kids these days to be learning this kind of ho-hum curriculum on the climate emergency.”

Growing national “support for accurate, science-based climate education has been in the works for some time now with the launch of the Next Generation Science Standards and their adoption by 16 states thus far,” Leah Qusba, the communications director of the Alliance for Climate Education, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Since 2008 the nonprofit alliance has worked to educate teenagers on the science of climate change and empower them to take action. After two years of effort, in April the alliance and its youth leaders helped get a climate education resolution passed by the New York City Council. The nonbinding resolution recommends that climate change be taught in Gotham’s public schools. Bigelow’s actions have “empowered a generation of educators and school administrators to not only teach more climate science, but be very sure that they are teaching accurate, science-based material—not the ‘false debate,’ ” wrote Qusba.

“We’ve noticed that people are paying attention to [Portland’s] story and it wouldn’t be surprising to see other school districts follow suit, especially those that have already adopted the Next Generation Science Standards,” wrote Qusba. She believes other districts, “especially those that already have great leaders who care deeply about climate education, like the San Francisco Unified School District,” will soon follow Portland’s lead.

But in Portland the pushback from climate-change deniers against the resolution has been significant, said Bigelow. “It’s been interesting and surprising how attached some people are to the idea that climate change is not happening and that this is a conspiracy—that the whole idea of human-caused climate change is a conspiracy,” he said.

Ditching such material is a significant step, but equally important is that the resolution also states that the district wants to “address climate change and climate justice in all Portland Public Schools,” said Bigelow, and prepare students for the green jobs of the future.

Ahead of the resolution’s passage, Bigelow testified about the inaccurate climate-related content found in textbooks in the city’s public schools, including Physical Science, which is published by Pearson. He cited one passage for its soft language: “ ‘Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants and other sources, may contribute to global warming.’ This is a section that could be written by the Exxon public relations department and it’s being taught in Portland schools,” Bigelow said, according to the Portland Tribune.

Nearly all high school students in Portland use Holt McDougal’s Modern World History textbook. “It buries the treatment of the climate crisis on page 679,” Bigelow told TakePart. Although 99.99 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, “the second paragraph on that page begins, ‘Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect,’ ” Bigelow said.

The use in textbooks of words such as “may” and “might” and the questioning of the greenhouse effect can cause students to doubt climate change, said Bigelow. It also causes educators to impart inaccurate information during the precious little class time dedicated to climate. Only one to two hours per year are spent educating students on climate change, and 30 percent of educators teach that “global warming is likely due to natural causes,” according to a survey published in the journal Science in February.

To counter this misinformation, last year the Alliance for Climate Education “worked with the United States Conference of Mayors to pass a climate education resolution for high schools so that large U.S. cities prioritize climate education, and know that there are organizations out there like ours that can provide free support. This is especially important since many teachers aren’t yet equipped to teach climate science,” wrote Qusba.

Educators lack accurate, high-quality resources, but “part of it is also that teachers are afraid,” said Bigelow. “Teachers are not necessarily wanting to wade into where it feels like there is a red-hot controversy. And so long as the climate deniers can make it seem like this is controversial and that there are many sides to this, then they win. They scare people off.”

RELATED: Texas School Board Decides Not to Have Academics Fact-Check Textbooks

The movement in Portland took off after a workshop for teachers and activists last November that Bigelow teamed up to lead with Tim Swinehart, with whom he coauthored A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, a Rethinking Schools book about climate change and the environmental crisis.

“Out of that workshop we decided that we would start a group to press the school district to take a more affirmative stance on the climate crisis. And so we have been meeting for several months and trying to fashion language for a resolution that we thought was reasonable and comprehensive—and also would address some of the really wretched material that is still in adopted texts that the school district uses,” said Bigelow.

Bigelow believes that “it’s going to take a lot of pressure, a lot of organizing like this. It’s going to take school districts rejecting their stuff” to get textbook publishers to reflect accurate climate science. But he’s been through this fight before.

In 1991 he published Rethinking Columbus, a textbook that challenged the story that Christopher Columbus discovered America. “And then communities of color began saying, ‘Oh yeah? Columbus discovered America?’ and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to celebrate genocide. We’re not going to celebrate colonialism.’ That’s when the textbook publishers began responding and changing material,” Bigelow said.

Meanwhile, activists in Portland are focused on “fashioning a new curriculum, and we need to do it in a grassroots manner,” he said. “There’s been a lot of attention given to what we’re going to get rid of, but now we’re focusing on what we need to build.”

Ideally, said Bigelow, people from the community—teachers, administrators, experts, and activists—will all be a part of that process. “Portland Public Schools has committed to work with us on an implementation plan. We will begin to figure out how we take the really wonderful language of the resolution and make it real, and begin to build the kind of collaboration and network that we need,” he said.

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