Credit: Julie Leopo / EdSource
Paradise Elementary was one of nearly 19,000 structures destroyed in the November 2018 Camp fire.

These days I read about the constant fights over how to teach reading and math, which is as it should be. But there is little to no debate over teaching environmental science, not because everyone is agreed on what should be taught (far from it), but because no one is advocating loudly for it.

Ethnic studies benefited from noisy and at times nasty activism on its way to mandatory A-G status as one of the courses required for admission to UC/CSU. Environmental science, however, is the story of repeated failed initiatives and lack of support, relegated to an optional elective. Yet it is the subject that students will need most in the decades ahead. Legislators are taking another run at it with Assembly Bill 1939, which will make studying “climate change” mandatory, but that bill has a long and tortuous way to go. (New Jersey was the first state to make climate change mandatory in K-12, in 2020.)

My school has introduced environmental studies into ninth grade courses, which is not quite the same thing as environmental science, but close enough.  Why introduce it? Because here we are, with a heat dome above us, the hills to the north are on fire, the Loire and Yangtze rivers are drying up, and large areas of Pakistan are underwater, and that’s just last week.

The last time EdSource ran a major story on climate change education was in October 2019. I looked over that article and the title says it all: “Teachers and students push for climate change education in California.” Yet, the key line is this one: “Some teachers say the topic is still unfamiliar territory and that there aren’t enough resources to incorporate it into their curriculum.” Really? How hard can it be for school districts to generate resources and then fully support science teachers, or for science teachers to create their own units? The Los Angeles Unified course description for environmental studies is decades old, and there are no new instructional units available.

I am retired but when I taught English and English support/English learners, I worked environmental science into my classes, mainly in support of the ninth grade. It involved lots of reading, researching, writing, arguing and presenting. My students and I covered not just drought but where their water comes from and why 20-minute showers might not be such a good idea; not just how energy sources contribute to greenhouse gases but where their electricity comes from and has their family considered a heat pump or an electric vehicle? We covered not just why we may have a worsening food crisis but why they waste so much of the district-provided free meals; not just why our urban areas are heat sinks but why vast expanses of asphalt schoolyards need to be torn up and replaced with native trees and shrubs and school gardens; and why “field trips” outdoors to various parts of the school can be educational. You get the idea. The impact of environmental science on students comes from being real to them.

Twenty years ago, state legislators nursed a doomed project called the California Education and the Environment Initiative into being via the state Environmental Protection Agency. It is still around, promoting recycling and composting, but it is invisible, especially at the secondary school level. The initiative did sprout non-profits like Ten Strands, which provides environmental literacy, and the California Department of Education under Tom Torlakson in 2015 came up with a 48-page plan. The department set up regional environmental education networks, and there was some infrastructure for when the Next Generation Science Standards were rolled out. But almost nothing has changed; environmental science is still marginalized outside AP classes, and environmental justice issues are largely ignored.

I used to believe that ethnic studies was such an inspiring interdisciplinary subject that once it was made mandatory, it would be incorporated into all the other subjects. I certainly incorporated it into English. How naive I was. I soon learned that the only way ethnic studies would take its proper place in the curriculum was as a standalone subject and as a requirement of A-G. Environmental science will have to follow the same path.

The UCs are being contradictory: They require “fundamental knowledge” in two of these three subjects: “biology, chemistry, or physics” and ignore environmental science, even though in late 2019 they called for “more climate change education in K-12 schools.” So far as I know, nothing has happened since. It doesn’t help that the UC rules require a rigid credentialing process such that science teachers are siloed into biology, physics, or chemistry.

Can we really say that California students are as engaged in our environmental crisis as students in other countries? I would love to see more students take up Greta Thunberg’s call for school strikes to bring about climate action, but if they are not going to do that, then they should be actively engaged enough to understand what is coming at them fast and do something about it. It is their future, and they will need to be prepared. We are failing them, and we are helping them fail themselves.

•••

Martin Blythe recently retired after teaching special education English at Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles. He is currently serving as a substitute teacher and is a member of EdSource’s Teachers Advisory Group

Ariel Climer, a middle school dual language science teacher in LAUSD, contributed to this commentary.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Amy Frame 3 days ago3 days ago

    Martin and Ariel, thank you for highlighting the need for more urgent action to educate California's students on climate change. I would love to chat with you about some of the numerous recent successes on this front! aframe@tenstrands.org Read More

    Martin and Ariel, thank you for highlighting the need for more urgent action to educate California’s students on climate change. I would love to chat with you about some of the numerous recent successes on this front! aframe@tenstrands.org

  2. Jim 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    “I would love to see more students take up Greta Thunberg’s call for school strikes.” Maybe school districts would like to keep students in school. Why would any district present material that would encourage students to go on strike?

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Jim, you don’t have any concerns that climate change has reached a tipping point? You only have to look at the news to see what kind of world we are leaving for our children. Will you do nothing? As Thunberg herself said a few years ago, “Our house is on fire,” and millions of students all over the world feel outraged at the lack of action. Our lack of action. I recommend you read some … Read More

      Jim, you don’t have any concerns that climate change has reached a tipping point? You only have to look at the news to see what kind of world we are leaving for our children. Will you do nothing? As Thunberg herself said a few years ago, “Our house is on fire,” and millions of students all over the world feel outraged at the lack of action. Our lack of action. I recommend you read some of what Thunberg has said, because students are responding to her, and to the news, not lessons in the classroom.

      School districts aren’t necessarily opposed to Thunberg’s call for student strikes. In 2019, New York, Boston and Chicago gave students permission to skip school for the day or part of the day to participate in the strike. They realized that empowerment is a vitally important part of education. You should support that.

  3. Gerald Lieberman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Not disagreeing with the main point but to correct one major error, the California Education and the Environment Initiative was far from a “doomed project.” The EEI developed California’s official Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). The EP&Cs became the basis for a model curriculum, consisting of 85 in-depth instructional units which literally hundreds of thousands of students in California have been exposed to. Also important, the EP&Cs are the focus of legislation that resulted in the … Read More

    Not disagreeing with the main point but to correct one major error, the California Education and the Environment Initiative was far from a “doomed project.” The EEI developed California’s official Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs).

    The EP&Cs became the basis for a model curriculum, consisting of 85 in-depth instructional units which literally hundreds of thousands of students in California have been exposed to. Also important, the EP&Cs are the focus of legislation that resulted in the State Board of Education incorporating these environmental ideas into the curriculum frameworks for science, history social science, health, visual and performing arts, world languages, and most recently mathematics. Importantly, the guidelines for instructional materials in these content areas require the inclusion of the EP&Cs K-8th grades.

    In spite of all less, as the authors argues, this is very far from enough exposure to environmental topics and content, and building students skills to resolve the environmental problems that face us. Students’ teachers need exposure to environmental materials at every grade level.
    their lives and futures quite literally depend on it.

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Gerald, well said. Forgive the hyperbole. It comes from disappointment. I was a big fan of EEI - for example the way the units were constructed as usable lesson plans - many of them were tangible and relevant, no doubt because they were created by teachers. Although the CA Dept. of Education got behind it, I feel like once NGSS was implemented, EEI was sidelined. Even now, the EEI materials are hosted by CalRecycle and … Read More

      Gerald, well said. Forgive the hyperbole. It comes from disappointment. I was a big fan of EEI – for example the way the units were constructed as usable lesson plans – many of them were tangible and relevant, no doubt because they were created by teachers. Although the CA Dept. of Education got behind it, I feel like once NGSS was implemented, EEI was sidelined. Even now, the EEI materials are hosted by CalRecycle and aren’t easily accessed. There does not seem to be effective leadership anymore in environmental education in California.

  4. Robert Joseph Phillips 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    It’s beyond important and given the shape of things regarding the environment at current, and the course it’s on it should be made mandatory and of utmost importance.