Red State; Blue State: Conflicts over Teaching Climate Change in U.S. Public Schools

Monday, 11 July 2016: 11:35
Location: Hörsaal 50 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Andrew SZASZ, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
Americans like to think of themselves as being NUMBER ONE.  Surveys show, though, that American students rank about #24th in the world on scientific and mathematical literacy. Alarmed, a consortium of national scientific bodies worked to develop new standards for science teaching in public schools, known as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

There are impediments to reform, however:  Teaching science means teaching evolution and it means teaching climate science, both immensely controversial in a society where roughly 40% of the public believes some version of Young Earth Creationism and where many are skeptical about climate change.

Adoption of the NGSS has gone smoothly in some “blue” (liberal) States.  NGSS have been rejected, as one would expect, in several “red” (politically and culturally conservative) States.  Surprisingly, though, NGSS has also been adopted in some very “red” States such as Alabama, West Virginia, Kansas (note:  there are no instances of “blue” States refusing to adopt).

This paper explores two questions:

(1) Why are NGSS standards rejected by conservative State legislatures or Boards of Education?  Is it:  (a) the latest manifestation of a long tradition of American parents wanting to exercise control over what their children read (banned books) or taught (sex education)?  (b) a continuation of the historic conflict over teaching evolution? (c) evidence that opinions about climate change have been subsumed into the larger “culture wars” that have riven American political culture over issues that range from abortion and gay rights, to religious displays on public buildings, to gun control? (d) all of the above? 

(2) How can one explain “anomalous” cases where “red” States adopt the NGSS when everything we know about the current political situation in the U.S. would predict that in such places NGSS would be rejected?