Research Summary

A comparison of California and Texas secondary science teachers’ perceptions of climate change

State standards and political affiliation influence teaching about climate change in TX and CA

Environmental Education Research
2021

Climate change has been highly politicized in the United States, and it is frequently taught as a controversial and disputed subject in schools. Science teachers have political beliefs that may influence the way they teach climate change, and many lack knowledge about the scientific consensus about the complex web of causes behind climate change. Since education standards are set at the state level, this study examined climate change beliefs and knowledge of science teachers in two states emblematic of the liberal and conservative wings of the US, respectively: California (CA) and Texas (TX). The study sought to answer whether there were differences in knowledge and teaching approach between the states, and whether political orientation was related to a teacher’s approach to teaching climate change.

The researchers used a marketing company to randomly select 7,060 public high school science teachers, roughly half from California and half from Texas, to take an online survey in spring 2018. The survey assessed the teachers’ climate knowledge by asking them to rank a list of prepopulated topics they would prioritize if teaching climate change. The list included irrelevant topics that climate-literate teachers should recognize and leave out of climate lessons, such as ozone depletion and pesticide use. The survey also asked teachers about their state’s education standards for climate change and their approaches toward teaching the subject in schools. In total, 832 teachers completed the survey, roughly half (456) from California and half (376) from Texas. About 70% of teachers were white from both states; however, there were more Asian teachers in California and more Hispanic and Black teachers in Texas. Over half (54%) of California teachers identified as Democrats (with 13% Republican and 19% Independent), whereas Texas teachers were 30% Democrats, 26% Republicans, and 26% Independent.

The results showed that compared to Texas teachers, California teachers more frequently prioritized topics the researchers considered essential to a climate change unit, such as carbon dioxide’s heat-trapping effect (87% CA, 72% TX) and use of fossil fuels for energy (72% CA, 60% TX). The researchers considered the wavelengths of heat and solar radiation to be essential, but fewer than half of teachers (44% CA, 22% TX) prioritized “incoming short-wave and outgoing longwave energy” when discussing climate change. In both states, most teachers prioritized irrelevant topics, including ozone (70% CA, 83% TX), pesticides (57% CA, 72% TX), and aerosols (60% CA, 73% TX). Most teachers agreed that global temperatures have recently warmed (86% CA, 67% TX). With a significant difference between states, most teachers (75% CA, 52% TX) emphasized the scientific consensus on climate change; a small fraction of teachers (5% CA, 14% TX) promoted climate denial. Others emphasized both scientific consensus and climate denial (19% CA, 29% TX) or avoided discussing climate (1% CA, 5% TX). In general, more Texas teachers allowed or encouraged students to consider positions skeptical of anthropogenic climate change. California teachers were broadly more likely than Texas teachers to discuss climate solutions such as alternative energy sources, innovative technologies, new policies, and individual behavior change; however, many in each state (47% CA, 38% TX) avoided discussing incentive structures such as a carbon tax.

The researchers found a strong correlation between state and political affiliation. Political affiliation strongly affected whether teachers accurately estimated the level of scientific consensus behind climate change, showing the impact of the politicization of climate change. California Democrats were more likely to support scientific consensus than Texas Democrats (74% CA, 57% TX). Few Republicans in either state supported scientific consensus (7% CA, 11% TX). California uses the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to guide science instruction, while Texas’ state-based standards cast climate change as a complex, controversial topic. Texas teachers were generally more confused about their state’s standards. In both states, most teachers said they did not follow state standards exactly. The researchers suggested that the difference in state standards may contribute to the Texas teachers’ greater confusion and avoidance of climate.

There were limitations to this study. The survey was only distributed to teachers from two states in the United States, using them as a proxy for political affiliation. The researchers also assessed teachers’ climate literacy based on whether they taught about topics that are chemically unrelated to climate change, such as ozone depletion and pesticide use. However, there are many comparisons to be made between the climate crisis and the ozone crisis, as both involve the regulation of harmful atmospheric pollutants. Some teachers might recognize that these topics are not causally linked but still teach them together.

The survey results indicated that science teachers’ political affiliation drives their approach to teaching climate change, though state context may also affect their beliefs and approaches. Therefore, the researchers recommended training teachers to distinguish between what is controversial in politics and controversial in science, as the two are not the same. They also recommended clearer state standards for climate education to avoid confusion.

The Bottom Line

This study sought to answer whether there were differences in climate knowledge between science teachers in California and Texas, and whether teachers’ political orientation was related to their approaches to teaching climate change. They distributed a survey that asked teachers about their state’s education standards for climate change and their approaches to teaching the subject. The survey included a section for teachers to rank a list of prepopulated topics they would prioritize if teaching climate change. The analysis found a strong correlation between state and political affiliation. As the researchers expected, California and/or Democratic teachers more broadly supported scientific consensus and taught more accurate lessons about climate change according to the researchers than Texas and/or Republican teachers. The researchers recommended that administrators train teachers to distinguish between controversial political and science-driven topics to teach climate change more effectively.