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The Methods for Teaching Climate Change in Texas Are Under Fire

As the state's board of education begins the approval process on next year's books, two groups reported errors in how potential materials discuss climate change.

by Kayla Ruble
Sep 17 2014, 10:05pm

Photo by Flickr/John Liu

Texas is in the headlines again for its school textbooks, and this time it's for the way that religion, capitalism, and climate change are being portrayed in proposed education materials that could soon land on desks of schools across the state.

On Tuesday, the powerful State Board of Education (SBOE) in Texas held a public hearing to discuss potential errors in more than 300 proposed textbook and online materials that will be up for approvalin November.

Lauren Callahan, a spokesperson for the SBOE, told VICE News that up until September 5, critics could submit their concerns to the board, or they could show up on Tuesday to vocalize them before the November decision.

The subjects being debated in this cycle include social studies, math, fine arts, and tech and career curriculum, with much of the debate from 48 testifiers centered on the depiction of the free enterprise system and separation of church and state.

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"I believe students will believe Moses was the first American," Kathleen Wellman, the former history department chair at Southern Methodist University, told the board, according to theTexas Tribune.

But two outside groups, the Texas Freedom Network and National Center for Science Education, have raised concerns over how some of the material is teaching climate change.

The TFN report says many of the texts up for review "suffer from many of the same serious flaws that plague the state's controversial curriculum standards for social studies."

According to the NCSE report, one of the primary areas of concern is a debate about whether global warming is a result of human activity, which is presented in a teacher's edition of a McGraw-Hill Education geography book. The exercise has students compare research from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, alongside research from the scientists at the controversial Heartland Institute.

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Josh Rosenau, NSCE's programming and policy director, told VICE News that another concern is the equal weight given to both research groups in terms of their expertise and the depth of their research.

According to the report, another problem is that the majority of scientists are in agreement on the existence of climate change and that human activity is the cause.

The report also found a factual error in an environment and society textbook activity, in which fossil fuels are described as the cause of the hole in the Ozone layer. According to NCSE, this is a common misconception, but that the hole is actually caused by chlorofluorocarbon compounds, or CFCs.

According to Rosenau, the standards for teaching climate change are really in transition. Within the last decade, even science textbooks would not have discussed the issue, but he said social studies text books are not the place to have a scientific debate that is resolved.

"There's no reason at this point to debate the science of climate change and whether humans are causing it, that debate was solved 20 years ago," he said, explaining there are other aspects of climate change that could be debated in a social studies context, such as cultural effects and how parts of Texas may experience rising sea levels.

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Rosenau said the purpose of their review was specifically to look for factual errors, since those are the standards the board uses for approval. He said they have kept an eye on what's going into the state's textbooks for a long time. In debates in 2013 over science textbooks, the group was involved in debating how climate change was presented, and this year they asked a University of Texas professor to testify on the group's behalf.

He explained that the state is one of the largest textbook buyers in the country, therefore books are often written for the Texas market and then sold elsewhere, although typically modified for other state standards.

"If we get these errors fixed in Texas they won't crop up elsewhere," he said.

Callahan explained that receiving reports like TFN and NSCE was the exact purpose of Tuesday's hearings. She said they would take factual errors into account and submit concerns to publishers. Individual districts do have the option to select different books — although Callahan said most go with state suggestions.

Regardless of what textbooks the state board selects in November, Rosenau said it's important to pay attention to how climate change is being taught to this generation of students — whether from Texas or elsewhere. He explained that education on the matter prepares them for the decisions they will make as citizens regarding climate change.

"Climate change is the defining challenge of a lifetime for a student who is in school today," he said. "It's a defining fact of life for the 21st century, and these kids are going to be dealing with it for the rest of their lives."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Photo by Flickr/John Liu

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