Climate Education

The Landscape of K-12 Climate Change Education and Next Generation Science Standards in the US

Climate education needs to inform and prepare students to act to save the planet. By teaching the next generation to understand the context of climate change, we’re starting them on the path to respond to the climate crisis. 

In June 2022, colleagues at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education Project (MECCE) published a landscape analysis of climate change education policy in the US context. The report did a keyword analysis of 802 publically available education programs across the 50 US states. 

Focusing on institutional governance, teaching and learning, facilities and operations, and community partnerships, the report concludes with eight key findings and five recommendations that emphasize the necessity of climate change content in all aspects of educational institutions. 

Next Generation Science Standards: Aims and Influence

When examining curriculum frameworks and learning policies, the report notes that 2013 marked a spike in climate change content due to the publication of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those who collaborated to create these standards in 2013 aimed to prioritize the latest science content representing a break from previous federal science standards that were created during a time when the science of anthropogenic climate change and global warming were less supported. Recognizing the sustained influence of the NGSS, it is important to consider the opportunities and limitations they pose across the formal science education spectrum with K-12 students. 

NGSS standards aim to shape K-12 science content and proficiency through engaging in the practice of science, a crosscutting conceptual approach, and establishing disciplinary core ideas. Of the curriculum frameworks and state standards evaluated, NGSS-influenced policies and frameworks were most likely to include climate change content. However, this content and student expectations varied across states. For example, some states adopted specific outcomes for students to demonstrate their understanding that climate change exists while others focused on students evaluating differing opinions on the existence of climate change. 

Additionally, the majority (74%) of these standards and frameworks emphasized cognitive learning and outcomes while disregarding the more process-oriented aspects of learning such as action-oriented learning dimensions (16%). At EARTHDAY.ORG we recognize that climate literacy is multidimensional (forthcoming) and requires more than a banking model of education to ensure students are civically engaged and can take individual and collective action (Friere, 1968).

As a part of our commitment to global climate literacy, civic engagement, and collective action, we provide resources and partner with climate educator networks such as Take Action Global to amplify solutions-oriented, collaborative, climate-focused education models such as with their Climate Action Schools Program. These partnerships demonstrate a shift from solely teaching students about climate change to teaching and learning with students, understanding how climate impacts their lives, and providing avenues and support for them to take action.

Next Generation Science Standards: Environmental Critiques

While this report is recent, there are longstanding criticisms of NGSS in relation to environmental issues. Through a 2017 critical discourse analysis, researchers discussed the ways that NGSS shift understandings of agency, roles, and action away from people by separating humans, the environment, and more-than-human others; limiting the use of the term human and anthropogenic; and, emphasizing technoscientific solutions that evade the social and political aspects of these problems. 

For example, within the NGSS, one of the Earth and Space Science performance expectations for students is to “evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.” Though this expectation focuses on climate solutions, it, along with several other expectations, does not directly speak to human causes of climate change (Hufnagela et al., 2017). This exclusion of human causes works to distance students from environmental problems and understanding how their lives both impact and are impacted by climate change. Through centering technoscientific solutions, students are learning to use technology as a tool to mitigate ongoing climate concerns without the space to explore the social, political, and relational shifts necessary to address climate change and just futures. 

Moving Forward

According to the results from a nationwide survey through EducationWeek, 25% of educators and school leaders reported that climate change is already impacting their schools and students through natural disasters such as heatwaves, flooding, and fires. Climate change is going to continue to affect K-12 education and it is clear from the NAAEE report that states and schools must increase opportunities for students to learn climate science, but also strategies for coping with and designing solutions. Climate literacy efforts must emphasize cross-curricular and interdisciplinary concepts, critical understandings of the environment and climate, and process-oriented learning. 

While the NGSS provides a starting point for educators in terms of curriculum and standards, the successful movements and initiatives led by educators and impacted communities–  provide opportunities and inspiration for fostering student leadership and agency, building connections between global and local environmental and climate issues, and integrating climate action in curriculum and schools.

EARTHDAY.ORG Education recognizes the importance of climate literacy as a mechanism for developing more environmentally, politically, and socially conscious individuals. The projects in our climate literacy campaign focus on increasing climate change content into educational policy and discourse. 

To support EDO’s climate education campaign, sign our climate literacy petition

  • Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
  • Hufnagel, E., Kelly, G. J., & Henderson, J. A. (2017). How the environment is positioned in the Next Generation Science Standards:A critical discourse analysis. Environmental Education Research, 24(5), 731–753.
  • MECCE & NAAEE. (2022). Mapping the landscape of K-12 climate change education policy in the United States Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education Project and North American Association of Environmental Education. 
  • Next generation science standards. Next Generation Science Standards. (2022, July 14). 
  • Prothero, A. (2022, June 9). Nearly half of educators say climate change is affecting their schools-or will soon. Education Week. Retrieved August 24, 2022, from