• Currently, North Carolina’s middle school health standards require educators to address various environmental problems
  • Likewise, environmentalism is a central component of state science standards for middle and high school students
  • As the process of revising both sets of standards begins, standards writers should eliminate redundant discussions of environmentalism within the middle school health standards and modify science standards that offer simplistic perspectives on energy, ecology, or the environment

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction will begin revising state health and science standards this year. Given the issues involved, public engagement is critical, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt has offered citizens a fantastic opportunity to engage in the standards revision process. However, few citizens have completed the science, health, and physical education stakeholder surveys, which provide essential information to the committees that will draft the new standards.

In this research update, I review a few major areas of concern in the existing standards and offer suggestions for improving them.

Health Education Standards

The State Board of Education approved the latest version of North Carolina’s Health Education Essential Standards in 2010. The standards have five components: 1) mental and emotional health, 2) personal and consumer health, 3) interpersonal communications and relationships, 4) nutrition and physical activity, and 5) alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. As such, the standards require educators to cover diverse topics ranging from bullying prevention to proper dental care.

The standards pay a great deal of attention to interpersonal relationships, particularly in the early grades. For example, a first-grade standard highlights the value of diversity of students in the classroom with the goal “to help each other be the best he or she can be.” In fact, the strength of the current health standards is that they celebrate pluralism rather than immerse students in identity politics or gender theory. This is one of the strengths of the health standards as they are currently written and should remain a central theme of the standards as they make their way throughout the revision process. 

The inclusion of environmentalism in the middle school health courses is one of the more incongruous aspects of the existing standards. In sixth grade, students are required to “analyze measures necessary to protect the environment” (North Carolina Essential Standards 6.PCH.3.1-2). This includes differentiating “individual behaviors that can harm or help the environment” and implementing “plans to work collaboratively to improve the environment.” The standards direct teachers to discuss how pollution, overpopulation, and the depletion of resources contribute to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. The standards encourage action through Adopt-a-Highway, river clean-ups, recycling efforts, state-led initiatives, and “advocacy campaigns for conservation.” Given that politically progressive organizations often sponsor environmental advocacy campaigns, the standards encourage children to engage in political activism on their behalf.

In eighth grade, environmental education resumes (NCES 8.PCH.3.1-2). In this grade, the standards make a more explicit connection between health and the environment by covering air and water quality, for example. But the list of environmental issues also includes a laundry list of various environmental concerns, including the greenhouse effect, “depletion of the ozone layer,” acid rain, overpopulation, “dealing with garbage,” and land degradation. The fundamental problem with this standard has less to do with the list of environmental issues than its recommended approaches to solving them. While focusing on ways Americans can change their behavior, the standards fail to acknowledge the essential role that technological innovation, private property, and the free market play in solving environmental problems. Most importantly, the standards discuss global environmental challenges without mentioning the world’s biggest polluter: China.

Science Education Standards

The State Board of Education approved the latest version of North Carolina’s Science Education Essential Standards in 2010. The standards for each grade have three components: 1) physical science, 2) earth science, and 3) life science. Overall, the standards provide children a reasonable foundation in the sciences, but they occasionally dabble in Malthusianism, climate alarmism, and eco-guilt. More importantly, the standards persistently ignore real-world tradeoffs and costs, positing naïve solutions to complex environmental problems.

Like the health standards, environmentalism is a central component of North Carolina’s Science Education Essential Standards for middle school students. Seventh graders spend a portion of their year discussing the effects of global ozone depletion, air pollution, increased particulate matter, acid rain, and global warming (NCES 7.E.1.6). The standards mention “laws to help control and reduce air pollution” and the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality measurements. But they fail to identify the costs or quantify the benefits of these efforts. To their credit, standards authors point out that not all pollutants are man-made, although they fail to offer much detail about these natural phenomena. 

Unlike the health standards, the science standards offer a nod to technological innovation. Solar, water, and wind power are the solutions posited for various environmental problems (NCES 7.P.2.3), but the standards make the erroneous claim that “green” energy sources “do not pollute the environment.” Curiously, the standards casually mention that it is “not necessary to investigate nuclear energy” but do not explain why discussion of this critical source of clean energy is optional.

In eighth grade, the standards celebrate “sustainable tourism” or ecotourism (NCES 8.E.1.2). While acknowledging the economic benefits of travel, the standards blast conventional coastal tourism. Standards authors declare, “The tourism industry is based on natural resources present in each country and tourism often has a negative impact on coastal and ocean ecosystems.” Although the standards support “low impact” tourism, it fails to define it.  

Finally, high school biology and earth science courses uncritically cover content related to climate change (NCES Bio.2.2.1 and EEn.2.6), additionally call for the use of “green” energy (NCES EEn.2.8.1), question conventional agricultural and aquaculture practices (NCES EEn.2.8.2), and focus again on the negative consequences of population growth (NCES EEn.2.8.3). While high school students have the capacity to grasp the economic and political aspects of environmental science, the standards make no use of these interdisciplinary tools.

Next Steps

As teams of educators begin revising North Carolina health and science standards, they should recognize that a radical overhaul of the standards may not be necessary or desirable. Instead, they should eliminate redundant discussions of environmentalism within the middle school health standards and modify science standards that offer simplistic perspectives on energy, ecology, or the environment.