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Teaching 21st Century Social Studies

By Dr.  Ana Puszkin-Chevlin

This August, as parents, teachers, and school districts struggle to decide how to safely educate our children during a raging pandemic, they may not realize that Florida’s Civics and Government Sunshine State Standards for K-12 social studies are being revised. If future generations of Floridians are to be prepared to address the complex political, economic, and public policy challenges of the 21st century, including mitigating and adapting to a changing climate, now is the time to substantially improve the Sunshine State’s social study teaching standards. Specifically, we must ensure that students obtain a complete and sophisticated understanding of the function and processes of state, regional and local government, the multidisciplinary impacts of climate change on our civilization, and an appreciation of how civic engagement works to solve societal problems and make our democracy effective and just. You can advance climate solutions by being part of that process.

Last June, Governor DeSantis signed House Bill 807 requiring the Florida Department of Education to do a complete review of statewide civics education course standards by December 31, 2020.  A period for public input, during which community members and educators can provide comment, began on June 5th, 2020 and will close August 5th.  As Growing Climate Solutions’ mission is to educated and empower the community on climate challenges, I examined the state standards at each grade level. I sought to assess how public education standards will prepare future Floridians to evaluate the social and economic impacts of climate change, as well as the policy and public investments needed to address this global challenge.

Today, the topic of climate change in the high school curriculum is relegated to environmental and earth science classes, if it is raised at all. But the fact that climate change drivers, impacts, and solutions are rooted in public policies, government regulations, and politics makes it fertile ground for instruction in government, civics, and other social studies curricula. After reading the civics and government educational standards, it became apparent that the function and administrative processes of state and local government receive little attention, and future climate change is not specified as a topic of instruction. Of the 40 high school standards, 17 focus on tenets embodied the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, and such.  Two address states’ powers, but none require students to learn about the organization, power, and processes in local government–things that affect the everyday lives of residents including, how water come out of your faucet, where your garbage goes, and who controls development – a mainstay of our local SWFL economy. There are four standards that reference civic engagement, and only one standard requires students to “analyze public policy solutions or actions to resolve local, state or federal issue.” This standard was identified in a 2016 study of Florida civic educators as,  “the most frequently cited benchmark that proved difficult to teach “ and “was also one that was often omitted during the year.” See:

A similar review of 50 state standards in the middle school curriculum, where civic is required, identified five 7th Grade Standards that mention local or state government and public policy, in contrast to 21 that focus on citizen rights and the government structure embodied in our nation’s founding documents.  Additionally, the state’s menu of social studies courses lists a staple of topic-specific history classes, with a sprinkling of social science, economics, and a dash of geography. Unless students qualify for Advance Placement Geography, they are not taught about the development of our built environment and the overlaying socio-economic fabric, or the assets at risk of climate impacts. How are they then prepared to be engaged and empowered citizens?

In the field of climate mitigation, adaptation, and advocacy many of the substantive policies, programs, and projects happen at the local level. Cities and counties have taken the lead on assessing climate vulnerability; adapting by raising roads, investing in pumps, raising sea-wall requirements, and mitigating greenhouse gas emission through sustainable development, bike and pedestrian facilities, and more.  In that Florida’s standards heavily favor mastery of historical federal tenets of our nations’ democracy, over instruction on the function and process of state and especially local government, we fail to empower future residents with the knowledge to effectuate change locally, particularly as it pertains to climate action, as well as other issues, including land regulations, affordable housing, water quality, or conservation issues. As students become voters, most only have a 7th grade understanding of how localities govern. Nor, I venture to say, are they well equipped to evaluate policy platforms or ballot measures on issues like public infrastructure investment, proposed land-use changes or land acquisition, and clean energy commitments — issues fundamental to our prosperity and the quality of life in a changing climate.

Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting our communities for inevitable sea-level rise, storminess, and high temperatures requires the public will for change and investment. Gaining public support for climate solutions has been a decade-long struggle, as many people want the future to be an unaltered extension of current regime thinking. Our best hope for a climate-resilient future lies in today’s youth, those who will be voters in 2025 through 2050.  But to achieve this, our middle and high school students must be taught the intersectionality of environmental and climate issues with economics, geography, governance, civic engagement, and global affairs. In July, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require climate change education in K-12 education. Luckily, there is strong and growing support for climate education in our schools too. A January 2020 survey by Florida Atlantic University of Floridian’s beliefs on climate issues found that:

“A majority of respondents are in favor teaching climate change causes, consequences, and solutions in Florida K-12 classrooms (72%), up four points from 68% in the October poll, including 67% of Republicans (a noticeable 10-point jump from 57% in October).”  See or our blog

The opportunity to ensure students receive instruction on the power and function of local and state government, the diverse socio-economic impacts of climate change, and the critical thinking skills to evaluate policy responses and personal responsibilities to act, is now. Growing Climate Solutions strives to empower our region’s residents to engage in climate solutions, so, I ask our supporters, whether you are a parent, business, or community leader, to consider providing comments on our State’s civics and government educational standards. Expressing your support for climate literacy is a powerful ‘path to positive’ action you can take.

( The public comment period runs through August 5th, so at the time of this newsletter’s publication, you have only a couple of days left. Start with this link which provides information to participate.


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