- U.S. teachers feel they have far fewer supports to teach topics on sustainable development compared to those instructing in countries like Brazil, Canada, France and India, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Smithsonian Science Education Center and Gallup.
- Educators in those four countries were three times more likely on average than U.S. teachers to say they have enough support to instruct on sustainability — a stark difference of 60% versus 17%.
- Despite the lack of resources, the poll found a majority of U.S. teachers see value in teaching sustainability: 83% say such curriculum can have a positive global impact, while 79% say it can benefit local communities.
Socio-scientific topics within sustainability curriculum are especially nonexistent in U.S. classrooms, as teachers shared that this type of content was the least likely to be found in their lessons, according to the Smithsonian-Gallup poll.
For instance, 32% of U.S. educators said climate action, as well as clean water and sanitation, are dedicated parts of their curriculum. While 31% cited clean energy and responsible consumption, and 26% said information about sustainable communities was included in lessons.
“We were shocked to see that the topics we would define as socio-scientific like climate action, sustainable communities, clean water, clean energy were at the bottom of that list” in regard to U.S. curriculum standards, said Carol O’Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines sustainable development as “a resolution to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future.” Specifically, the United Nations created 17 goals tied to sustainability that fall under a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”
The Smithsonian-Gallup poll, which surveyed over 2,500 teachers and administrators in spring 2023, explored 11 of those 17 goals, including climate action, clean energy, clean water and sanitation, innovation, justice, reducing inequality, and good health and wellbeing.
U.S. teachers also said they have a lack of expertise (74%) and instructional materials (76%) to teach sustainability.
“It’s just a reality that STEAM standards or STEM standards don’t exist in large scale across the board in schools and districts,” said Monique Chism, undersecretary for education at the Smithsonian. “So when you think about curriculum resources, professional development, time for teaching this content — it’s not surprising, because it’s not something that’s been a priority that’s been placed on standards and curriculum in the system.”
While climate education pushback has surfaced in recent years, Chism said she prefers to believe the gap in resources to teach sustainable development is likely unintentional. Based on the survey, Chism said it’s hard to exactly pinpoint why K-12 schools often lack these supports.
But as schools continue to face teacher shortages, brace for budget shortfalls, and address much-needed maintenance repairs, administrators and teachers are really trying to do the “best they can” while trying to solve these broader challenges, Chism said.
Chism added it’s clear from the poll that teachers have a desire to teach sustainability intertwined with other subjects beyond science. More than 70% of U.S. teachers each said instructing on this topic can make science more accessible to students and increase their interest in current events.
State curriculum standards are beginning to shift toward sustainable development topics, O’Donnell added. For instance, she said, environmental science standards are integrated into science lessons throughout California schools. New Jersey and Connecticut now require lessons on climate change and climate education, respectively.
“We are starting to see states start to come up with this idea that sustainability matters,” O’Donnell said.