scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Education is missing from Massachusetts’ climate plans, advocates say

At City Hall Plaza, a chalk drawing of the earth during a the first all-ages climate strike in September 2019.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Gabriella Coletta, Boston City councilor for District 1, has been passionate about fighting climate change since the sixth grade. Back then, her teacher organized a special unit at Mario Umana Academy in East Boston focused on the local implications of the crisis.

“It definitely changed my life,” she said. “It really stuck in my brain from that point on that there was a problem in the world.”

She is now working to make sure other kids learn that same lesson. On Tuesday, Coletta held a council session to hear from district school officials about their climate education efforts — part of an effort to establish a justice-focused and people-centric climate curriculum in Boston Public Schools.


The hearing, which Coletta called for in December along with City Council cosponsors Ruthzee Louijeune and Kendra Lara, came amid a wave of efforts to bolster climate curricula across Massachusetts, something advocates say is missing from the Commonwealth’s climate plans.

In recent years, the state has rolled out pledges to decarbonize transit and housing, and prepare for the effects of global warming that can’t be prevented. But without a plan for climate education, young people won’t be prepared to take on roles in climate policy when they grow up — or even to simply live in the warming world that they’ll inherit, advocates say.

“Whatever career path a student wants to pursue, climate change is most likely going to impact it, and we need to prepare students for that type of future,” said Tina Nguyen, an 11th-grade student at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury who works with the youth-focused nonprofit Our Climate Massachusetts.

As city officials kick off the push for local climate education standards, a parallel state-level campaign is underway. A pair of bills in the Legislature this session, led by Representative Jim Hawkins and Senator Julian Cyr, aim to implement statewide climate education standards for existing classes such as science and history; the proposals were written by student activists, including from Our Climate Massachusetts, and edited by teachers and other climate education advocates.


Last year, Connecticut became the first US state to legally mandate climate change instruction. Lawmakers are currently considering such measures in California, New York, and Oregon.

Some efforts to teach climate change are already underway in Massachusetts. Under the state’s educational standards, with which Boston schools align, students learn about weather and the basics of climate change in elementary school. They go on to study society’s effect on the climate throughout middle school, and by high school graduation, they should understand humans’ ability to mitigate climate change, Elizabeth Hadley, elementary science program director for Boston Public Schools, explained at Tuesday’s City Council hearing.

Boston schools make additional efforts to choose culturally relevant and engaging climate curricula; the district also offers numerous climate-focused trainings for teachers, and is piloting outdoor learning programs with a focus on environmental education at some schools, officials said.

Coletta said these endeavors are encouraging, but that she hopes to work with the district to ensure all students have access to the highest level of climate education.

“Depending on which school you go to ... our kids have different access to different resources,” she said. “There’s still more work that needs to be done.”


District officials, too, see opportunities for growth. For instance, Mayor Michelle Wu’s Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools — a plan to overhaul the city’s deteriorating and carbon-emitting school facilities — could provide crucial opportunities for students to learn about clean infrastructure, Lesley Ryan Miller, chief of teaching and learning for Boston Public Schools, said at the Tuesday hearing.

Advocates say schools across the state could boost their efforts, too. Climate topics are absent from much of the state’s curriculum materials and learning standards, according to a June 2022 report.

Climate change should be taught at every grade level in every district, and there should be particular focus on unequal climate and environmental burdens, said Simone Colburn, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school.

“In eighth grade, we learned about the greenhouse effect, but didn’t really connect it to climate inequity, or connect that science to what’s happening to people,” said Simone Colburn, who also cofounded Spring Forward, a student-run statewide organization that creates climate curricula for schools and summer camps. “It was more about polar bears.”

More emphasis should also be placed on the ability to take collective, political climate action rather than on sustainable personal habits, said Mina Subramanian, a high school junior at the Windsor School in Boston who serves as Spring Forward’s coordinator.

“What can you do about it? Not just recycling, but what about writing letters to your local politicians,” she said.

Justin Brown, president-elect of the Brookline Educators Union and fourth-grade teacher, said some teachers are wary of adding more standards to their already-full plates. But he said integrating climate learning standards shouldn’t add work; instead, it should provide “an important lens through which to teach current learning expectations.”


“For example, I teach about plants, weathering, and erosion, and North American indigenous culture, all topics that are deeply connected to the climate crisis, so it’s about tweaking what’s already on my plate, not creating something new,” he said.

Massachusetts is one of 24 states that have developed their own standards for earth science education based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which call for students to study climate science in high school and human-caused climate change in high school. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards wholesale.

This means most states’ educational standards include some mention of climate change, but the extent and specifics vary state-to-state. Some advocates point to New Jersey’s education standards — which make climate education an aspect of not only science class, but all subjects such as English and art — as a model.

“The goal is to figure out how we are creating conscious stewards of our land and citizens who care about our planet,” said Coletta, the Boston city councilor.

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.