Moving School Kids Into the Environment
Kids attending public schools in Maryland will now graduate from high school armed with additional knowledge about the world around them: state officials have approved a plan that requires school systems to include environmental literacy as part of every student’s public school education.
Maryland is the first state to implement such a program, but other states aren’t far behind as part of a growing national movement to teach young people more about the environment they live in. More than 40 other states are examining other approaches, and Congress is considering a bi-partisan bill—the No Child Left Inside Act—that would support state initiatives.
“There are no mandates here,” says Sarah Bodor of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a regional group based in Annapolis, Maryland that has organized a nationwide campaign to expand environmental education. “Each state is developing it own plan. The idea is to connect students to nature, but it’s up to each local education agency to develop their own ideas.”
Maryland jumped to the fore over the summer when a task force appointed by the state superintendent of public schools approved a plan that required each school system to weave an environmental component into the curriculum. At the same time, school systems were given flexibility to design their own programs.
For example, Bodor said, Cecil County is adding an environmental literacy component to the 9th grade while Anne Arundel County is adding elements in each grade level.
There are no tests as a condition of high school graduation. Rather, each school system must have in place some kind of program that adds to students’ knowledge of the outdoors and nature.
Among efforts in other states, Oregon is developing plans to add environmental elements to science, math, health and social studies classes in grades 8 through 12. Maine is targeting subjects taught in grades 4, 8 and 11. In New Jersey, environmental science questions are included in Department of Education state tests for 4th, 8th and 11th grades.
Expanding environmental literacy through efforts at the national level is less evolved. The bill now before Congress has bi-partisan support only in the Senate and faces resistance in the Republican-controlled House, which has shown little interest in any new spending bills. The measure would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) to include environmental education for the first time and provide incentives for states to implement environmental literacy programs that include outdoor learning activities at schools and outdoor centers and to enhance professional development for teachers.
State programs and national support for them are winning strong endorsement from a growing coalition of business, educational, faith-based and environmental groups. Organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as the No Child Left Indoors Coalition, these groups contend that a better understanding of the environment enhances scientific and technical innovation as well as job preparedness in a competitive global marketplace.
Also, they express concern that under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools reduce instruction time on any subjects that are viewed as unhelpful in raising test scores.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and co-sponsor of the bill, said environmental literacy is a key educational component “for the complex challenges of the future workforce.” Another co-sponsor, Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, said the bill “encourages hands-on learning and an integrated curriculum while bolstering increasingly important science education programs.”
Despite its appeal to members of both parties, environmental literacy is not universally embraced, with some opponents insisting it’s a cover for teaching students climate change, which some believe is a hoax. The website of the Red Mountain Tea Party, an Arizona-based group, posted a Fox News story about the Maryland program with a headline in bright red: “Maryland is first state to require High School students to learn about Climate Change as Science!”
“The criticism is mostly that we’re indoctrinating youth, that we’re pushing a global warming agenda,” said Bodor. “That’s not what this is about. This is an opportunity to connect kids to nature and public lands, and that exposure helps them. Beside, public opinion surveys show overwhelming support for increasing environmental education in schools. That’s what we’re working for.”