Can learning about the environment improve students’ lives? State education leaders hope so. In fact, 47 states are in varying stages of developing “environmental literacy plans” that they say could improve student engagement and achievement, and even help lower childhood obesity rates. The plans provide guidelines for teaching students about the environment and the effects humans have on it.
The push is being fueled largely by legislation introduced in the last two Congressional sessions by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed. Dubbed No Child Left Inside, the bill would provide $100 million in annual funding to states for environmental education. Sarbanes says he’ll introduce it again this Congress, and states want to be poised to get a piece of its funding if it becomes a law. The legislation intends to overcome the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on testing in traditional areas such as reading and math that resulted in other subjects -- such as environmental education -- getting less attention, says Brian Day, head of the North American Association for Environmental Education. In 2008, about a third of House Republicans voted for the bill before it eventually stagnated in a Senate committee.
States promoting environmental education emphasize the need to get students out of the classroom. In Maryland, for example, students visit the Chesapeake Bay to measure the water’s salinity and examine the health of its organisms. “Getting their hands dirty has the greatest impact,” Sarbanes says. “It just gets them excited and engaged.” Sarbanes and other advocates say that student excitement spills over into other areas of academics and helps kids perform better across the board.
Maine, Maryland and Oregon have completed their environmental literacy plans, and another four states will soon, Day says. The policies can be adopted in a variety of ways. Oregon’s, for example, was mandated by the state Legislature. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley ordered his state’s plan, and Maine’s plan was developed administratively. The plans don’t focus on detailed curriculum requirements. Instead, they provide broad themes the states should cover. Oregon’s plan, for example, discusses the need for students to “understand the physical and biological world, and our interdependent relationship with it.”
Critics say the federal government shouldn’t be involved with curricula developed at the state and local levels. But Sarbanes says that isn’t what he’s trying to accomplish. The legislation is designed as a “pull effort” rather than a “push effort,” he says. Other critics have said environmental education is an attempt to force a liberal agenda item into the public school system. Day says instruction isn’t intended to be political, and the movement merely seeks to teach students about the environment so they can make decisions in the future about the issue.
Advocates say environmental education fits within a broader push to emphasize science and math, to help prepare students for a new “green” economy. And they believe environmental education could help mitigate the childhood obesity epidemic by instilling in kids a love of the outdoors. It could help expose urban students to natural areas that they might not otherwise experience. “It’s not only a good idea in terms of the future [of the planet],” says Janet Waugh, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, “but it’s important to the future of the children themselves.”