PILLAR 4: TEACH, LEARN, ENGAGE
Many of today’s school–reform initiatives threaten to create “reform schools,”those places where we used to send delinquent youth. These were basically lock–ups, offering education behind bars with an emphasis on strict discipline and rote memorization. Similarly, the cultural literacy and high–stakes standards movements threaten to lock the school doors and throw away the key…Instead, we need a school–reform model that focuses on the principle of sustainability—figuring out how to live within our means at both a local and global level.
—David Sobel 91
Of the “four pillars”discussed in this paper, this last one is perhaps the most important—the bit that schools are supposed to be all about—pedagogy. What’s more, environmental education is perhaps the most well–grounded—the most established field of all those we review here.
It was more than thirty years ago that environmental education was widely introduced into our nation’s school systems. Consequently the United States has thousands of school districts, as well as many wonderful organizations fostering a broad array of programs. Overall, almost two–thirds of all elementary and secondary teachers include environment in their curriculum.92 And for instance, in the San Francisco Bay Area alone (admittedly a hot bed of environmentalism), there are more than 200 independent organizations providing environmental education programs to schools.93
A FAILING GRADE
Yet the quality and coherence of what is taught and what is learned is uneven at best. The organizations providing environmental education programming often operate in a fragmented and piecemeal fashion. At the same time, they are extremely homogenous, failing to incorporate ethnic and racial diversity into their own ranks in an increasingly diverse society. Pedagogically speaking, environmental education is often quite isolated; rather than being integrated into curricula, environmental education is often seen as a supplement to it. Teachers are not trained or given support to do otherwise. Overall there is a lack of “pre–service”education in teacher training and credential programs. Environmental curricula do not generally “scope and sequence”or build strategically year by year from K through 12th grade. The big national environmental groups and foundations have not made any significant long–term investments in advocacy around this topic although some do have programs and produce curricula. Indeed, there is no national advocacy group that works on behalf of environmental education, although there are a handful of relatively weak professional associations, as well as state–based coalitions and alliances.94
Neither state nor federal government agencies have put near sufficient resources into environmental education over the years. The US EPA spends a paltry $8 million on environmental education—the equivalent of 3 cents per citizen. Overall the Federal government spends an estimated $160 million on environmental education (for all ages), while the 32 states that formally support environmental education efforts gave $7.3 million to in–school programs in 1997. Overall, despite insufficient data, environmental education expert Jim Elder estimates that “total annual Environmental Literacy funding from federal, state, and private sources in this country probably amounts to less than $1 per person. Clearly, the first order of business in moving the field forward is to increase this figure by an order of magnitude.”Nor, in this era of focus on educational standards, have the states or federal government come up with any type of mandatory standard–based approach to environmental or ecological literacy in terms of national standards, state science standards, or teacher training standards.95
What’s more, environmental education is under siege from the right–wing and has been for more than a decade. Ideologues from think–tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Hoover Institution, along with a gaggle of polluting corporations and politicians all attack the legitimacy of the concept of environmental education itself. Epitomized by the book Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children About the Environment, this coalition challenges the scientific “proof”that many environmental problems exist, and advocates, among other things, multiple science–based perspectives on environmental topics.96 This translates, for instance, into giving the perspective of the tiny minority of mostly industry–funded scientists an equal say on the issue of global warming. Interestingly, this anti–environmental education discourse is in many respects the antithesis of the approach advocated by the Precautionary Principle.
Environmental education is underfunded and under seige
In parallel with this strong critique of environmental education, virtually the same group of foundations, corporations and institutions have developed a relatively sophisticated strategy to appropriate it. Especially gifted at this aspect are large polluting corporations which have produced biased, self–serving curricula that they disseminate for free to under–funded schools.97 But also of note is a relatively new organization, the Environmental Literacy Council which is funded by some of the same corporations and foundations that funded the publishers of Facts Not Fear. ELC’s funders include Georgia Pacific, International Paper, Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, as well as conservative foundations such as Charles Koch, Sarah Scaife and others.98
Given all of the challenges the environmental education field faces, it is no wonder that despite its longevity, its efficacy seems to be diminishing. Exhibit A is a survey of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen at more than 700 colleges and universities nation–wide. The UCLA–based poll found that in the ten year period between 1993 and 2003, the percentage of students who saw cleaning up the environment as an important goal declined from close to 40 percent to just over 20 percent.99 And while the figures are as much a reflection of the moment in which our entire country is living, this is certainly not the result K–12 environmental educators are looking for.
Much has been written and said about the environmental education field—the need for more funding, more coherence, and greater advocacy on its behalf. We’ll limit ourselves here to how environmental education can contribute to greening our school communities and vice versa.
A good place to start is to take a brief look at the theory and practice of what has come to be known as “place–based education.”Analyst Jack Chin defines it as follows:
Place–based education provides students with opportunities to connect with themselves, their community and their local environment through hands–on, real–world learning experiences. It is rooted in the integrated core curricular activities of science, social studies, communication arts and fine arts, and is expanded upon and applied by extending the classroom into the schoolyard and the neighborhood. This approach enables students to see that their learning is relevant to their world, to take pride in the place in which they live, to connect with the rest of the world in a natural way and to develop into concerned and contributing citizens.100
Greening our schools can create a grand teachable moment
Chin and people like David Sobel, who works with COSEED, a network of place–based environmental educators in the Northeast, have documented dozens of examples of students increasing academic achievement through place–based education, while also learning about and contributing to improving the context in which they live and where their school sits.101 Such an approach also has the added benefit of potentially increasing the long–term environmental and social justice commitment of the students involved. As Sobel argues, “Authentic environmental commitment emerges out of firsthand experiences with real places on a small, manageable scale [over time].”102
What better place to start than in the place known as school. Imagine a central element of national school reform being a curriculum designed to teach students about the resources their schools consume and involving them in making such consumption more sustainable. Imagine teaching them about toxics issues in and around a school and involving them in minimizing their use; about gardens and food systems, and involving them in growing their own food; and about the school’s place in the community, and for that matter the world, and involving them in helping make all three—school, community, planet—better places. Indeed, incorporating a strong, participatory curricular component to school–greening efforts is, in some respects, the ultimate place–based education.
Also imagine federal funding for such a place–based environmental education effort equaling the $584 million currently allocated for school–based drug education programs. Depending on how you look at it, that’s triple the amount of all current federal funding for environmental education, less than what ten F–16 fighter jets cost the Department of Defense, or around two months’worth of costs for the ongoing occupation of Iraq.103
5 Steps for Effective Environmental Education
Source: Jack Chin, “Bay Area Environmental
Education: How Do We Know We’re Making a Difference?”Draft
Report, Blueprint Research and Design, April 30, 2004.
Once again, place–based education focused on the school site is already happening, albeit without the funding and on a relatively small, fragmented scale. Various education departments in states as far ranging as Oregon, Wisconsin and Maryland have developed Green Schools programs that integrate addressing school–based environmental issues with involving students and teachers in the solution.104 For instance, the Wisconsin Green & Healthy Schools Program “encourages teachers, staff, students and parents to work together to use the school, its grounds, and the whole community as learning tools to help teach, promote, and apply healthy, safe and environmentally sound practices.”105
In fact, many school–greening initiatives are stronger with or even dependent upon student participation. This is particularly true for many of the efforts discussed in this report. For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Integrated Pest Management program relies on student participation in keeping schools pest–free and thereby avoiding pesticide use. The district has engaged in a major educational program to involve children in pest–control by encouraging them to clean up after they eat, not to leave old food in their lockers to remove paper clutter where pests can hide, to keep food and drinks in sealed containers, and to tell their teachers if they see pests.106
Similarly, an integral part of building high–performance schools is the ongoing teachable moment they create. Lessons on energy, for instance, can be particularly poignant when discussing solar panels on the roof and how they are lighting up the building. Or as British Prime Minister Tony Blair envisioned as he discussed energy–autonomous schools in his speech on climate change, “Our students won’t just be told about sustainable development, they will see and work within it: a living, learning, place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means.”107
And central to a farm–to–school initiative designed to improve nutrition, is its educational aspect. As the Center for Food and Justice explains: “Connections with the local farms and agriculture help children better understand the cycle of food –how and who grows it, and how it impacts their bodies, health and the community. All these experiences complete the educational framework that motivates children towards healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.”108 And most obviously, the myriad green school yard and garden projects are all about teaching children strong ecological principles and connection with the earth via sustainable agriculture.
Various initiatives also encourage a grassroots approach to greening our school systems. These bottom–up, participatory efforts engage teachers, students, staff and administrators in jointly investigating the environmental conditions in and impacts of their schools. Once assessed, these student–led groups then come up with pragmatic action plans to address the problems. Schools that follow through on the process are awarded a green flag. Notable among these efforts are the fledgling Green Flag Schools program run by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and the Oregon Green Schools Association in the US.109 Internationally, the Eco–Schools International Network operates a similar, but much more highly evolved effort in more than 11,000 schools throughout the European Union, with fledgling programs in Eastern and Central Europe, South Africa, China, the Caribbean and South America.
These initiatives place a central focus on strong student participation in decision–making, as well as community involvement in addressing environmental issues in a school—thereby teaching advocacy and democratic participation.110
The fact that such place–based/school–based initiatives are happening all across the globe is a cause for optimism. We live in an increasingly globalized world, evermore connected with one another. Our communities run outward in concentric circles, from the local park to the global commons. Place–based education in this context presents us with the challenge and the opportunity to think and act both locally and globally simultaneously. We can begin to take this on by understanding that our schools do not exist in isolation of the communities in which they reside. Rather they are integral members of the larger society and the larger ecosystem. As such, whatever action one takes within a school is connected to the reality around it. If a school reduces its waste, the burden on the local landfill will also be reduced. If it generates its own power, local and global pollution will be reduced. If it buys its food from a local farmer, community and sustainability will be enhanced.
If we can invest the time and money to teach our children these lessons of precaution and sustainability, they can play an integral role in helping make our schools and communities more sustainable and healthy. Moreover, we will be training the next generation of leaders to think and act from both a precautionary and proactive approach, both locally and globally in relationship to the environment. If we are successful, the planet will be a healthier and more just place than it otherwise would be in the next generation.
PILLAR 4: SPECIFIC STEPS FORWARD111
1. Parents, Students and School Staff Should:
- Work to integrate student participation into efforts to make schools greener and healthier places, adapting established methodologies to do so.
- Develop or adapt hands–on, place–based approaches to environmental education.
- Work with and encourage environmental advocacy groups to work collaboratively to integrate place–based, environmental learning into the curriculum, highlighting the benefits for achieving academic standards as well as improving the environment.
- Pressure school districts, along with local, state and federal governments to do the following:
2. School Districts and Local Governments Should:
- Adapt frameworks that integrate environmental education and student participation into school greening initiatives.
- Promote partnerships with environmental education providers (nonprofit and public agencies) to help integrate environmental learning into the curriculum
3. State Education Departments and Governments Should:
- Adapt frameworks, like that of the Oregon Green Schools Association, that integrate environmental education and student participation into school greening initiatives.
- Significantly increase funding for environmental education using environmental fines or fees as a source for this funding.
- Make place–based environmental education central to the development of state–wide environmental education standards and curricula as part of the Leave No Child Behind mandate for science standards, as well as independently of them. A panel of environmental education groups should vigorously review such standards and curricula, so as to avoid industry co–optation.
4. The Federal Government Should:
- Significantly increase funding for environmental education, using environmental fines or fees as a source for this funding.
- Integrate environmental education into national teacher accreditation standards.
- Make place–based environmental education central to the development of national environmental education standards.