A decade ago, Don Baugh had seen plenty of successful environmental education programs. As vice president of education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he had helped produce many of them.
But for all the success, many — if not most — students had little if any exposure to those programs in their schools.
“All the environment education that was being done was really critical and really helpful and really pushed the Bay restoration movement,” he said. “But it was not being done at the scale of the problem — the problem being an ecosystem collapse.”
When he asked school officials what it would take to truly incorporate the environment into their curriculum, their answer seemed as daunting as the problem. It would take, they told him, an act of Congress.
Environmental education wasn’t even mentioned in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 which established national education priorities. Further, the act required rigorous testing in core subjects like math and reading. Schools were rated based on how students
did on those tests, leading them to de-
emphasize other areas, including environmental education.
Baugh figured that the odds of changing the law were slim. Nonetheless, he worked with like-minded people around the nation to establish the No Child Left Inside Coalition.
The coalition tapped growing concern about children spending more time in front of television or computer screens and less time outside, contributing to problems such as childhood obesity. Today’s children have increasingly become disconnected from nature, leading Richard Louv, author of the book, “Last Child in the Woods,” to coin the phrase, “nature deficit disorder.”
Ultimately, by tapping into those concerns, the fledging coalition created a nationwide movement that involved thousands of organizations representing millions of individuals to advocate for action.
“On more than one occasion, I’ve been walking in the Annapolis 4th of July Parade, and people have yelled out to me, ‘No Child Left Inside,’” said Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, who became one of the cause’s earliest champions in Congress. “So it definitely hit a nerve out there.”
In December, the work paid off. Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.
Although other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have long had environmental education programs, the new law is the first time a bill covering primary and secondary education even mentioned environmental education.
“It seemed to me to be a grand omission,” Sarbanes said. “Those other agency’s involvement is fine and good and important, but educators look to the Department of Education. They are in large part driven by the grant opportunities that are available from the Department of Education.”
The new bill does not specifically require environmental education programs in schools, but says that such programs could be part of a “well-rounded educational experience” for students. That allows environmental education programs to compete for billions of dollars in grant programs from the department.
The new legislation, “gives states and localities a little more space and a little more permission to do this sort of work using those dollars, and also plants the seed in their mind that there is this potential,” said Shannon Sprague, environmental literacy manager with the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office.
“I think good things will come out of it,” said Sprague, who is also co-chair of the Bay Program’s Education Workgroup, but she cautioned that the full impact won’t be known until the Education Department writes guidelines about how it will implement the law through its grant programs and whether states and localities take advantage of the opportunity. “The work is just beginning.”
Improving environmental education — especially outdoor education — has been a longtime objective of the state-federal Bay Program partnership, and the legislation should boost the environmental literacy goal of its 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
That goal calls for every student in the region to graduate “with the knowledge and skills to act responsibly to protect and restore their local watershed.” It also places an emphasis on outdoor education, calling for each student to have at least one “meaningful watershed educational experience” in elementary, middle and high school.
That should get a boost from the new law because it promotes “hands-on” and “field-based” programs as part of core science, technology and math programs — something that advocates say makes it easier to incorporate outdoor environmental education into those curricula.
“Under the old No Child Left Behind Act, so much of the focus was on testing that most educational instruction occurred in the classroom, not in field experiences outdoors, and environmental education was pushed aside or abandoned,” said Charlie Stek, a former congressional aide who served as policy director for the No Child Left Inside Coalition. “Teachers were under a lot of pressure to make sure that students could pass those tests and as a consequence, opportunities for integrating environmental education into the curriculum and field-based learning were very limited. There is a change in attitude about how students learn in the Every Student Succeeds Act. The focus is no longer primarily on teaching to the test.”
Stek called the legislation “a historic first step” for environmental education.
Ultimately, advocates want to see environmental education not so much as a class, but as a concept that is woven throughout other coursework. That’s important for several reasons, said Kevin Maxwell, superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.
When a new course or subject is added, it competes with other activities and subjects for limited amount of school time, he said. “The minutes that everyone wants just don’t add up to the school days that we have.”
Instead, he prefers to see environmental concepts worked in throughout the curricula. For example, in a science project in the 4th grade, social studies in the 3rd grade and so on. In one elementary school music class, he said, students wrote a song about turning off the faucet while brushing one’s teeth.
“It sounds simple, but it’s a water conservation thing,” Maxwell said. And it is those types of concepts and actions, throughout a student’s day — and lives — that influence how they affect the environment. The goal is to graduate students who are “environmentally literate” in their daily lives.
“This is important in multiple content areas, it doesn’t just belong in one place or the other, and it is going to take multiple content areas to fix the things that we have,” Maxwell said. “There is certainly a science answer to some of this work, but there are also policy answers to this work, there are financial answers to this work. There are a lot of different places that this resides.”
Although Maryland already has environmental literacy requirements, Maxwell said the law will help because grant programs now allow using funds to incorporate outdoor education both after school and as part of core science and math program areas.
For Baugh, who now heads a new educational nonprofit called the Upstream Alliance, the legislation represents the culmination of an effort to ramp up programs that will lead to a more environmentally literate society.
Baugh called the new law “a solution of scale,” adding, “this alone will not save the Bay nor save the environment, but this acting in concert with the work that is already being done, and will be done, will be a giant step toward us living a little more harmoniously with this planet.”