Arguing that the leaders of tomorrow need to spend more time outdoors today, some lawmakers and conservation groups are calling for major changes in the nation's approach to environmental education.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-MD, have introduced bills aimed at changing policies set by the No Child Left Behind Act, which is due for reauthorization by Congress later this year.
Their bill, dubbed the "No Child Left Inside Act," would elevate the importance of environmental education and make approximately $100 million available to states that develop comprehensive plans for environmental literacy in public schools.
Many schools have scaled back or eliminated environmental education in order to focus on subjects that directly support student achievement on standardized tests.
"From saving the Bay to confronting the challenges of climate change, we need to prepare the next generation to tackle and overcome some very complicated environmental challenges," Reed said. "Teaching children about the world around them should be an important part of the curriculum in our schools."
Supporters are hopeful that the proposed changes will be added to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is due to be reauthorized in 2007. Specific language for the revised act is expected in September.
The changes could help resolve difficulties in the Chesapeake watershed, where efforts to improve environmental education have been hampered by the competing priorities of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Passed in 2001, the act outlines academic standards for public schools. It also places unprecedented focus on standardized tests, designed to chart the progress of both students and individual schools.
But the act has had unintended results. The drive for high test scores has often slashed time and funds for any subject not directly covered on the tests. Environmental education-including quality outdoor experiences-is one of them.
"We've heard from many environmental education experts about how the No Child Left Behind's strong focus on testing has led many teachers to reduce the time spent on environmental sciences," Sarbanes said. "This legislation will help turn our children, whose generation will ultimately be responsible for saving the planet, into environmental stewards."
The proposed changes aim to give environmental education better standing. Both bills call for re-establishing an office of environmental education within the U.S. Department of Education. A handful of new and existing grant programs would make money available to help states and schools launch programs, develop curriculum and train teachers.
The money would only be available to states that develop and submit environmental literacy plans that address kindergarten through 12th grade.
The No Child Left Inside Coalition, made up of 14 conservation and education organizations, is heavily pushing the legislation. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, National Education Association and National Science Teachers Association are among them. Charles Holliday, president and chief executive officer of DuPont, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have also written letters of support.
"At a time when the country has accepted that we have huge environmental issues facing us-like global warming and the links between the environment and energy policy, health policy and jobs-we're seeing less environmental education in the classroom, not more," said Don Baugh, the CBF's director of education.
Baugh said that even small amounts of funding can trigger big improvements for environmental learning. While many school administrators express interest in environmental education, they need funds for teacher training and outdoor learning. With even small grants in place, they find it easier to secure more resources and recruit local partners.
"The rising tide will float all boats," Baugh said. "Ultimately, we hope to graduate kids who care about the Bay."
If the act is revised as hoped, schools in the Bay region may be ready to benefit. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia are already working to boost environmental education, energized in part by the regional goals in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement.
"Any state working hard to position itself as a model now will position itself better to show that the grant money would be well-spent," Baugh said.
The Baywide effort is already bringing high-quality, outdoor learning to more students. However, it failed to meet the regional goal of providing every student with at least one meaningful outdoor experience beginning in 2005.
Many say that No Child Left Behind is the main barrier, leaving little time in the day or the lesson plans to cover environmental science. As a result, some teachers who participated in training through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Bay Watershed Education and Training Program (B-WET) were unable to make use of what they had learned.
The number of teachers applying for grant money from the Chesapeake Bay Trust dropped by 20 percent over the last three years, and demand for Bay Foundation programs fell by 40 percent over the past five years.
"We still have a strong, full program, but we used to turn them away in droves. Not anymore," Baugh said.
Advocates hope that the lure of funding will encourage states to develop environmental literacy plans and teachers to include environmental curriculum in their lessons.
However, the proposed legislation falls short of requiring environmental content on standardized tests. That decision is left to individual states.
Pennsylvania began including the environment and ecology on its standardized tests in 2007. Patti Vathis, a curriculum advisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said that the importance of testing should not be underestimated.
"Any time you hold someone publicly accountable, they do a better job," Vathis said. "When we moved our recommendations forward (for testing requirements), it moved the whole effort forward."
Environment and ecology are now among the top areas of focus for subjects that are tested in Pennsylvania, after reading, math and science technology.
"If this field is going to move forward and succeed it has to be seen as a content area that will make a difference in children's lives," Vathis said.