Public school teacher “Jane Doe” is awash in Chesapeake Bay teaching tools and she’s eager to put them to work. But only a fraction of her knowledge and enthusiasm will ever reach her students.
Doe attended training sessions, maybe more than once, to learn more about the Bay watershed and opportunities for her students. She was introduced to natural resource professionals who helped to hone her outdoor teaching skills and offered to partner with her on student projects. She has new access to maps, data, websites and grant programs that can fund field work and equipment.
It’s a promising, powerful combination. When put into practice, it serves up a high-quality educational experience that has demonstrated success at promoting environmental stewardship.
But environmental education is often left waiting in the wings, felled by an emphasis on standardized test scores that rob environmental educators of time, money and support from school administrators.
The scenario encountered by the fictional Jane Doe, drawn from comments in a recent report, is common in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where resources for environmental education have surged in recent years.
“It’s not that teachers don’t want to it, but they’re having a hard time getting support,” said Don Baugh, director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
While environmental education has made gains in recent decades, education reforms have put such activities in tight competition with subjects that are more directly covered by required standardized tests. “If it’s not tested, it’s often not being taught,” Baugh said. “We see everything from teachers who have almost abandoned the environmental science program they’ve been teaching for 30 years to new teachers who just aren’t able to get support.”
A new study commissioned by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points both to the ongoing obstacles for environmental education and to the benefits that may be reaped if the path were cleared.
The study was the first independent evaluation of NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training Program. B-WET is a grant program, launched in 2002 to support the Chesapeake Bay Program goal of providing every student in the Bay region with at least one “meaningful watershed experience” before graduation.
A meaningful watershed experience is more than a one-day field trip. The goal is to create a challenging and engaging set of activities that both supports academic achievement and helps students become good stewards of the Chesapeake Bay.
In full, a meaningful watershed experience includes four elements: learning about the Bay or local watershed; having lessons take place outdoors; researching an issue; and participating in a restoration project. It combines classroom and outdoor learning in which students investigate and respond to real-world environmental issues, often on their school’s grounds or another local setting.
B-WET has provided more than $2 million each year to support the watershed education goal, primarily through teacher training and student education programs.
The research team led by Anita Kraemer of eeEvalulations, which specializes in environmental education, found that the meaningful watershed experiences supported by B-WET do make students more likely to act as stewards of the Bay or local watershed.
The research was based on a 1990 model that identified eight characteristics shared by people who act in environmentally responsible ways. Measuring those characteristics before and after participating in an environmental education program helps to predict future stewardship behavior. In the B-WET study, students who participated in a meaningful watershed experience improved in three of the eight stewardship characteristics, including “intention to act”—the characteristic that Kraemer said is the best predictor of future behavior.
The finding confirmed the less formal reports that B-WET manager Shannon Sprague has been hearing for years.
“The overarching message is that B-WET is doing what it is designed to do: increase student intention to preserve the Bay,” she said.
Yet the program’s impact is limited, not by a lack of trained and willing teachers, but by the administrative and logistical challenges they face in the classroom.
In the study, nearly all of the teachers who used B-WET funding to attend training programs returned home to conduct lessons about the Bay, including those who hadn’t taught the subject before—but only one-third launched the rich suite of practices that add up to a meaningful watershed experience.
Approximately half were not researching issues or conducting restoration projects. Roughly one-quarter were not teaching outside.
The teachers reported ample training and high confidence in applying what they had learned. Most were thrilled with the quality of training and resources they received and strongly intended to provide a meaningful watershed experience for their students.
“But many teachers ran into barriers that stopped them from implementing meaningful watershed experiences as intended,” Kraemer said.
The roadblocks occurred when trying to merge what they had learned with their daily teaching demands. Teachers often have little time or flexibility to stray from pre-set curricula, which was created to help students score well on standardized tests.
Public schools are highly focused on standardized test results. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, mandates testing as a way to raise accountability. It requires each state to conduct regular standardized tests in math, reading and science.
Testing occurs every year in math and reading for all students in grades 3 through 8, and at least once during high school. By the end of the 2007-2008 school year, science tests will be required once during grades 3 through 5, 6 through 9, and 10 through 11.
Schools not making progress with test scores get corrective action. As a result, many administrators and teaches rely on pre-set curriculum as a road map to high test scores.
“Many school systems have pacing guides. They need to be on a particular topic on a particular day of the year,” Kraemer said. “If a teacher is able to integrate a meaningful watershed experience into their curriculum, they do it. But if it’s seen as an oddity or something extra, it won’t happen.”
Comments collected for the B-WET study reflected this conflict.
One teacher wrote that watershed education “did not fit into the grade six curriculum this year.” Another “did not get to it with the current school schedule,” while others wrote that “it was not part of my pre-set curriculum” and “the time allocated for science did not leave enough time to teach the local watershed.”
Experienced teachers and highly motivated teachers are more likely to succeed at integrating watershed education with the existing curriculum. To do it, they must wrangle extra planning time out of a hectic schedule and often seek grants to support field work and buy supplies.
They must also have support from their principals, who often prefer the pre-set curriculum.
Karen Harris, of Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium, MD, is one principal who risked change and became a vocal advocate for environmental education. Yet she understands how the demands of standardized tests can fuel hesitation in her colleagues.
“It’s high stakes testing, federally mandated and publicly published,” Harris said. “We are accountable for students’ ability to read, write, compute and explain their math. And that’s scary. Sometimes we just focus on the curriculum and forget there can be a better way to teach.”
Harris promotes environmental learning on a schoolwide basis, integrating it through science, writing, math, social studies and art lessons.
Rather than wedge environmental education into required curriculum, Harris takes the opposite approach.
“We start with a concept like a wetland or butterfly garden, and ask what math, writing, social studies or art can come out of it. The environment is a hub. Then we look for ways to bring in the curriculum we are required to teach.”
Harris used this model to lead Perry Hall Elementary in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “Bay School” program and continues to promote it at her current school. She said it’s not just the Bay that benefits.
“I know in my gut that this is a way to engage all children, especially our most hesitant learners—especially boys.”
Harris recalled a third grade class that was doing descriptive writing—required curriculum content—in a newly planted garden. “One little guy just writing away, putting all these adjectives on paper,” Harris said. “He looked up at me and said ‘Mrs. Harris, this is like recess with learning.’”
Environmental educators report many moments like these, when the projects at hand deliver students who are more driven, attentive and better behaved than those in traditional classroom settings.
Principals and superintendents, however, need more than anecdotes to win them over.
“You have to support it with student data. You have to show that it’s not unstructured and not just having fun being green,” Harris said.
One way to persuade principals is by connecting environmental education to strong or improved test scores, and a growing body of research supports this argument. “None of them are definitive studies, but they show lots of promise,” Kraemer said.
The B-WET evaluation included a case study that looked at standardized science test scores for a small number of third grade students in Virginia. Those who participated in a meaningful watershed experience scored better on the Science Investigation category than those who did not. Kraemer said that the sample size was too small to allow for generalizations and more research is needed.
Successful findings, she cautioned, may require changes. The lessons students learn through a meaningful watershed experience, concerning both science and stewardship, may not be measured well by the tests.
“If you look carefully at test items and compare them to what teachers hope the kids will learn through the watershed experience, there’s a real disconnect,” Kraemer said. “If making a connection to test scores is truly important to the environmental education community, they will need to tailor their programs for that outcome.”
But is directing attention to test scores wise—or even necessary? Harris doesn’t think so. It may be impossible to credit good test scores to any single factor, including environmental education, because the quality of reading, math and other programs also plays a role.
Instead, Harris suggests persuading principals with other evidence of student achievement, such as samples of student work or a comparison of similar classes within the same school.
“You could have one class could do a descriptive lesson and compare it to others working in an environmental context,” Harris said. “Let the principal see the depth of their work. Let them see that it is more rigorous, challenging, engaging.”
The B-WET evaluators suggest that program managers should think carefully about balancing the goals of Bay stewardship and academic achievement. Demonstrating support for academic achievement may open the door to more environmental education in schools, but environmental education should perhaps be likened to art, music or physical education—valued for its own merit, while not directly covered by standardized tests.
“In order to play in the formal education game, which is where we firmly believe we belong, you can’t ignore test scores and academic achievement,” said B-WET manager Sprague. “In order for us to succeed, we have to strive for that level of competency. But our goals are really about stewardship.”
The B-WET report recommends a broader conversation between regional educators and administrators to explore how schools can be encouraged to use environmental education.
“Should they use test scores, or market it a different way, by showing that environmental education is just good education?” Kraemer said. Efforts to answer this question may be critical in bringing more meaningful watershed experiences to schools in the Bay region.
If successful, training and funds will be needed to reach more teachers, in more locations.
In the meantime, NOAA will use the findings of the B-WET evaluation to improve its work in the Bay watershed and its sister programs in Hawaii and California.
Changes may include extra help for merging watershed education with existing curriculum and more training for teams of teachers from the same school. Program leaders will continue to emphasize the elements of a meaningful watershed experience that the evaluation found to be especially effective: to make learning relevant to student interests, use hands-on learning and spend time outdoors.
“Overall, we think this is a green light for what we’re doing,” Sprague said. “B-WET is effective. It’s having the desired impacts, but we’re taking the recommendations of the evaluation very seriously, so that we can make it even stronger.”
Advocates say that quality environmental education does more than produce good stewards of the earth. They claim it produces better learners, too.
In 1998, a study called Closing the Achievement Gap opened the gates for a number of studies on the impact of environmental education, some of which measure stewardship goals and others that measure academic achievement, test scores and character development in at-risk students.
Academic and behavior studies are often more important to school administrators and policy-makers because their ultimate goals are for broad academic success.
Closing the Achievement Gap, published by the State Education and Environment Roundtable, looked at 40 schools in 13 states and concluded that environment-based education helped most students earn higher grades and score better in reading, writing and math. The Pacific Environmental Institute later found that Washington students who participated in systematic environmental education scored consistently higher on standardized tests.
In California, the American Institutes for Research reported that at-risk elementary students who participated in a weeklong outdoor program increased their science test scores by 27 percent and showed improvements in conflict resolution, problem solving, motivation and self-esteem. Initial learning and behavior changes weren’t significantly greater than those from indoor programs, but the students were much more likely to retain what they had learned.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education found that schools earning the Maryland Green School Award scored higher in fifth and eighth grader reading tests and in eighth grade math tests.
An evaluation of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “Bay Schools” project also confirmed that students were much more active and engaged when working within an environmental framework.