A First for Education: Reauthorized ESEA to Include Environmental Literacy

‘Well-rounded’ piece marks first formal inclusion of environmental education in K-12 federal education policy

10-21-2011 // Max Greenberg
Arial view of school children 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has voted to include environmental education provisions in an amendment to the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), marking the first time environmental education has been formally included in federal K-12 education policy.

“This bill is a bellwether for American education—it signals that K-12 schooling is entering a new phase, one that embraces a broadened curriculum that is focused on increasing 21st century skills such as critical thinking and innovation which is key to our success in the global clean energy economy” said Kevin Coyle, Vice President for Education and Training at NWF. “We know that experiential learning about the natural world boosts student performance and creates a pipeline into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions. Soon, hopefully, we’ll implement that.”

Part of a Well-Rounded Education

The No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI), a bill to assist states in the development and implementation of environmental literacy plans for K-12 students, was introduced in July by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Congressman John Paul Sarbanes (D-MD). The environmental education terms attached to ESEA are similar in intent to NCLI, and are included as part of a suite of “well-rounded education” provisions that seek to add depth and diversity to a national prospectus criticized as being narrow and test-centric. The legislation has been supported by the 2,100-member No Child Left Inside Coalition.

While its “well-rounded” status would seem to point to supplementary status, environmental education serves a nuts-and-bolts purpose—preparing children for complex environmental challenges and, in its focus on understanding the natural world, boosting STEM learning, an area where American students are sorely in need of improvement.

In the most recent assessment by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students ranked 17th and 25th in science and math, respectively, among 34 countries measured. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) 2009 science survey found that fewer than one-half of U.S. students perform at or above the ‘proficient’ level in science in grades 4, 8 and 12.

Green and Picking Up Steam

While historic, the inclusion of environmental education in ESEA is merely the latest illustration of a nationwide trend toward recognition of environmental education’s importance. In June, the State Board of the Maryland Department of Education adopted a first-of-its-kind policy requiring high school students to attain a basic level of environmental literacy before graduation, and the U.S. Department of Education recently opened application for its ‘U.S. Green Ribbon Schools Award Program’ to recognize institutions promoting environmental literacy and sustainable learning environments.

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