No Ecosystem Left Behind

By Jim Elder and Laura Johnson/Special to the Star
GateHouse News Service
Wed Jul 11, 2007, 10:45 AM EDT

Winchester -

Editor’s Note: The Mass Audubon President Laura Johnson and Campaign for Environmental Literacy Director Jim Elder drafted the following op-ed piece. Congress was expected to vote on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act this week. This op-ed makes the case for why funding for environmental education should be included in the legislation.

Not long ago, the Dennis C. Haley Elementary School in Roslindale was struggling to provide students with a good education. But things turned around when the school discovered the value of using the environment as a theme for teaching and learning. Haley began working with Mass Audubon's Boston Nature Center and infused the environment throughout its curricula. Students took part in outdoor learning activities, and created real science experiments about their surroundings. The intense emphasis on the environment, coupled with strong school leadership, has produced tremendous results. Last year, the progress was recognized when the Haley School was runner-up for the Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize, which recognizes one school that has made remarkable progress.

The Haley school experience is not unusual. Research in California and elsewhere has shown that students who take part in environmental education do better on standardized test scores and in the classroom. Teachers echo those findings: Exposing students to the environment and getting them engaged in the world around them tends to generate more interest in school.

Despite those successes, environmental education is at a critical crossroads. For 30 years, environmental education offerings expanded to meet the interest of teachers, students and parents. But today, environmental education is becoming an afterthought in large part because of the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind law, which was passed five years ago and is now up for reauthorization in Washington, D.C. With its intense focus on reading and math, and its reliance on high-stakes tests, No Child Left Behind has made it more and more difficult for teachers and principals to justify spending time on other subjects. Teachers tell us that because environmental topics are often not covered on assessment tests, they have little incentive to teach them. In some cases, schools are dropping environmental science courses in high school. Even field trips and outdoor science explorations — which can generate enthusiastic student engagement - happen less frequently because they take time away from subjects that are tested.

Congress has the opportunity to address this situation. A coalition of environmental educators is pushing for changes that would give schools the flexibility and the tools they need to provide first-rate environmental education. For example, extra funding would allow states to better train teachers in the environment and establish good curricula. And states would be required to create plans to make their students environmentally literate — a long overdue need in our schools.

These are modest steps that are absolutely critical, given the global situation we are facing. Indeed, every day seems to bring disturbing news about the environment -human-influenced climate change, wide-spread habitat degradation and threats to water supplies, to name only a few. These are challenging problems that will only grow more complicated over time. We can't expect future generations to conquer these problems unless we give our young people the basic knowledge to understand them. Nobody can question that our young people are losing touch with the environment. We know that television dominates most children's lives, not outdoor activities. One national study found that children today spend an average of 6 hours each day in front of the computer and TV but less than four minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. And another study found that young people could identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants or animals native to their back yards.

Unless we take action, complicated environmental concepts will become more and more foreign to our students.   

In our view, environmental education is a critical priority for America's future. Let's make sure no child leaves school without a basic understanding and appreciation of the environment and the enormous environmental challenges we all face.                       

Jim Elder is director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy and a leading authority on environmental education. Laura Johnson is president of Mass Audubon, New England's largest conservation organization and a leader in environmental education, providing environmental programs for more than 200,000 children and adults annually. For more information, visit www.massaudubon.org.