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Executive Summary:

Environmental Education and the Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act

For more than three decades, environmental education has been a growing part of effective instruction in America’s schools. Responding to the need to improve student achievement and prepare students for the 21st century economy, schools throughout the nation now offer some form of environmental education. Thirty million students and 1.2 million teachers annually are involved in programs ranging from environmental science courses to an interdisciplinary approach that uses the environment as an integrating theme throughout the entire curriculum that has been embraced by more than 300 environmental charter and magnet schools nationwide.

The growing use of environmental education as part of regular classroom instruction is due in part to widespread recognition of two facts: 1) Today’s youth must be prepared to understand and devise sustainable solutions to increasingly complex environmental issues, and 2) Environmental education increases student engagement in learning, which leads to a measurable positive impact on student achievement.

Yet, environmental education is facing a national crisis. Many schools are being forced to scale back or eliminate environmental programs. Fewer and fewer students are able to take part in related classroom instruction and field investigations, however effective or popular. State and local administrators and teachers point to two factors behind this recent and disturbing shift: the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and a lack of funding for these critical programs.

Conceptually, NCLB has taken a positive step forward by giving schools and teachers greater authority and flexibility in exchange for more accountability regarding student performance. However, the law’s high-stakes emphasis on testing has intensified the focus on reading and mathematics, to the detriment of other important subject areas. As a result, many schools have largely abandoned environmental education programs to invest more time and resources in math and reading instruction. In the classroom, NCLB causes science teachers to bypass environmental science when it does not appear to relate directly to state tests. Beyond the classroom, administrators are directing teachers to forego valuable, hands-on field investigations rather than take time away from test-related instruction.

Such narrowing of the curriculum is a disservice to students at all grade levels. Environmental education connects classroom learning to the real world, which often generates keen student engagement and helps to prepare students for the challenges they will face after leaving school. As expressed by the National Science Teachers Association, “The environment offers a relevant context for the learning and integration of core content knowledge, making it an essential component of a comprehensive science education program.” When integrated into the core curricula or used as an integrating theme across the curriculum, environmental education demonstrably improves student achievement not only in science, but also in reading (sometimes spectacularly), math, and social studies.

The national crisis facing environmental education is compounded by a lack of funding. The National Environmental Education Act, the primary source of federal support for K-12 environmental education, provided only $6.6 million last year, an average of only $132,000 per state.   

A new global imperative

The reality is that the United States can no longer afford to treat environmental education as optional. Across the globe, problems caused by climate change, pollution, and resource depletion are increasingly acute. These are no longer challenges to be debated by some generation in the distant future; rather, they are issues that will soon confront today’s young people. Only those countries far-sighted and innovative enough to find ways to prosper within the constraints of nature will remain sustainable and economically competitive.

The American public recognizes that the environment is already one of the dominant issues of the 21st century. A National Science Foundation panel echoed that conviction, noting in 2003 that “in the coming decades, the public will more frequently be called upon to understand complex environmental issues, assess risk, evaluate proposed environmental plans and understand how individual decisions affect the environment at local and global scales. Creating a scientifically informed citizenry requires a concerted, systemic approach to environmental education…”

In the private sector, business leaders also increasingly believe that an environmentally literate workforce is critical to their long-term success. They recognize that better, more efficient environmental practices improve the bottom line and help position their companies for the future.

The reauthorization of NCLB this year provides Congress with the opportunity to make changes that will strengthen the Act and better prepare students for real-world challenges and careers. NCLB must provide schools and school systems with the incentives, flexibility, and authority to develop and deliver environmental education programs by:  

  • Including environmental science as part of the existing NCLB science assessment, Title I (Section 1111);
  • Creating a separate environmental education grant program for teacher training, Title II (new Sections 2501-3);
  • Creating a separate environmental education grant program to help build state and national capacity, Title V (Sections 5621-5627);
  • Including environmental education as an authorized program in the Fund for the Improvement of Education, Title V (Sections 5411); and,
  • Identify environmental education as an eligible activity for the existing pool of teacher training funds, Title II (Sections 2113 and 2123).