Background: What has NCLB done to Environmental Education?
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is contributing to an increasing environmental literacy gap by reducing the already modest amount of environmental education taking place in K-12 classrooms. Its emphasis on testing for core subjects is causing many administrators to eliminate environmental education in favor of investing more resources in math and language arts, severely limiting instructional time for science and social studies, the traditional subjects in which EE is taught (1).
Even many science teachers feel compelled to eliminate those aspects of science class that do not appear to relate directly to questions on state science tests. Science curricula are narrowing in response to less time and more stringent assessment, limiting the amount and variety of environmental education as well as the kind of interdisciplinary teaching that it fosters (2).
Teachers are actively or passively discouraged from providing valuable field based experiences for their students based on a fear of "loss of instructional time" for tested subjects. Such field experiences provide important opportunities for students to engage in hands-on, real-world problem solving and scientific inquiry. As a result, teacher autonomy to pursue vibrant, student-led, community-supported, environmental investigation and restoration projects is being curtailed.
There is no significant mention of environmental education in NCLB, the dominant policy shaping the vast majority of short and long term, local, state and federal education decisions. In fact, environmental education is not even organized under the U.S. Department of Education at the federal level. Instead, the Division of Environmental Education is part of the U.S. EPA.
While the Administration may have a new focus on science education, that focus is on global economic leadership and homeland security, while the crucial environmental issues facing our society are not even mentioned (3). Ironically, future issues relating to resource management and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked to global economic leadership and security.
If NCLB continues to be implemented in its current form, we will graduate a generation of students who are fundamentally unprepared to deal with the challenges posed to them on an individual, national, and global basis.
(1) See Bartosh, 2003 "Although many states require EE to be taught in all grades and all subjects, EE has not become a part of school curricula [in part because] teachers are required to prepare students for . . .new standardized tests administered at elementary, middle and high school..."
(2) See Gruenewald, 2006, "Although the current national science standards set forth by the National Academies contain many references to environmental sciences, there is no certainty that these topics will be incorporated into already crowded state curricula, much less make their way into the individual states’ proficiency tests."
(3) See USDE Website NCLB Science Fact Sheet