Environmental science marginalized by federal act, teachers say

Tests focus on math, language

by Cheri Carlson
April 30, 2007
Ventura County Star Local News

The fifth-graders inched as close as they could to the edge of a dusty bank.

"I see it. It's a turtle," one boy shouted.

Someone else corrected him, "Actually, there's two turtles, a lizard, a crawfish, a tennis ball and a water bottle."

Moments later, the class was back on the trail through Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks a guide pointing out the sights one of dozens of one-hour hikes set up recently for fifth-graders in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

Surrounded by nature, students learned how gophers help cultivate soil, how plants can be transformed into rope and needles, and why water bottles and tennis balls should be kept out of creeks.

For students, it's a highlight of the fifth grade, said Valerie Hawkins, a teacher at Madrona School.

"They may not remember what I'm doing in the classroom," she said, but "the kids will remember this."

That's one of the great things about environmental education, advocates have said. It engages students in science as they learn how they are connected to the world around them.

But despite its benefits, environmental education sometimes is marginalized in U.S. schools, as annual, high-stakes tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act focus attention on math and language arts.

Oxnard teacher Martha Highfill said she wouldn't say teachers were forced to scale back on environmental science, but it "absolutely" happened.

The act, approved in 2001, requires a certain percentage of a school's students to test proficiently in math and language arts.

"I'm sure that wasn't the intent," said Mary Galvin, operations director of the Ventura Charter School of Arts and Global Education. "There's so much riding on that (the annual test) ... the ripple effect is that's what gets taught in the classroom."

The charter school has a global education focus, and the environment is a large part of that, she said. Students learn how people around the world are connected by culture and the environment.

Those lessons are integrated into all subjects, giving students real-life examples of the various concepts they are learning.

"We believe it's got to be integrated," Galvin said. "It has to be tied in ... rather than a bunch of isolated, rogue facts."

That integration allows teachers to spend time on all subjects, despite any testing pressure, said Linda Peralta, director of elementary instruction for the Conejo Valley Unified School District. For example, students can practice math and language arts skills, while learning about science or social studies.

Support for environmental education

In Conejo Valley schools, several special programs also support environmental education, including the fifth-grade hikes through Wildwood Regional Park, a program that started in 1990.

The Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, the Conejo Open Space Trails Advisory Committee and the Conejo Recreation and Park District coordinate the environmental education program for more than 1,600 students from all 20 of the district's elementary schools.

Many other schools throughout Ventura County also continue to support outdoor education programs. Students take field trips to recycling centers and in the classroom discuss climate change and pollution.

Highfill said she has found a way to bring science, including environmental science, into her classroom, even when reading has become a priority.

Last week, seeds sprouted in a corner and her second-graders belted out, "Roots. Stems. Leaves. Flowers. Fruit. And seeds," loudly along with music as they cut out lily pads for their life-cycle project.

"I will continue to teach them to be environmentally aware," Highfill said, "because that is their future."

Statewide, agencies also have teamed up to provide students access to quality environmental education programs. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Integrated Waste Management Board are developing curricula for primary and secondary schools.

But advocates for environmental literacy said there's still more work to do.

Annual state and federal tests recently included a science assessment, but until more environmental science is added, some schools won't find enough time for the subject, according to the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, based in Washington, D.C. The group was formed by various environmental advocates two years ago to lobby federal lawmakers for their support.

Getting environmental science tested likely would help make it a priority in the classroom, Galvin said, but that's just the first hurdle.

It needs to be taught in a meaningful way, she said, getting students engaged in what they're learning. A test can't assure that will happen.

Students learn of declining resources

In Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks recently, students stopped to check out what plants thrived near the water pooled at the bottom of a creek and shaded their eyes to check out the low-lying brush high on the hill above them. They felt the sharp needles of a yucca plant, and the guide showed them a piece he had started twisting into a cord.

He passed it to one of the students to feel, before moving on to something else. The Madrona fifth-graders followed him deeper into the park, a couple twisting the yucca needle into a cord as they walked along in the group.

"I think that everything they can be exposed to ... is beneficial," said guide Warren Fee, a volunteer recruited for the event.

The decline of natural resources has created an increasingly dangerous environment, he said, "and it's their generation that will have to deal with it."