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Environmental-Education Materials Evaluated

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As an association of environmental educators hones its drafts of voluntary national standards, a separate independent panel is preparing to determine whether such classroom materials are based in fact and science.

The Washington-based George C. Marshall Institute, which analyzes technical and scientific questions in public policy, set up the panel last December to address concerns that some environmental-education materials are based more on political concerns than science. The panel will meet for the first time this month.

Chairman Robert L. Sproul, a physics professor, said in a prepared statement: "Some believe these materials are biased by corporate interests, and still others contend that environmental-education curricula are aimed at promoting activism on the part of children rather than teaching facts."

The 11-member panel is made up of scholars from the fields of biochemistry, biology, and physics, among others. They include John F. Disinger, a professor emeritus at the school of natural resources and the educational-studies department at Ohio State University in Columbus; Nicholas Eberstadt, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington; and Frederick Seitz, a past president of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. A draft of its findings are expected by the end of the year.

In recent years, criticism has emerged that the information presented in environmental-education lessons is often outdated, inaccurate, or biased. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

Meanwhile, the National Environmental Education Standards Project is at work on three sets of standards: content standards spelling out what students should know, teaching standards delineating what abilities environmental educators need to be effective, and materials standards describing what high-quality teaching materials should look like.

A Washington-based international association of environmental educators began working on the project in 1994 and recently published two drafts. The North American Association for Environmental Education's work is being financed with $150,000 of the association's funds and a $95,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Number of Mandates Unclear

The Marshall Institute says as many as 30 states have adopted mandates to teach environmental education in public schools.

But Jerry Lieberman, the program director of the State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a San-Diego based working group of representatives from 11 state education departments, said that figure includes laws that make only passing mention of environmental education.

He pegs the number of states with substantive legislative requirements at closer to a dozen. Mr. Lieberman also noted that the number of states with environmental-education coordinators has dropped from about 40 in 1980 to about 15 now.

Bora Simmons, the chairwoman of the standards project and the president of the environmental educators' association, said: "There are a lot of wonderful people who have great environmental-science backgrounds who are developing materials for classroom use who know virtually nothing about classrooms. And we have wonderful educators who are developing materials who know virtually nothing about the environment."

The standards panel has published two drafts of the materials standards; more than 300 teachers, scientists, and environmental-policy specialists are reviewing the most recent draft. The panel also has completed an initial framework for the content standards and plans to publish a first draft of 12th-grade content standards within six months.

But some suggested the effort might be a waste of time.

"A lot of wonderful work has already been done" by others, said John Padalino, the chairman of the National Science Teachers Association's environment-education advisory board. He said up to 90 percent of what students need about the environment is in the already-completed voluntary national standards for science and geography.

"A lot of what the environmental-education community is doing is social science, and in many instance it has been politicized," Mr. Padalino added. "Advocacy is OK, but education is education, not advocacy," he said.

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