Critics Question the Accuracy, Bias of Environmental Education

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As scientists begin reassessing the nature and severity of such environmental conditions as ozone depletion and global warming, critics—including some environmentalists—are questioning both the accuracy and the ideological slant of environmental education in the classroom.

News accounts in recent months have highlighted the growing debate within the scientific community over whether the Earth really is growing warmer as a result of human activity and to what extent the planet is threatened by the thinning of its protective ozone layer.

Meanwhile, critics say that the information young people receive on these and other environmental issues through the media and in school too often is outdated or of questionable accuracy.

Moreover, they say, it tends to promote the activist agendas of the groups that develop the curriculum materials that, given the scarcity of environmental-education textbooks, often are the sole source of information.

"The biggest problem is that there's a vacuum, and the environmental lobbying organizations have been very good at filling that vacuum," said Jonathan Adler of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. Mr. Adler recently criticized the quality and tone of many environmental-education efforts in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Corporate interests also flood teachers' mailboxes with "science based" materials on environmental issues, ranging from the cleanup of the 1989 oil spill by the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound to the virtues of steel recycling.

"We have a great number of industries that are producing materials to use in the classroom," said Linda Knight, an earth-science teacher at Paul Revere Middle School in Houston and the president of the National Earth Science Teachers Association.

"These are, in each case, put forward as materials that are 'unbiased,' but the companies do have vested interests," she said.

Widespread Mandates

Although environmental topics have been a feature of precollegiate teaching since at least the 1970's, in recent years at least 30 states have approved a series of widely varying mandates to infuse environmental education into the curriculum.

California, for example, has made environmental science an integral part of its science framework, encouraging the use of environmental topics to teach scientific principles.

Similarly, Florida is developing a science framework that encourages teachers to use the environment immediately outside their schools as a science laboratory.

In relatively few cases do schools in any state offer a separate environmental-education course. Rather, teachers piece together a variety of available materials to add to an existing science course.

Such mandates may ultimately benefit young people who, though bombarded by "green" messages in the media, have only a superficial understanding of environmental issues, said Jane L. Person, an environmental-science teacher at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) High School.

Ms. Person, who has written a textbook for high school environmental-science courses, said she began her course to help students meet a state education mandate, but also to answer the need for accurate information in the curriculum.

Common Misconceptions

Critics assert that many young people are the targets of poorly written and extremist literature on the environment that turns up in school libraries and in the classroom.

Some common misconceptions or exaggerations contained in readily available environmental materials include:

  • Reliance on the internal-combustion engine has only had detrimental effects on the environment. In fact, industrialization, for example, has reduced the dependence on a labor-intensive farming economy, allowing reforestation of former farmlands and a higher standard of living.
  • An artificially produced increase in carbon-dioxide levels is precipitating a dramatic global warming. In fact, credible scientific evidence suggests that climatic fluctuations are little-understood, cyclical phenomena; that the Earth's primary "greenhouse gas" is water vapor, not carbon dioxide; and that warming may even be offset by such natural features as cloud cover.
  • People living today face unprecedented risks from poor air quality. In fact, air quality has improved measurably over all in recent decades thanks to federal anti-pollution laws and regulations.
  • Aerosol-spray products contain chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that damage the ozone layer. In fact, CFC's were outlawed in the United States in 1978.

'Scaring Kids to Death'?

One prominent critic is Patricia Poore, the editor in chief of Garbage magazine, a popular environmental publication. In a special report in the April/May issue, Ms. Poore contends that many environmental materials abandon scientific objectivity in favor of calls for activism.

She notes that many works that are commonly found in school libraries perpetuate outdated and inaccurate assumptions about environmental hazards, and sometimes call for a return to a supposedly idyllic agrarian, pretechnological way of life.

Few textbook companies, she writes, have taken up the challenge to produce science-based texts for environmental education.

Moreover, she notes, some educational psychologists are concerned over the "apocalyptic" tone of the materials, which tend to ignore the progress made in improving air and water quality in favor of dire pronouncements on the threats posed to humanity by global warming, the "solid-waste crisis," or ozone depletion.

Mr. Adler voices similar views. "Kids are being scared to death. Kids are coming home crying" from school lessons on environmental issues, he asserted. "Most environmental materials certainly don't give an optimistic view of the future of humanity."

And, these critics add, young children, the audience for many of the environmental messages in the mass media, are poorly equipped to weigh the nuances, uncertainties, and even miscalculations that characterize the scientific process.

Alan Sandler, the education director for the American Architectural Foundation, which produces materials that focus largely on the human-created environments of urban areas, conceded that a few materials may indeed contain factual errors.

Yet, he said, critics who focus solely on the scientific aspects of environmental education fail to understand that the topic often spills out of the science curriculum into the social sciences and other areas.

"Environmental education is not like science. There's not a 'right answer in the back of the book,'" he said. "We're trying to deal with the consequences with human behavior, and many times we are not aware what those will be."

Information Overload

Educators must also contend with environmental misinformation that seeps into the curriculum from popular books and the media.

John Padalino, who heads the National Science Teachers Association's task force on environmental education, held a press conference last fall during an N.S.T.A. regional meeting in New York to point out that many popular children's books and comics, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' "ABC's for a Better Planet," contain the error about CFC's.

The press conference, supported in part by the aerosol industry, was designed to counter "the myths that are perpetuated in this country" and in the classroom, Mr. Padalino said.

"There's a lot of junk [science] that works itself into the curriculum," he acknowledged.

The N.S.T.A., meanwhile, has elevated the environmental-education task force into a standing committee to reflect the importance of the subject in the curriculum.

Observers agree that there are programs that do a good job of examining the scientific questions surrounding such potential environmental hazards as ozone depletion, solid-waste management, global warming, and air and water pollution, particularly at the high school level.

But they say that many elementary and middle school teachers find that the information overload, coupled with the complex and continuously developing state of environmental knowledge, makes it difficult to present a coherent and balanced picture of the nature of an environmental problem in a typical class period.

Those strictures, they say, often lead to the promulgation of simplistic, sometimes inaccurate, views of the state of the environment that fail, for instance, to take into account the vastly improved standard of living in this century that has as one of its costs some level of environmental degradation.

Precollegiate science "often tends to ignore the nature of risks, and risk analysis, and the whole issue of scientific tentativeness," said Mark Koker, the assistant director of the Chemical Education for Public Understanding Program, or CEPUP, a middle-school-level environmental curriculum. Developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, the program is designed to foster informed, science-based decisionmaking.

Urging Advocacy

Political action, not good science, is too often the goal of environmental materials, Mr. Adler and others contend.

Too often, Mr. Adler said, children are encouraged to join letter-writing campaigns to influence political ends, rather than to examine both sides of environmental issues, such as weighing the detriment of smog against the advantages of ready access to automobiles.

"Were this done with any other issue, public figures and parents would be up in arms," he said. "The question is, 'Are schools for education, or are they for indoctrination?'"

One brochure that urges political action is issued by the environmental lobbying group Greenpeace.

"Let's Call Ourselves Greenpeace," a brochure aimed at children ages 6 to 13, is distributed through the organization's "activist network," a grassroots coalition some 22,000 volunteers that includes some teachers. The booklet urges children to write to the chairman of the Du Pont Company, which produces CFC's for sale abroad, to "stop making chemicals that eat away the ozone layer."

One issue of another Greenpeace publication called "Kids Alert" encourages children to write to officials of the People's Republic of China to demand that that country stop testing nuclear devices and to write letters to President Clinton urging him to "start using sun and wind power instead of nuclear power plants."

Kyle Halmrast, who coordinates the activist network, said the materials are designed to encourage children to think about environmental issues, perhaps as a precursor to future activism, and to serve as a counterbalance to materials put out by corporations to defend their practices.

To say that the wide and diverse array of environmental groups that produce classroom materials are bent on creating environmental radicals is not true, he said.

'Who Do We Believe?'

Spokesmen for environmental groups further argue that letter-writing campaigns and similar political activities promote good citizenship in areas that interest children.

"These issues can be good opportunities for children to learn about the political issues and to tie into the political process," said Midge Smith of the education division of the National Audubon Society.

Unlike Greenpeace, the Audubon Society does produce a formal curriculum that tends to focus on natural sciences and human impacts on the natural world, she said.

She noted, however, that as Congress prepares to debate the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act—a simmering environmental controversy—that Audubon's future educational materials are likely to discuss that debate and possibly to offend those who disagree with the group's stand on the issue.

Teachers, in the final analysis, are frequently left to decide what is biased and what is not in the materials that they choose.

Ms. Person, the East Stroudsburg, Pa., teacher, said she recently showed her students a film, produced by Exxon, on the oil spill in Prince William Sound, which minimized the impact of the spill on the Alaskan ecosystem.

"But there are scientists that are disagreeing with this," she noted. "One of the dilemmas that we have is 'Who do we believe?'"

Vol. 12, Issue 38, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: June 16, 1993, as Critics Question the Accuracy, Bias of Environmental Education
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