Top state officials in Maryland are promoting a plan that would make the study of environmental education a requirement for all students to graduate from the state’s public high schools.
The proposal, which will be made available for public comment beginning today, is set for final consideration by the state board of education in the fall.
If adopted, it would represent the first time a state has added a high school graduation requirement focused on environmental literacy, according to Donald R. Baugh, the vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Annapolis, Md., that has been a strong champion of the measure.
“This is one step toward what we hope will be a stronger, more comprehensive effort in Maryland” to provide environmental education, said Mr. Baugh. “What we really like about the high school graduation [requirement is that] it’s for all students, it is a systemic solution.”
Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, said the proposal—which still is subject to change before being taken up by the state board—enjoys widespread support among local superintendents in Maryland, and also is backed by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
She emphasized that the proposal would not mandate that students take a particular course, but instead would call on school districts to ensure that environmental literacy is “threaded through” the curriculum.
“I think it has much more importance because it isn’t just, ‘Take one course, and that’s all you have to do,’” Ms. Grasmick said in an interview.
The Maryland initiative comes as advocates for environmental education are continuing a push to enact new federal legislation to advance the issue. Their goal is for companion bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, which would authorize $500 million over five years for environmental education, to be included in the overdue reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Mr. Baugh said.
Districts Have Leeway
The new Maryland proposal stems from the work of a task force created by Gov. O’Malley, a Democrat. The task force, called the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature, was co-chaired by Ms. Grasmick and John R. Griffin, the secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. In April 2009, the panel issued a final report and recommendations to the governor, including the call for a new graduation requirement on environmental literacy.
However, the task force had actually recommended requiring that all high school students take a specific course on environmental literacy, while the proposal moving forward calls for the topic to be “infused” into current curricular offerings.
To be sure, observers say, environmental education is nothing new in Maryland, and many schools have long included environmental literacy in the curriculum.
In fact, this would not be the state’s first mandate pegged to environmental education. The Maryland education code in 1989 was first amended to require a “comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program of environmental education within current curricular offerings at least once in the early, middle, and high school learning years.”
But Mr. Baugh, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that implementation has never reached all schools, especially following the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, with its emphasis on improving student achievement in reading and mathematics.
He also argues that the earlier measure required local systems simply to include environmental education within their instructional programs, but did not stipulate that all students must participate.
“A requirement tied to the ability for students to graduate high school will apply to all Maryland students, and carries greater weight and significance,” he said.
He added that the proposed new requirement also “provides much greater guidance regarding appropriate high school instruction and requires school systems to provide professional development for teachers to assist them in meeting the requirement.”
At the same time, Mr. Baugh said the proposal gives districts considerable leeway in how they choose to bring environmental education into classrooms.
Kevin M. Maxwell, the superintendent of the 75,500-student Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said he welcomes the proposed requirement.
“We have an obligation to make sure that we equip our next generation with the tools they’re going to need ... to, quite frankly, clean up the messes that we’ve made,” he said, “and to make sure the Earth is a sustainable home for the people who inhabit it.”
Mr. Maxwell said he would work toward ensuring that every student, every year, has an outdoor environmental activity.
“They [need] to get at least one experience outdoors where they’re looking at nature from a critical learning [perspective],” he said.
His hope is that this outdoor component would become a requirement for all students in the system, and that the district then might serve as a model for other Maryland school systems.
In fact, the state task force created by Gov. O’Malley called for school districts to provide “an annual meaningful outdoor environmental education experience for every student every year, pre-K through grade 12,” but that is not part of the state proposal moving forward at this time.
“The concern is that would be too much of a costly burden on school systems in tough economic times,” Mr. Baugh said.
‘No Child Left Inside’
Meanwhile, Mr. Baugh and other advocates of environmental education also are working to advance legislation in Congress dubbed the No Child Left Inside Act.
The measure has 122 House co-sponsors, and 19 in the Senate, most of whom are Democrats. The House passed a version of the legislation in 2008 on a bipartisan vote of 293-109, but a companion measure in the Senate never came to a vote. Advocates say their hope now is that the measure will be added to the reauthorization of the ESEA.
The core elements of the House and Senate legislation would:
• provide funding to train teachers to deliver high-quality environmental education and utilize the local environment as an extension of the classroom;
• offer financial incentives for states to develop environmental literacy plans;
• encourage teachers, administrators, and school systems to make time and resources available for environmental education for all students; and
• promote the integration of environmental education across core subject areas.
Both the House and Senate bills would authorize $500 million over five years for the measure, with funds only going to support efforts in states that have environmental literacy plans that are approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
The lead sponsor of the House bill is Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, while in the Senate, the lead sponsor is Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
“By enhancing environmental education, we can teach our youth how to be environmental stewards,” Rep. Sarbanes said in introducing the bill last year, “and grow the next generation of scientists and innovators to solve our energy and environment challenges.”
But Brian Newell, the press secretary for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, said it’s a mistake to create “yet another new government program that will compete with and drain resources from existing federal education priorities.”
He added, “With many schools struggling to raise student achievement in reading, writing, and math, spending half-a-billion dollars to prioritize a curriculum already taught in many classrooms is both costly and misguided.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week