Quality of Environmental Texts Found Uneven

By Millicent Lawton — April 09, 1997 4 min read


Environmental education textbooks and other materials are uneven in quality, and some focus too much on inspiring students’ concern for environmental problems rather than building fact-based knowledge, a panel of scientists and academics has found.

But despite heated debate in recent years about biased materials coming to schools from groups advocating one environmental position or other, the group found no relationship between the quality or accuracy of environmental education materials and the type of organization that sponsored or produced them.

In a report released here last week on its 18 months of work, not only did the Independent Commission on Environmental Education find some materials worthy of praise, it also affirmed that the increasingly popular subject “is important and should be taught in America’s schools.”

That conclusion alone was a relief to some in the environmental education field who said that they had worried about findings from a panel they considered to have politically conservative origins.

“When they talk about the need for environmental education to be unbiased and based on sound science, I agree wholeheartedly,” said Richard Wilke, the associate dean of the college of natural resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

The self-appointed commission was convened by the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington, a not-for-profit research group founded in 1984 to study national-security technology, including the Reagan administration’s strategic-defense initiative.

The panel’s 10 members include one college-level environmental educator as well as physicists, an economist, and experts in risk assessment, energy, and forest policy.

The panelists reviewed 71 books, pamphlets, or supplementary materials for grades K-12 in order to compile the report, “Are We Building Environmental Literacy?” They selected materials that were either widely used or recommended by authoritative sources.

‘Serious Flaws’

Among its findings, the panel says that environmental education materials often fail to build students’ critical-thinking skills so that they can deal with controversial issues. And the materials often fail to help students understand trade-offs that must be made in addressing environmental issues, it says.

Factual errors, the report says, are common in many of the materials. High school environmental-science texts have “serious flaws,” it says, with some giving superficial coverage of science and others mixing science and advocacy.

One book cited a figure for deforestation more than twice that of the most reliable figure from the United Nations, the panel found. Another book named a number for U.S. oil production that was incorrect by a factor of 10. Environmental Science, Working With the Earth, a 1995 textbook adopted in Texas and other states, defines “Earth wisdom” by quoting a radical environmentalist saying, “Madmen and madwomen are wrecking this ... Earth.”

The commission recommends that scientific and educational organizations consult with scientists, economists, and other experts before the groups suggest materials. Textbook-adoption committees and others responsible for selecting materials should do the same, it says.

Publishers, too, must bear responsibility for what appears in materials that carry their names, the panel says, and must improve their peer-review process for materials. In addition, it says, teachers need better preparation to teach the subject.

Generally, errors in textbooks are corrected quickly in the next edition, said Richard Blake, the vice president of the school division at the Association of American Publishers in New York City. The major publishers, at least, have “pretty elaborate fact-checking systems,” he said.

Standards Due Soon

The commission is not alone in trying to improve environmental education. The Washington-based North American Association for Environmental Education last fall issued guidelines for creating and selecting good materials and expects in June to issue its standards for what students should know and be able to do.

Environmental education has been rife with contention in recent years. Critics have contended that interest groups provide schools with inaccurate information. (“Skeptics Questioning the Accuracy, Bias of Environmental Education ,” June 16, 1993.)

Last week, commission members denied the charge that the panel itself had an anti-environmental education bias.

Some of the foundations that put up the $300,000 to $400,000 for the report have a history of supporting such conservative groups as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, two Washington think tanks.

Jeffrey T. Salmon, the executive director of the Marshall Institute, said other well-known foundations declined to support the project.

“We certainly did not promise any kind of political slant” to funders, commission Chairman Robert L. Sproull, an emeritus president and professor of physics at the University of Rochester, told reporters at a press conference here last week.

The report could actually have a “calming effect” on the storm of controversy in the field, said Edward McCrea, the executive director of the NAAE.

“When a group that is this conservative and has the strong academic credentials that they have still basically comes out positive about environmental education,” Mr. McCrea said, “it would probably give some of the critics a reason to reconsider their opposition.”

For More Information:

Copies of “Are We Building Environmental Literacy?’' are available as of this week for $12.50 each. A copy of the review of materials is $2.50. Both prices include shipping. Call or write the Independent Commission on Environmental Education, 1730 K Street N.W., Suite 905, Washington, D.C. 20006; (800) 992-0671.

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