Environmental education after a year of fires, COVID and virtual learning
Board policy can promote instruction in environmental literacy
Drawing of Earth before and after Covid
Earth Day always provides a good opportunity to revisit educational goals related to the environment — and this is especially so this year. A convergence of factors over the past year has highlighted the urgency — and promise — of environmental education. A record fire season has reminded us of the critical need for environmental literacy. The COVID era has sparked new interest in outdoor learning opportunities. And a year behind computer screens has left students in sore need of the type of hands-on, real-world learning that environmental education provides. For all these reasons, now is a good time for school boards to set expectations with respect to environmental education.

A good place to start in setting those expectations is a primer on the legislative framework for environmental education in California. State law calls for a unique collaboration between the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, and the State Board of Education. Through this collaboration, “environmental principles and concepts” are developed and then integrated into the state-adopted standards and curriculum frameworks — and, in turn, into textbooks. State law also requires the adopted course of study for grades one through 12 to include various environmental education topics.

It is important to note that, under state law, environmental education extends well beyond the science classroom. Education Code 51227.3 calls for the environmental principles and concepts to be integrated into state-adopted standards and curriculum frameworks in English language arts, science, history-social science, health and, to the extent practicable, mathematics. So far, the environmental principles and concepts have been integrated into the science and history-social science curriculum frameworks.

Senate Bill 720, signed in 2018, encourages school boards to undertake the following to promote instruction in environmental literacy:

  • Embed environmental literacy in Local Control and Accountability Plans, including, but not necessarily limited to, embedding environmental literacy elements in local priorities and goals.
  • Provide professional development for educators related to environmental literacy, the integration of the environmental principles and concepts with state-adopted standards and curriculum frameworks, and the development of curriculum and activities inside and outside the classroom that promote environmental literacy.
  • Build partnerships with other local educational agencies and with community-based organizations, informal education providers with expertise in science, history-social science, public health, social and environmental justice, and other environmental content providers in all aspects of environmental literacy programs.
  • Ensure that environmental learning experiences are made available on an equitable basis to all students and that the curriculum reflects the linguistic, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of California.
The benefits of environmental education
Research suggests environmental education is a wise investment. Studies have shown that environmental education has broad benefits: it enhances student achievement, increases student confidence and motivation, and improves student behavior. According to Dr. Nicole Ardoin, Stanford University Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the Environment, “There is a mountain of evidence that suggests [environmental education] is a powerful way to teach students. Over 100 studies found that it provides transformative learning opportunities that bring tremendous results and engage young people in the world around them in meaningful, collaborative ways.”

Whether school boards are motivated by the threat of climate change, an interest in outdoor education as a COVID precaution, or the persuasive evidence of the benefits of environmental education, now is a good time for boards to renew discussion related to environmental education.

CSBA plans to reissue sample Board Policy 6142.5 – Environmental Education in June to expand the environmental concepts and principles included in the curriculum and to recommend ways to support the implementation of the district’s program. In developing or revising policy on environmental education, boards are encouraged to review resources available through the following agencies and organizations:

Districts are especially encouraged to review the CDE’s A Blueprint for Environment Literacy and the California Education and the Environment Initiative’s Environmental Principles and Concepts.