Environmental Education: Ripe for Reform

Published June 1, 2000

It’s time to separate education and advocacy. We don’t mean discouraging environmentalists or business representatives from speaking in the classroom. We mean keeping government agencies from supervising our children’s environmental education.

Two government agencies with well-known regulatory agendas—the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—are promoting programs that teach children to accept their rules and regulations.

FWS spends much of its time regulating habitat as part of the Endangered Species Act. EPA is the quintessential regulatory agency: It decides what emissions standards must be met and what technologies can be used to reduce air and water pollution, and it dictates how cities must meet air quality standards. EPA also operates Superfund–though designed to clean up abandoned waste sites, a program that has made it almost impossible to redevelop old industrial sites (“brownfields”).

Whether the actions of these agencies are right or wrong is not the issue here. The point is that regulatory and enforcement agencies with often-controversial policies should not be supervising, disseminating, or organizing materials for students in schools across the country.

If the federal government is going to be involved in education, it has a multi-billion-dollar department to do it with: the Department of Education. If it is going to encourage scientific education (of which environmental education is a subset), it has an agency to do it with: the National Science Foundation.

FWS goes to school

Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service distributes an environmental education program called “Wild about Life: An Instructional Program about Biodiversity for Middle and High School Students.” While some of the program does in fact teach students about wildlife, its stated goal is to move students from “awareness to action.” By “action,” the FWS program means “to emphasize political and personal skills—from lobbying, to use of mass media, to empathizing with politicians and other community change agents, . . . to learning and practicing the skills of effective political advocacy within the democratic system.”

In this program, children learn that large changes are made in small steps. “A series of small steps is what is necessary in order to effect change in this culture,” notes one of the essays in the program guide. “The combined impact of these small steps leads to the desired major change in behavior.”

One lesson is designed to bring children around to the idea that, while Americans once supported control of predators such as bears, cougars, coyotes, wolves, and hawks, public opinion has changed. Today, the lesson explains, “it is now more generally recognized that these animals have a role in the overall health of the ecosystem.” The children are expected to validate this claim. The goal of the lesson is not learning, but persuasion. This “education” program appears to be little more than an attempt to lead children to accept Fish and Wildlife Service policies.

Another lesson, providing case studies of student activism, describes how students helped develop a city’s regulations for protecting bald eagles. In Florida, another case study notes, children examined EPA policies and regulations that had led to an injunction against a power company. The students decided the policies were “excellent” and that the agency “should in no way weaken those regulations.”

And then there is the “Biodiversity I.Q.” test, which teaches children to control mosquitoes by installing a backyard bat house rather than using insect repellant.

EPA’s education bureaucracy

The Fish and Wildlife Service project represents a relatively new effort by an expanding agency eager to justify its policies. By contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency has had a formal Office of Environmental Education since 1990.

In ten years of “supervising” environmental education programs in classrooms nationwide, EPA’s Office of Environmental Education has yet to acknowledge the flaws in environmental textbooks that have been widely criticized by others. In 1994, the Office published the “Environmental Science Education Materials Review Guide” to help teachers, educators, and curriculum writers understand what makes “quality” materials. One guideline states that materials should “reflect EPA policy on the topics explored.”

How can students taught from such materials ever look critically and independently at EPA’s regulatory efforts? Scientists and policy analysts within and outside the agency have called attention to the perverse impacts of Superfund legislation; have documented cases of costly and ineffective air pollution regulations; and have demonstrated that in the Tar-Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, pollution control improved significantly when EPA backed away and let the locals work things out. Yet educators are being told that a good environmental education curriculum won’t challenge EPA policy.

It all comes down to politics

Starting in 1995, EPA began to pass federal money through two private organizations for a campaign to build political action coalitions in 26 targeted states. The effort is aimed at pressuring state legislators to pass more environmental education mandates in their states.

Congress takes up reauthorization of the Office of Environmental Education this legislative session. Lawmakers have the opportunity, by refusing to reauthorize the Office, to make an emphatic and valuable statement: that education and advocacy are two different things, and that advocacy in the classroom by a government agency is inappropriate.

Education about the environment should involve scientific knowledge and scientific analysis. Our children should be taught to be objective observers, not (as one environmental magazine called them) “warriors” in a government-managed battle to rescue the Earth.