Panel Finds Environmental Education Lacking in Science

Published June 1, 1997

A report issued April 2 by a panel of scientists, economists, and educators concludes that many environmental education materials used in the nation’s schools do not give students enough science and economics to enable them to understand the complex environmental challenges of the next century.

The report, Are We Building Environmental Literacy? presents the results of the Independent Commission on Environmental Education’s (ICEE) year-and-a-half long study of the most widely used and highly recommended environmental education materials for grades K-12. Environmental education teaching materials are available in the U.S. from commercial educational publishers; environmental organizations and industry groups; federal, state, and local education agencies; resource management agencies; and environmental protection agencies.

“We found some excellent resources, factual, exciting, and challenging at all grade levels. We also found many, however, that simply ignored or misstated the most important and interesting scientific questions at the heart of an education about the environment,” said commission chairman Dr. Robert L. Sproull, emeritus president and professor of physics, University of Rochester. Sproull emphasized that the report should not be seen as an attack on environmental education, but rather as a serious effort to improve the content of teaching materials in this critical field.

The ICEE’s ten-member panel includes experts in the areas most often covered by environmental education, including acid rain, biodiversity, climate change, energy, forestry, population, health, economics, and waste management. The ICEE’s report was commissioned by the George Marshall Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank that focuses its research on education, science, and technology. The Marshall Institute receives no corporate or industry funding.

Thirty-one states currently require that environmental education be incorporated into the K-12 curriculum. Yet the ICEE believes that not enough attention has been given to the substantive content of environmental education teaching materials to allow teachers, parents, professional educators, and others to judge their overall quality.

Promoting Environmental Literacy

Of special concern to the commission are complaints that environmental education materials are often factually inaccurate, superficial, or designed to persuade rather than inform. “Although these criticisms have often been more anecdotal than systematic,” the report observes, “they point to potentially serious flaws in a critical part of our children’s education.” Environmental education should not be confused with environmental science, the report observes, “but materials which are not based on the best available science do not promote environmental literacy.”

In general, the commission found the quality of environmental textbooks to be uneven across the board. Texts that might be strong in one area–biodiversity, for example–might be deficient in climate change or waste management. The commission noted that the accuracy of coverage of forestry issues varied considerably among the material used. Estimated rates of deforestation, for example, differ widely from one text to another. One widely used text for elementary school children, SOS Planet Earth: Nature in Danger, cites a deforestation figure more than twice that of the most reliable statistic available from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The report further points out that few materials acknowledge that fragmentation of forest areas may be a greater threat to biodiversity in some areas than actual deforestation because of its effects on habitats.

The commission found that students are generally given a misleading impression of natural forest dynamics and the many changes that take place in a forest over time. Even old-growth forests undergo natural changes through the decades; for instance, fire, insects, climate fluctuations, and disease, in addition to human activity, affect forest succession, the report notes. One book singled out by the commission for effectively introducing students to forest dynamics is The Great Yellowstone Fire, published by Little Brown for the Sierra Club. The book presents the catastrophic 1988 fire in the Yellowstone forest as a great “natural” experiment, to show the regeneration that occurs in a forest after destruction by fire.

Risk analysis–the process by which scientific information is distilled so that it becomes useful for making decisions–also receives uneven treatment in the texts reviewed. Throughout many of the teaching materials considerable attention is paid to the harm that chemicals can cause, with little appreciation for the exposure necessary to elicit the effect. Going Green, published by Puffin Press (New York), notes, for example, that, “Even something as healthy as an apple can make you sick if it contains pesticide residues.” “This focus on hazard, to the exclusion of the actual risk,” the commission says, “is misleading.”

In light of the problems it uncovered during its evaluation, the commission has issued nine recommendations it believes should be implemented if environmental education is to gain the stature it deserves:

  • Environmental education should place primary emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge.
  • Students in the lower elementary grades should begin the study of science with the study of the natural world.
  • Schools should consider teaching environmental education as an upper-level, multi-disciplinary capstone course integrating what students have learned in science, social science, and other upper-level courses.
  • Professional scientific and educational organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) should recommend educational materials only after a detailed, substantive review by experts has found them to be accurate.
  • Publishers must reevaluate their peer review process for environmental science textbooks and environmental education materials.
  • Textbook adoption committees and education professionals responsible for selection of materials at the state and local levels should ask scientists, economists, and other experts, in addition to parents and teachers, to review materials for accuracy.
  • Environmental education materials at all levels should provide more substantive content in natural science and social science than they now provide.
  • Teachers need substantive preparation in science, economics, and mathematics to teach environmental education.
  • An independent review process conducted by experts from the areas covered in environmental education should be established to perform ongoing evaluations of curricula in this field.