Maryland, don't backpedal on environmental education

Traditionally, Maryland has been at the head of the class in understanding the value of environmental education. Other states have looked to us for leadership. For example, many states are following the model established in Maryland of partnering state education and natural resources agencies to address environmental literacy.

That's why a proposed state regulation last month shocked and disappointed so many teachers, principals and others around Maryland who witness firsthand the benefits of environmental education to students: the enthusiasm generated, the higher test scores, the jobs secured.

The proposed regulation would undermine much of the progress Maryland has made during the past two years toward improving environmental education in the state. Published by the Maryland State Department of Education in the Maryland Register, the regulation stipulates that a student will be considered environmentally literate simply by completing standard science and social studies courses.

The problem is that while many schools in the state take environmental education seriously, and reap the benefits, some schools don't. Maryland law is fuzzy on exactly what each child deserves. For two years, a task force appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley studied the issue and recommended improvements in the law that would ensure widespread implementation of environmental instruction without imposing financial burdens on districts. The Maryland Board of Education voted this past fall to accept those recommendations and to require a comprehensive, multidisciplinary course of instruction for each student.

That school board vote made Maryland the first state in the nation to require students to graduate environmentally literate. The action made national news. Again, Maryland was seen leading the country.

The regulation proposed by the Department of Education directly contradicts the recommendations of the task force (and, seemingly, the vote of the state board of education). Maryland would be seen back-pedaling from its own progressive actions.

The state school board will be able to vote on the proposed regulation at its Feb. 22 meeting. Board members must realize that approving the regulation would make their own previous actions meaningless; schools will have the option to treat the board's environmental literacy mandate as a paper exercise. The status quo would remain, despite two years of intense study by many of the state's best minds.

It is unclear why the state education department proposed the regulation. That mystery may be cleared up at the upcoming board meeting. Perhaps the department simply meant to clarify how the board's vote in the fall should be interpreted by local school districts. I am confident state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick supports real improvements.

But environmental education has been accepted in some circles in Maryland only in fits and starts. Inspired teachers, principals and even superintendents have often had to lead from the trenches. This may be another case in which grass-roots advocacy may be necessary to cement further gains. We at the Maryland No Child Left Inside Coalition hope the school board members take note of the hundreds of letters and e-mails that have flooded into the Department of Education in recent weeks in opposition to the language of the regulation.

Our coalition, a group representing 225 educational, environmental and other organizations and 635,000 Marylanders, strongly objects to the regulation in its current form. The coalition has suggested the board could substitute alternate language and still salvage a win for improving environmental education in Maryland. This alternate language would give local school districts a clear path toward improved environmental education for all students and the flexibility to design programs according to the resources available to their system. The language is in keeping with the governor's task force recommendations.

The outdoors is a perfect classroom — chock full of engaging lessons. Studies show environmental education produces tangible improvements in student achievement, especially in science, and fosters critical thinking and problem solving. The green economy beckons with future jobs for students schooled in environmental education.

I hope state school board members will step outside and sense what's in the air: a promising educational movement for all Maryland students.

Today's students are tomorrow's environmental stewards. We owe it to them, and to the earth, to give them the best environmental education possible.

Kathi J. Heron is the Signature Program Facilitator at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. Her e-mail is

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