Achieving Environmental Literacy in a Standards-Based World

By Gerald Lieberman, PhD|June 10, 2014

The 1983 release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, marks the starting point of the education reform movement that today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future will drive the functioning of every public school classroom in America—instruction targeted toward student proficiency with specific academic content standards. This report laid the groundwork for the transition to standards determined by states rather than instructional goals being set by school districts, schools, principals, and teachers. It also propelled the shift from locally determined student assessment into the wide array of state established standardized tests—what, in many places, has resulted in biweekly, sometimes weekly, student testing.

You might ask, “What does all of this have to do with helping students become environmentally literate?” In a word, everything in today’s world of K-12 education where academic content standards have become the “keys to the kingdom.”

By the late 1990s, the vast majority of states and school districts had adopted academic standards for English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social studies. Now, it is the very rare school that does not make its instructional decisions based on adopted standards and student assessment, including charter schools. There are two major reasons for this, both of which are connected to students’ achievement on state and local standardized tests. The first is related to federal and state education funding for schools and the second to hiring and firing decisions for district superintendents, principals, and teachers.

Over the years since the states adopted those standards they have made some adjustments, but in most cases only minor changes. 2009 saw the beginning of the process of developing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Literacy and Mathematics. This effort was led by governors and state superintendents as a joint endeavor of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Common Core State Standards were released in 2010 and have subsequently been adopted by over 40 states.




In 2013 Achieve, Inc. released the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) developed through a cooperative endeavor that involved 26 state departments of education, the National Research Council (NRC), and many others. These standards represent a new way of thinking about science education, and are based on the NRC’s 2012 “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” This new strategy for science education is based on a three-part structure composed of “Disciplinary Core Ideas,” “Crosscutting Concepts,” and “Science and Engineering Practices.” Student progress on these components is then assessed on the basis of an extensive series of student tasks identified as “Performance Expectations.”

From an environmental perspective we must ask, “Will instruction based on the CCSS and NGSS provide children with an adequate level of environmental literacy and give them the tools they need to make decisions that will secure Earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and human health for many generations to come?” Unfortunately, the answers to this question vary dramatically among the different sets of standards.

The preface of the CCSS for mathematics point to the need for “proficient students [who] can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace” and “apply proportional reasoning to … analyze a problem in the community.” Unfortunately, the standards per se only mention the term “real-world contexts” a few times in the sense of “Write, interpret, and explain statements of order for rational numbers in real-world contexts.” And they do not incorporate solving problems arising in everyday life or analyzing problems in the community. Further, the mathematics standards never use the term “environment” in the sense of Earth’s natural systems.

Similarly, the word “environment” never appears in the CCSS for English Language Arts and Literacy. These standards, however, speak repeatedly to the importance of developing proficiency with English-language arts and literacy skills in concert with science, history-social studies, technical subjects, and the arts. Thus, at least, opening the door to opportunities to connect this instruction with content about Earth’s natural systems and real world environmental situations that students encounter in their communities.

The good news is that the Next Generation Science Standards include a wide range of standards that provide connections to the environment through the array of “Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI),” “Crosscutting Concepts (CC),” “Science and Engineering Practices (SEP),” and “Performance Expectations (PE).” In kindergarten, for example, they include:

  • DCI “Humans use natural resources for everything they do;”
  • CC “Systems in the natural and designed world have parts that work together;”
  • SEP “Use a model to represent relationships in the natural world;” and
  • PE “Communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air, and/or other living things in the local environment.”

By the time students get to high school, the NGSS incorporate much deeper explorations into environmentally important topics, such as biodiversity, global climate change, and “Design(ing), evaluat(ing), and refin(ing), a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.”


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Since decisions about the adoption of education standards are made at the state level, the adoption and implementation of the CCSS for English Language Arts and Literacy and Mathematics and the NGSS varies substantially across the nation. California’s State Board of Education, for example, has adopted slightly modified versions of both the CCSS and NGSS. At the other end of the spectrum, Texas has adopted neither the CCSS nor the NGSS. While other states have adopted one or the other.

Having said all of this, the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) strategy of “environment-based education” (EBE) remains the key to helping students achieve environmental literacy in today’s standards-based educational system. This because, as described in depth in my recent book, Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts, EBE has at its core three major goals:

  • Helping students achieve success with academic content standards;
  • Developing their understanding of interactions between natural and human social systems; and
  • Preparing students to be active members of a civil society with the skills they need to identify and resolve environmental challenges.

California’s Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) is a prime example of an EBE program that can help students become proficient with their standards. Equally important, since it is based on California’s adopted Environmental Principles and Concepts (EPC), throughout the EEI curriculum students learn about the interactions and interconnections between natural and human social systems—the core of environmental literacy. It also connects students to decision-making processes in a civil society, and provides them with many of the skills that they will need to resolve environmental issues in their communities, state, and nation.

“Programs like the EEI are vital to K-12 students and teachers because they offer the proverbial “keys to the kingdom” by providing opportunities for success with academic content standards while at the same time they help students achieve environmental literacy.

Every seasoned teacher has, over their careers, experienced a multitude of “here today, gone tomorrow” strategies and policies. But, over the past 20 years, it has become ever clearer that academic content standards are here to stay.

Gerald Lieberman, PhD
This article was written by Gerald Lieberman, PhD

Dr. Gerald A. Lieberman is founder and director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, and is an internationally-recognized authority on school improvement. He served as the principal consultant for the State of California’s Education and the Environment Initiative, and is a past chair of the Commission on Education and Communication of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.