The Learning Tree Green Education is Transforming America's Basic Environmental Illiteracy. So Why Isn't Everyone Smiling?

Tow-headed Thomas Wolff, a first-grader on a field trip from Stratfield School in Fairfield, Connecticut, was the first to spot the Canadian goose family, which was busy improving the view at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s six-acre Birdcraft Sanctuary. The sanctuary and museum, established in 1914, was once twice as big, but it was cut in half 30 years ago by the pounding interstate highway that now provides constant background noise. In an irony that dramatizes how developers often appropriate the very name of the natural oasis they destroy, Audubon Condominiums is now right across the street.

© Index Stock/Frank Siteman 1990

The kids had a grand time turning over rocks and getting grossed out by the termite colonies they uncovered. Parent volunteer Ivan Maisel told his young charges to “listen up, guys,” while he asked them to define “a safe place for nature.” Again, Thomas Wolff was ready. “You need oxygen,” he said, “and trees for birds to build their nests, and a good supply of food.” All that was obviously available in the Sanctuary, but just as obvious were the encroaching parking lots that seemed to be at the end of every short trail.

As rain threatened, the kids herded inside the adjoining museum, where heads of deer and a seemingly anachronistic rhino looked down on them. After counting the colors on a display of stuffed birds, the first graders sat down with volunteer Colleen Connor, who had a lesson about the web of life. She threaded an elaborate star pattern in yarn on the kids’ fingers, then pulled a single strand and the whole thing unraveled. “See?” she said, “they were all linked together. If one piece of the web breaks down, they all go. And that’s why it’s important to have nature sanctuaries.”

There has been an explosion of interest in environmental education in the U.S., and 31 states now require that it be part of system-wide curriculums. By 1990, for instance, more Pennsylvania high school students were taking environmental science than were taking physics. Lessons once restricted to Earth Day are now learned everyday.

On the university level, there is similar growth. As The Class of 2000 Report prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation notes, a third of all existing environmental studies and science programs on the university level were formed between 1990 and 1994, following the very successful 20th anniversary of Earth Day. (And college students practice what they preach: 2,700 universities have recycling programs, compared to just 50 in 1980.)

Nonprofit groups have also invested heavily in environmental education: The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which runs the Bronx Zoo and other New York City institutions, has an ambitious environmental education program underway in Chinese grade schools, with the aim of building an understanding of and appreciation for the natural world. “We’re making real inroads,” says Annette Berkovits, WCS vice president of education.

Gaylord Nelson, the former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day, was instrumental in making his state’s K-12 environmental education program a model for the rest of the nation. “Since 1985,” he says, “would-be Wisconsin teachers in any subject have had to be qualified in environmental education to get their certificates. The law doesn’t mandate specific programs, but it requires that teachers infuse the environmental element into whatever they’re teaching.”

Despite some progressive state laws, environmental education in the nation’s classrooms is still a mixed bag. Most students take actual environmental science classes, while others find the subject doled out in various forms during science or social studies units.

According to Richard Wilke, a leading environmental educator at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point, some form of green curricula is now reaching a majority of America’s K-12 kids. “In some school districts, there are planned comprehensive environmental education programs, and students are getting a very good education,” he said. “In other school districts, the education is more hit or miss. One teacher may talk about certain issues, but students are not getting information in a systematic way. What we want is for students to move from an appreciation of nature to thinking critically about the issues and working to effect their outcomes.”

The good news is that the environmental message seems to be getting through. “I speak all over the country at grade schools, high schools and colleges,” says Nelson, “and it finally dawned on me that seventh and eighth graders ask far more perceptive and penetrating questions about the environment than college seniors did when Earth Day was founded. A lot of education is going on.” In a recent React magazine poll, in which 64 percent of students said that they recycle, students’ comments were typified by 17-year-old Ferris, who said, “I just started recycling because I realized what was happening to the world with pollution. I know I’m only one person, but if everyone does it, we can change the world before it becomes an even bigger disaster.”

Closing the Knowledge Gap

Educators say the push for green education can’t be delayed. According to the annual “National Report Card on Environmental Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviors,” released in November 1997, the American public receives a failing grade in basic environmental knowledge. Of the 1,500 adults surveyed by Roper Starch Worldwide, only 23 percent could identify the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S. (non-point source runoff), and most others cited factories as the central problem. Nearly half believe, incorrectly, that dams produce most of our country’s electricity. Only one out of 10 students made the “Environmental Dean’s List” with 11 or more correct answers to 12 simple questions about the world around them.

On the positive side, most Americans (69 percent) know that vehicle exhaust is the leading cause of air pollution and that species loss is due to habitat destruction (73 percent).

Michelle Harvey, vice president for programs of the Washington-based National Environmental Educational and Training Foundation, which commissioned the survey, admits that Americans don’t have a good grasp of the issues. But, she says, “the knowledge base increases with education. People in the 35- to 55-year-old range answer the survey questions most accurately, and that’s because of the environmental education programs that have been started since 1970. An encouraging sign is that our survey shows older people hold on to environmental information for a long time once they learn it.”

Gaylord Nelson authored the original Environmental Education Act, which was passed in 1970 to encourage nationwide programs and disburse educational grants. But it achieved little in its original incarnation as an adjunct of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1990, after being gutted during the Reagan administration, the Act was reintroduced in strengthened form by Senator Kent Burdick of North Dakota, with responsibility for implementation shifting to the Environmental Protection Agency. Its renewed success has angered conservative lawmakers, and an unsu

ccessful bill introduced in the 104th Congress attempted to defund the program (which provides $40 million over five years). The defunding bill was reintroduced in the 105th Congress.


In Minneapolis, a class of fifth graders wades through a salt water marsh, and talks with their teacher about the plants and animals around them. Later, after they’ve gone back to the classroom, they have a lively discussion about our steadily disappearing wetlands. In Denver, seventh graders go them one better. With the help of a borrowed backhoe, they turn a weed-choked one-acre parking lot into a fully functioning wetland, planting 10,000 bullrushes in the process.

As the Rocky Mountain News notes about Colorado’s statewide plan, “Virtually every school district has built environmental topics into the curriculum at every grade level, with units on energy consumption, endangered species, population growth and threats to air and water from pollution.” Mary Gromko, the Colorado Education Department’s science consultant, adds, “It’s not what it used to be—let’s take a walk in the woods and talk about why we have acid rain.”

More than 90 percent of middle and high schools in the U.S. have ecology clubs or strong green curriculums, and Boston-based Ecology Communications is attempting to organize them online through its website. “I think—for obvious reasons—that this is the right time to do everything possible with high school kids,” says Jack Hoagland, Ecology Communications chairman. Using e-mail, the students are finding they have shared interests. A club member in Baltimore wrote about dangerous bacteria outbreaks in the Chesapeake Bay, and another in Arkansas talked about cropdusting and clearcutting.

It’s hard to see anything sinister in kids learning first-hand about their environment, but to an increasingly vocal group of right-wing think tanks and corporate spokesmen, “green” education is a danger that threatens the very foundations of American democracy.

That movement is being spearheaded by Michael Sanera, a former Arizona political science professor who is the co-author, with Jane Shaw, of a fiercely opinionated book with the deceptively neutral title Facts Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment. Educators like Wilke, who disagree strongly with Sanera’s contention that kids are being given a one-sided education with a liberal bias, nevertheless admit that he has been effective in getting that message into the public debate. Sometimes it seems that the environmental education agenda has been reduced to responding to Sanera’s broadsides.

In interviews, Sanera, the former director of the Center for Environmental Education Research at the conservative Claremont Institute think tank (he’s now at the similarly conservative Center for the New West), comes across as reasonable and concerned, an educator whose primary focus is ensuring that kids get a balanced education.

“The environmental information in most popular textbooks is one-sided,” Sanera says. “And the nature of that bias is to always present the most catastrophic version of a scientific problem. The peer-reviewed offsetting information doesn’t make it into the textbooks.” Sanera cites as “one of the most flagrant examples” a textbook called Concepts and Challenges in Earth Science, which states, in accordance with a common hypothesis, that global warming could cause the polar ice caps to melt and flood coastal cities. In what is obviously a typographical error, the book predicts that if the icecaps melted, “the sea level would rise 61 km.” (The authors probably meant centimeters, not kilometers.) “It’s exaggerated 61,000 times,” Sanera exclaims.
In his pamphlet Textbook Trash, Sanera argues that, contrary to what is being told to American youth, the forests are not declining, air pollution is under control, acid rain may not be a problem, biodiversity is protected, population growth is reversing itself and there’s an abundant food supply.

In fact, however, the sources for the information presented as objective in Sanera’s writings are themselves ideologically committed. Sanera quotes such well-known environmental “optimists” as the late Professor Julian Simon and the Hoover Institute’s Thomas Gale Moore. An “expert” on global warming cited by Sanera, Robert Balling of Arizona State University, has been funded by coal and mining interests, and by the government of Kuwait. The Claremont Institute, under whose auspices Sanera and Shaw wrote Facts, Not Fear, is funded by the Sarah Scaife Foundation, a prominent conservative underwriter. Sanera, who is also associated with the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, served in the Reagan administration and is the author of another book called Mandate for Leadership: Continuing the Conservative Revolution.

“Sanera is too smart to say there shouldn’t be any environmental education,” says Augusto Medina, project manager of the Environmental Education and Training Partnership. “Instead, he says that it needs to be based on objective science, and that we’re scaring the kids out of their socks.”

Richard Wilke adds, “Sanera has an agenda beyond simply providing objective information. But he has been very influential. He’s very well wired to sources of funding and to the important journals of opinion.” Wilke, who has frequently debated Sanera, admits to feeling “frustrated” at being put on the defensive by the unrelenting attacks, instead of focusing on the very positive story that can be told about environmental education today. Unfortunately, he notes, the media see more news value in a negative story. His opinion is borne out by a survey of environmental education coverage conducted for the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, which found that critics “sought to demonize environmental education,” with Michael Sanera the most often-quoted critic. A negative account carried by the Investor’s Business Daily, for instance, accused the textbooks of parroting biased opinion from the pages of Garbage magazine, which has been defunct for six years and was hardly radical in any case.

“I think environmental education will continue to grow,” Wilke says. “If you look at that recent Roper poll, 96 percent of parents want environmental education. People realize that our economy is based on environmental resources, and our health as a nation is based on the quality of our environment.”

Setbacks and Advances

Sanera and others were active in a successful 1996 effort to repeal the environmental education mandate in Arizona. According to U.S. News and World Report, “The curriculum guide has been withdrawn and funding for classroom projects slashed.” Arizona State Representative Russell Bowers of Mesa, who led the fight, says he was prompted by reports that second graders were dancing to wolf howls and whale songs. “It’s ecocultism,” he says.

© 1994 Jim Yuskavitch

Other efforts are underway in Texas, where fundamentalists have targeted the state school board and interest groups have raised objections to an environmental science textbook as “too negative on an industrial society.” In 1997, Texas officials became so convinced that students were receiving an “unbalanced” picture on environmental issues that they sponsored a seminar in which leading oil and chemical corporations were invited to participate. One Exxon brochure handed out during the event touted the advantages of internal-combustion engines over electric vehicles. Environmental groups were not invited to the event.

In Florida, a school superintendent candidate cited a textbook as presenting “a Unabomber theme.” Groups have tried to ban Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in one California timber community, and a Parental Rights Amendment was proposed in New Hampshire. (Pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the amendment would have required children to get parental permission to learn anything about “nuclear war, nuclear policy…globalism…population control, and organic evolution, including Darwin’s theory….”)

Many of the forays against giving children a green education are arising from a coalition with an eco-friendly name. The Environmental Education Working Group (EEWG) has as its stated purpose the creation of “a firm intellectual base of sound science and economics” for environmental education. In reality, however, EEWG is aligned with a range of conservative organizations, including Focus on the Family and the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), which employs Jane Shaw, co-author of Facts, Not Fear. The Heartland Institute, another EEWG associate, has distributed a “guide” to Earth Day that claims that environmentalists are “anti-human, anti-science, anti-trade and anti-free enterprise.”

Environmental education wouldn’t be under such unrelenting attack if it were not effective. Richard Wilke says that a University of Wisconsin poll of prospective teachers 10 years ago found less than 20 percent saying they would willingly sign up for environmental education classes. When polled after taking mandatory classes, however, a full 90 percent said the courses were as valuable or more valuable than any other class they took. And teachers who have taken environmental training are far more effective at passing their information on to students, studies show. “We are making a lot of progress on environmental literacy among American students,” Wilke says, “though their level of knowledge is far from where it needs to be.”

Greenwashing 101

The backlash against environmental education is ironic, because corporations, particularly through television commercials, continue to have far more of a role in shaping young people’s thoughts and attitudes than do green science curricula. According to Redefining the American Dream, two-thirds of today’s 10- to 16-year-olds say television shapes the values of their contemporaries. By the time they reach 18, American kids have watched more than 23,000 hours of TV—far more time than they spend in classrooms. In the course of a single day, a child sees 100 commercials. It’s hardly surprising, then, that per capita consumption of soft drinks has shot up since the 1970s.

Corporate-sponsored messages reach kids through television commercials, viewed at home and in classroom programs like Channel One and the Physical Education TV program (sponsored by Reebok). Corporate videos, software, posters, activity sheets and lesson plans are also distributed to schools nationwide. It’s a surefire way to reach kids, whose products amount to $100 billion in sales annually.

For example, an “activity book” distributed by the American Coal Foundation teaches that increased carbon dioxide brought on by global warming “makes plants grow larger.” DuPont, which discharged over 348 million pounds of chemical pollutants in 1989, tells kids in a poster distributed to schools that it’s their job to reduce waste—by, for example, making birdfeeders out of old plastic soda containers. A “teaching kit” produced by International Paper, a major logger, informs students that cutting mature trees promotes “the growth of trees that require full sunlight.” Exxon’s Aquarium Without Walls, presumably a paean to the sea around us, is instead an advertisement for the artificial reefs the company makes from its redundant oil rigs. Gasoline, it adds, is really a form of solar power.

Channel One, now owned by Primedia, is another way kids get corporate messages in school. Schools get free televisions and satellite hookups; Channel one gets captive kids for a 12-minute daily program, complete with frequent commercial interruptions. Over the course of a year, the TV breaks take out a whole week of learning. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a whopping 80 percent of Channel One’s airtime is devoted to advertising, and only 20 percent to news stories.

San Jose, California successfully turned off Channel One at Overfelt High School. Veronica Sanchez, a founder of the grassroots group UNPLUG, called the company’s programming “Mickey Mouse news.” Vicky Anderson, an Overfelt teacher, said, “I am tired of selling myself, other teachers and students to any form of advertising.”

Tim Grant, co-editor of Green Teacher magazine, based in Canada, would like to see commercial messages removed from the schoolroom, but he also wants ads to be a learning experience. “It behooves teachers to become good crap detectors,” he says, “and students must be equipped to recognize bias.”

Greening the Ivory Tower

One of the most positive trends is the increase in environmental education programs on the campuses of American colleges and universities, where they are less subject to the influence of state legislatures and individual pressure groups. According to The Class of 2000 Report, 150 universities offer degrees in environmental science, and another 400 offer programs of varying size. Although that may seem a paltry amount considering that the U.S. has 3,700 colleges and universities, it is a major improvement over 30 years ago, when the major was almost unknown. In fact, the environment is now a central focus of the curriculum at such schools as The College of the Atlantic in Maine and Hocking College in Ohio.

Many of the programs emphasize hands-on work. At Brown University in Rhode Island, for instance, students have helped a low-income neighborhood through analysis of indoor and outdoor lead contamination levels. At the University of Virginia, a series of interdisciplinary courses and fellowships focus on the health and cleanup of a river near the school’s campus.

At Tufts University, an EPA grant created the Cooperation, Learning and Environmental Awareness Now! (CLEAN) program, which proposes a systematic overhaul of the university’s own operations. According to Sarah Hammond Creighton in her book Greening the Ivory Tower, “Colleges and universities are microcosms of society’s systems to house and feed people, conduct research, and administer programs, so their operations have many of the same consequences and opportunities for the environment as homes, offices, restaurants and hotels.”

In the recent React poll, 15-year-old Kel says that recycling is “a habit that my family got into. I don’t really think about it; I just do it.” Environmental attitudes are becoming ingrained in a generation, and that’s precisely why it has raised such a ruckus.

The charge that kids are being “scared green” has little reality on the grassroots educational level. Just ask Oliver Barton, founder of Common Ground School in New Haven, Connecticut, if the inner city high school kids he works with, 80 percent of whom are from minority groups, are being scared to death by the charter school’s environmental curriculum. “Our kids are more afraid of the natural environment than afraid the world will end,” Barton says. “It’s not like they feel that if they eat another bag of potato chips, everyone will die. Awareness and behavior change very slowly, so we’re just trying to get them interested in the environmental trade-offs they make every day.”

Starting that long, slow climb to awareness and behavior change is also the spirit behind Dragonfly: A Magazine for Young Investigators, which is published bimonthly by the National Science Teachers Association. Colorful, themed issues (a recent one was about space exploration) feature fact-based articles that are both for and by students. The fifth graders at Newman Elementary School in Needham, Massachusetts conducted an interview with Andy Thomas, a NASA astronaut on board the Mir space station. Student Chris Miller wanted to know if the station is going to get recycled. “It will probably be disassembled and its parts will be left in space to burn up in the atmosphere,” Thomas told the kids. Dragonfly Editor Chris Myers, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, has a clear goal in mind. “The magazine is a recognition of the need to hear children’s voices on the future of the planet,” he says. “We call kids ‘investigators.’ Models that rely on memorization displace children’s curiosity from the center of learning. Environmental education is at the core of science education, and the two have to be brought closer together.”

That’s exactly what happens at Common Ground, where the 80 students, most of whom had previously seen domestic animals only on their plates, do the chores on a working organic farm, with vegetable and herb gardens, as well as goats, sheep, pigs and chickens. Many of the math, biology and science courses are hands-on, through such activities as using compasses and old maps to uncover an overgrown 1933 nature trail. They may not become environmental activists, but they will definitely broaden their horizons. And that’s what going to school is supposed to be all about.