Reading, Writing … and Recycling

EEI: Environmental literacy inches closer in California

Unfortunately, discussions about the future of K-12 public education in California typically focus on the state’s massive budget problems.  Talks of educational reform seem to exclusively revolve around teacher accountability and charter schools.  Very little of the dialogue centers on how we can educate students more effectively and with new, engaging curriculum. 

But on Oct. 17-18, environmental content will be the focus at the Green California Schools Summit at the Pasadena Convention Center.

California’s budget crisis has been so severe that students have not received new textbooks in the last three years, and they may not receive new ones until 2015.  That means that a student that was a fifth grader in 2008 will never use a state textbook to learn about the United States’ first African American President, the loss of Pluto as a planet, or the global economic recession.

However, an interim solution for environmental education is moving forward: the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI). It’s progress, but the curriculum program to develop environmental literacy in California’s 6 million public school students and their 150,000 teachers won’t reach classrooms in the next few years.

Heal the Bay worked with state Sen. Fran Pavley to craft legislation that became the EEI in 2003.  Then Gov. Davis signed the bill into law, and previous Gov. Schwarzenegger provided staff resources and funding to begin implementation of the law.  The Cal-EPA’s Office of Environmental Education worked with the Department of Education, Dr. Jerry Lieberman, other consultants, National Geographic Society, and Heal the Bay (especially former staffers Leslie Tamminen and Catie Boarts) to create and review 85 units (about six  lesson plans per unit) of multi-disciplinary, K-12, environmental education curricula.  In 2009-10, the units were unanimously approved by the California Curriculum Commission and the State Board of Education, and now the completed units can be found at http://www.calepa.ca.gov/education/eei/.  

On the evening of the 17th, the EEI will be the focus of attention.  Sen.  Pavley, Cal-EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriquez, and numerous other EEI supporters and partners will be on hand in Pasadena to talk about the EEI’s successes and needs. Tom Torlakson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, will participate from 4-6 p.m. Sen. Pavley will be justifiably singled out and honored for her extraordinary leadership on the EEI over the years.

The EEI may be the only new, significant, state-approved content available to teachers over the next four years.  However, the mere presence of innovative content does not change the face of teaching.  There needs to be resources available for teacher professional development as well.

To that end, Heal the Bay partnered with Southern California Edison and National Geographic to develop four new environmental professional development guides for teachers in grades 3-8 on the topics of water, oceans, climate change and energy.  National Geographic did an extraordinary job on the teacher guides, but again, we have great content without the resources to get it to the school districts, schools, teachers, and most importantly, the students.  This professional development information, in conjunction with Annenberg Learner’s environmental content, provides California with a great start on the materials needed to train educators to effectively teach the EEI.

True educational reform is so much more than charter schools and teacher accountability.  Successful environmental education takes an integrated approach to teaching that includes experiential learning.  Teaching students about climate change’s potential impacts on California water supply and freshwater ecosystems involves chemistry, history, geography, math and biology.  Perhaps most importantly, effective environmental education will produce more students interested in environmental careers, more consumers that take into account the impacts of their everyday decisions, and more people with a greater environmental stewardship ethic.

Heal the Bay will continue to push for the EEI to be used statewide, but we’ll also push for comprehensive use (every class in a district K-12 or in middle and high school) in a few pilot school districts.  Waiting for textbooks that may never come doesn’t make sense.  Finding a partner like Apple or Google to provide tablets loaded with all EEI curricula, professional development content and additional educational material could move education into the 21st century.  I hope the days of 12-year-old girls, like my daughter Natalie, carrying around three 20-pound textbooks will end soon.  Educational innovation through the use of the multimedia features of a tablet can be a game changer, and what better way to change the game than through the EEI.

If your favorite public school doesn’t teach the EEI curricula or use the National Geographic teacher professional development guides (available for all by the end of the year), please contact your favorite teacher, principal, superintendent, PTA board member, or school board member.  Students don’t have to wait for new, interesting and informative educational materials.  The EEI is out there for all to use.

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