The Debate Over Environmental Education

Pine Jog Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Fla., seems more like a green-themed educational resort than a captivating old schoolhouse. The brand-new $30 million facility, built last year to accommodate overflow from area schools, was planned with extreme sustainability in mind: classroom design maximizes fresh air and natural light, solar panels power much of the energy grid and a rainwater filter feeds an expansive student-maintained garden, among several dozen more green features. Even the cafeteria serves only fresh and healthful lunches made from sustainable ingredients. "We really wanted the students to be excited about learning from the moment they walk on campus," says Fred Barch, the school's principal.

More than two dozen U.S. primary schools have poured thousands of dollars (some even hundreds of thousands) over the past few years into fancy facilities and shiny green curricula to vigorously convey lessons of environmental stewardship. There's little doubt among educators as to the value of green education—how trading outdated textbooks for the great outdoors lets developing minds wander more freely. But for all the bells and whistles of fancy schools, some teachers and parents wonder whether the same didactic effects could be reached with far fewer resources, giving students in more-ordinary schools the same chance to excel by interacting and solving problems with the world around them.

Environmental learning isn't always about climate change or the Earth's plight. Rather, teachers with green lesson plans use the natural world as a tool, like leading a study on an ordinary stream, which can include language, math and social studies. "If you take kids outside, it typically engages them, especially ones who are struggling," says Jerry Lieberman, an educational researcher. A handful of studies from the State Education and Environment Roundtable shows the same connection, that students exposed to a nature-based curriculum score higher more than 90 percent of the time than students taught the same subjects in the classroom out of a textbook.

Some schools, of course, take that as a mandate, making sure that their students have immediate access to the intricacies—and even intimacies—of the natural world. Administrators at Sidwell Friends Middle School, a private school in Washington, figured that the best way to acquaint kids with the water cycle would be to build a sewage-treatment plant (dubbed "the wetlands") in the middle of campus to recycle wastewater. "It was really gross at first, but now it's really cool," one sixth grader told NEWSWEEK. (D.C. city codes say the reclaimed water can be put only to non potable uses, like in the school's "bio pond.") But for much of the rest of the country, elementary schools—often stricken with inadequate funding and little wiggle room to veer from state-standardized curricula—rarely find money or time for expensive amenities to promote real-world learning. "We don't have anything considered 'state of the art' … I'm still trying to get a recycling program going," one teacher told NEWSWEEK in an online forum for educators. "Funds would be better spent by increasing teacher salaries and ensuring that all students have access to classrooms well-stocked with basic supplies," wrote another.

Brian Day, director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, says that incorporating sustainability into education is important, but it's not an issue of money. Part of the answer, he and his colleagues agree, could be Project Learning Tree (PLT), an environmentally based curriculum that parallels state and federal benchmarks. The American Forest Foundation-sponsored program, and a handful of others that followed it, train educators in green-based teaching for about $15, which includes a teaching workshop and guidebook of lesson plans, like analyzing water samples from a nearby river or studying the history of local wildlife.

That's all Principal Thomas Irvin of Oil City Elementary in Louisiana had to hear. The school board threatened to shut down the campus a few years ago due to low performance and inconsistent enrollment. Suspecting that an environmentally based curriculum might turn things around, he trained his entire teaching staff in PLT and other green-based curricula and raised a few thousand dollars of private funds to build three outdoor classrooms. As a result, he says, enrollment rose nearly a third and test scores jumped, making the school one of the highest-achieving in the district. "Our students are good stewards of the Earth, but more than that, we really train them to be good citizens and good thinkers," he says. To parents, that sounds like thinking worth sustaining.