NEETF: Environment-based Education: Creating high performance schools & students

The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation

Since 1983, with the release of A Nation at Risk, Americans have been engaged in a journey towardcreating more effective schools. Educational statistics show that there is still much progress to bemade on the way to becoming a competent and literate society.

The school reform movement is calling for well-educated individuals who have a deep and abiding knowledge of the world in which they live. Society is asking for citizens who are prepared to take active roles in their communities. Business is calling for “renaissance workers,” workers skilled in the leadership competencies that will be required in
the increasingly complex global environment.

Environment-based education is a maturing discipline well suited to achieving these goals. It is a natural way to integrate the curriculum around issues of interest to students and teachers. The experiences of the schools documented in this report suggest that environment-based education holds great promise for furthering school reform goals,
creating active and engaged students, and preparing citizens to live and work in the 21st century.

In this report are case studies of five individual schools, a model school program involving five schools, and a statewide program, all of which have adopted EE as the central focus of their academic programs. Also included is a case study of a school that participated in an educational research project on the use of environment-based education in teaching transfer of knowledge. The results in all of the schools studied are impressive and heartening, as the nation searches for effective ways to improve the quality of education
our children receive in public and private schools:

- Reading scores improve, sometimes spectacularly. A notable example is the performance of Third-Grade students at Hawley Environmental Elementary School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All of these students passed the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test, as compared with only 25% of the total Milwaukee public school population.

- Math scores also improve. Typically, in environment-based programs, students’ scores on standardized math tests improve. At Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville, North Carolina, Grade Four students achieved a remarkable 31 percentage point increase in math achievement in just one year.

- Students perform better in science and social studies. On state and national social studies and science tests, the scores of students who engaged in environment-based studies almost always exceeded those of students in traditional programs. At the School for Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota, for example, students who took the ACT test for college admission scored higher than their peers in the district, the state, and the nation.

- Students develop the ability to make connections and transfer their knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar contexts. At Condit Elementary School in Bellaire, Texas, Third-Grade students who took part in the research-based environment program successfully solved problems involving natural habitats and sharpened their higher-level thinking skills. These results were confirmed by researcher Carol Basile via several test instruments designed for this purpose.

- Students learn to “do science” rather than just “learn about science.” Using nature as an outdoor laboratory helps create conditions conducive to learning. Students’ natural interest in the environment motivates them to learn and understand the complexities of their world. Increased student motivation was observed in all of the schools and classrooms included in this study.

- Classroom discipline problems decline. Teachers who use environment-based strategies often note that classroom discipline problems decline, and formerly disruptive students “find themselves” in the environment’s hands-on approach to learning. Improved classroom behavior was observed by virtually all of the teachers in the schools studied.

- Every child has the opportunity to learn at a high level. Teacher after teacher in Kentucky reported that students previously performing at low academic levels “came alive” when introduced to an environmentbased curriculum. As Jane Eller, Kentucky Environmental Education Council, puts it: “The main tenet of our educational system is that every child can learn at a high level. In just a few years, we’ve begun to see schools from some of our poorest neighborhoods do very well on the assessment. We think this proves what we believe in Kentucky… that there is a way to reach every child.”