It’s official: Maryland Becomes First State to Require Environmental Literacy

In a historic vote yesterday, the Maryland State Board of Education provided specific guidance to all public schools to require that each student be environmentally literate before he or she graduates from high school.

The vote cements Maryland as the first state in the country to approve a graduation requirement in environmental literacy, a credit to Governor O’Malley, to board members, and to Dr. Nancy Grasmick, State Superintendent of Schools.

“This is a momentous day not only for Maryland but for educators across the country who are watching what Maryland does, and hoping to increase outdoor learning in their states, “said Don Baugh, director of the No Child Left Inside Coalition (NCLI). “ Governor O’Malley and Dr. Grasmick deserve our profound gratitude. For years they have put Maryland at the forefront of the environmental education movement.”

The state school board vote clarifies for schools that each child must receive a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education that meets the approval of the State Superintendent of Schools. Regulations given final approval by the board provide critical flexibility and oversight for school systems as they develop effective environmental literacy programs aligned with the Maryland State Environmental Literacy Standards.

While many exemplary environmental education programs already exist in some Maryland schools not all students have access to these programs. That can occur when schools feel compelled to emphasize math and reading instruction over science and other subjects because of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.

With yesterday’s vote, school districts must now move beyond standard science courses that provide minimal focus on the environment. The Maryland State Department of Education has established two workgroups to begin revising and aligning Maryland environmental literacy standards, and developing guidelines to provide school systems with guidance and support for implementation.

Yesterday’s vote was the culmination of several years of work. In 2008 Governor O’Malley appointed a special task force to explore how to improve and expand environmental education in the state. Last fall the state board approved an environmental literacy regulation based on the task force’s recommendations. But language in the draft regulation prompted concerns that school districts might be able to meet the new regulations by simply offering existing science and math courses. Superintendent Grasmick and several school board members quickly reassured the coalition that their intention was to strengthen environmental education, and to require students be environmental literate to graduate. Today’s vote formalizes that understanding.

“This is a defining moment for education in Maryland,” said Governor O’Malley. “By approving this environmental graduation requirement, the Board of Education is ensuring that our young people graduate with a keen understanding of and connection to the natural world. Only through exposure to nature and education about our fragile ecosystem can we create the next generation of stewards. ”

Yesterday’s board vote positions Maryland—and any other state with a strong environmental literacy plan—to potentially receive federal funding. States sometimes lack resources for staff training in environmental education. Draft legislation called the No Child Left Inside Act soon to be reintroduced in Congress would help provide some federal funding. The bill could be introduced in the near future.

“The No Child Left Inside Act would increase environmental education opportunities for students across the country, said Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, author of the bill. “Such opportunities are essential to grow the next generation of scientists, promote environmental stewardship, and encourage Americans to live healthier lifestyles.

Studies show environmental education has a measurable, positive impact on student achievement not only in science but in math, reading, and social studies. Business leaders also increasingly believe an environmentally literate workforce is critical in a burgeoning green economy. Field experiences and related activities, when part of the regular school curriculum in environmental education, also help students become healthier.

The No Child Left Inside Coalition is a national partnership of over 2,000 business, health, youth, faith, recreational, environmental, and educational groups representing over 50 million Americans. The chapter in Maryland has over 225 group members, and represents over 635,000 Marylanders.

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