Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Johnny May Be Illiterate, But At Least He Can Recycle

I can hardly believe that it's been over a month since my last post. It's been busy around here--we (finally) moved out of our apartment and into a house (rental, but who cares as long as it's detached?), took a vacation, and flew to Colorado and back for my sister-in-law's wedding. Time has flown past. I could have chosen to write about any one of those events for this post. Instead, I'd like to comment on a news item from a couple of weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, Maryland became the first state in the nation to require every high school senior to fulfill an "environmental literacy requirement" in order to graduate. The proposal defines "environmental literacy" as follows: "...students that possess the knowledge, intellectual skills, attitudes, experiences and motivation to make and act upon responsible environmental decisions as individuals and as members of their community. Environmentally literate students understand environmental and physical processes and systems, including human systems. They are able to analyze global, social, cultural, political, physical, economic and environmental relationships, and weigh various sides of environmental issues to make responsible decisions as individuals and as members of their community and citizens of the world." The drafters claim that although the requirement is new, it is merely reinforcing what many Maryland schools are already doing. They claim that schools would not need to offer additional or separate courses, and that many school districts wouldn't even need to develop additional curricula: "The implementation of this graduation requirement will be within existing curriculum offerings (unless otherwise designed by a local school system) and implemented and taught interdisciplinary [sic] by existing highly-qualified teachers (Proposed Maryland Environmental Literacy Graduation Requirement: Key Questions and Answers)." The drafters also claim that no new testing will be required (or at least, not yet): "The MDNCLI Coalition is currently working with MSDE and the Governor’s Children in Nature Partnership to discuss how local school systems can best measure the success of the environmental literacy graduation requirement, but no additional testing is planned. The goal of this graduation requirement is to provide all students with comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education infused within current curricular offerings and aligned with the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum (ibid.)." All schools must do is prove to the state's satisfaction that they have implemented such an interdisciplinary program and that it is being taught to all students.

This all sounds fairly benign, and the drafters go on to cite three "key reasons" why this requirement ought to be implemented: it would get children out of doors (thus improving their health), it would (because of its interdisciplinary nature and because of increased student "engagement") have a positive impact on student interest and achievement in other, core, courses, and it would supply the "green workforce of the new economy" with environmentally literate workers (ibid).

But like so many of the recent attempts at educational reform, Maryland's latest initiative has serious flaws. For one thing, the language is incredibly vague, even by "core standards" standards. The most specific description I could find was this one: "Under the graduation requirement, public schools will be required to infuse core subjects with lessons about conservation, smart growth and the health of our natural world. Local school systems will have the ability to shape their programs to be relevant to their county, but all will align with standards set by the State. Every five years, the local school systems will report to the State to guarantee that students are meeting the requirements (Maryland Department of Natural Resources Press Release, June 21, 2011.)." There's a mention here of "standards," but no specifics. For all we know, requiring students to separate their recyclables from their trash at lunchtime could suffice. I have to presume that the "standards" will be set later, but this document doesn't give any indication of who might be responsible for setting them, or how extensive they will be.

Second, the interchange of the terms "standards" and "requirement" in the document is confusing, especially because "standards" so often imply the kind of testing the drafters claim won't be imposed. Why make a requirement if accountability is minimal? Why set standards if students don't have to demonstrate mastery? What is this thing, anyway?

Third, and most alarming to me, why are we even trying to increase the number of requirements and standards--not to mention adding curricular emphases--when so many students aren't meeting the ones already in place in the core content areas? Traditional areas of instruction like penmanship and the systematic treatment of grammar and spelling have already been axed to make way for areas of contemporary concern like diversity awareness, "family life education," and "values clarification." The drafters say that the requirement adds no new curriculum, but if I, as a teacher, were faced with implementing it, I would have to replace one or more of my current assignments or units to incorporate "lessons about conservation and smart growth" in my content area, and that makes covering all the standards I'm already supposed to be covering that much more difficult.

I'm all for teaching the next generation to be good stewards of our natural resources. My parents both grew up on dairy farms, and even though they didn't continue in the agricultural profession themselves, they passed quite a bit of their knowledge on to me. I can tell you which breed of cattle produces the richest milk for ice cream (Jersey), the difference between a steer and a bull (the former has been castrated), and how to tell when your corn isn't getting enough water (the leaves curl inward and get spiky). So I support sustainable agriculture practices and other initiatives that conserve natural resources. But I can't understand why we're so concerned with making sure that our students recycle their soda bottles and pizza boxes when so many of them don't know the name of the current Vice President and think that Qaeda is the last name of a guy named Al. Or why we would devote precious instructional time on a field trip to clean up a river bank--as noble a cause as that is--when they struggle with critical thinking skills and can't write a coherent essay. This mindset is the reason our educational reforms are getting nowhere--but that's a subject for another day.

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