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'Green' graduation requirement in Md. sparks debate

Friday - 7/1/2011, 7:48am  ET

(Courtesy of CBF)
The Chesapeake Bay will provide a hands-on chance for Maryland students to work on the new graduation requirement. (Courtesy of CBF)

Meera Pal,

WASHINGTON - In addition to math and science requirements, Maryland's high school seniors will now have to be environmentally literate to graduate.

The State of Board of Education passed the requirement last week that every student be educated on the environment before he or she graduates. The vote means Maryland is now the only state in the country to have such a requirement for graduation.

"We've always, in Maryland, had a strong focus on environmental education," says State Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard.

"We have had standards in environmental education for our students as part of their normal work. This just adds it as a graduation requirement."

Reinhard also says the new requirement should not create an additional cost for most school districts because many are already teaching environmental education as part of other courses.

"It is up to each local system as to how they want to embed this into their curriculum," he says.

Under Maryland's new graduation requirement, public schools will be mandated to provide an in-depth, multi-disciplinary environmental education program infused within core subjects.

While each school system can design its own program, which will be reviewed by the state every five years, each must align with state standards. There is no additional funding set aside to meet the new requirement.

It is the lack of specific curriculum guidelines, however, that concerns State Senator J.B. Jennings, R-Md. While he supports teaching environmental science in schools, he would like to know what the curriculum will specifically include.

"The state is not setting up the parameters, it's pushing it down to the local boards," Jennings says.

"My concern is what are they going to teach? Is it going to be a fact-based science ... or is it going to be more of a theory-based idea, unproven science with politically-driven motive?"

Don Baugh, vice president of education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and director of the No Child Left Inside Coalition -- both groups helped develop the new state education requirement, says each county will determine how it will meet the requirement by having students use the same critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are key to good instruction.

"I think what you'll see is counties teaching students to think of issues and to think of them critically to make their own decision based on fact and not be part of any particular ideology or any particular theme of instruction," Baugh says.

The state department of education is still working out how local school systems can best measure the success of the environmental literacy graduation requirement. But no additional testing is proposed.

"Counties can decide how to meet this and our expectation is that counties will be able to do this within the exiting courses and within existing funding," Baugh says.

Syndicated columnist and commentator Cal Thomas, who can be heard on WTOP, says he is concerned that the requirement is not a law, but a regulation adopted by the state board of education.

"Public education nationally is struggling to turn out graduates who know enough basics about reading, math and science to get a job. Adding non-specific environmental education to the other non-academic subjects doesn't help," Thomas says.

He also points out that in 2003 statewide literacy rates indicated the percentage of those lacking basic skills was 6 percent in Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties, and 22 percent in Prince George's County. See the state estimates here.

"Shouldn't we be focusing on traditional literacy before adding materials some students might not be able to read?" Thomas asks.

Baugh points out that for the past three years Maryland public schools have been ranked first by education newspaper "Education Week."

"Students that are engaged in real-life learning experiences do better in school. This is one of the ways to boost student achievement for all students," he says. "Students that are better engaged as learners are increasing their academic achievement scores."

Jennings says high school is about learning facts and is the foundation education for students who continue into college.

"My concern is making sure we base this off of facts. I just want to make sure it's not politically driven and it's more fact-based."

The No Child Left Inside Coalition also is pushing Congress to adopt similar legislation and has been working with Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) to include environmental education. The legislation would provide new funding for environmental education, particularly to develop rigorous standards, train teachers and to develop state environmental literacy plans.

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