Environmental Miseducation: Flawed Texts and Pernicious Federal Influence

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

What course has an eighth-grade textbook that asks students to answer questions such as:

  • "What . . . kinds of pollution besides air pollution might threaten our planet?"
  • "What role should zoos play in today's society?"
  • "A zoo sponsors a creative writing contest for high school students. The topic . . . 'Why should we save an endangered species?' . . . What would you use as criteria for judging the essay?"

If you guessed algebra you would be correct. Surprised? You are not alone; so was the reviewer of Addison-Wesley's eighth-grade algebra and geometry textbooks in which these questions are found. When the reviewer's daughter earlier asked for her help with math homework, she examined the textbook and tossed it back to her daughter, commenting "Wrong book. This is geography." It wasn't! Welcome to the world of rainforest algebra.

Addison-Wesley's 812 page textbook included Maya Angelou poetry and commentaries on the evils of fossil fuels. By comparison, in Japan eighth-grade algebra texts average 200 pages, sans literature and political commentary. Yet the Japanese regularly and decisively outperform U.S. math students.

America's children score among the lowest of 21 countries participating in the International Mathematics and Science Study on general math and science knowledge. Other studies also show U.S. schools are producing a generation of illiterate, innumerate citizens. For instance, a 1995 national survey found 41 percent of college freshmen at public two-year colleges took at least one remedial course.

In 1990 environmentalists convinced Congress that infusing environmental issues throughout the curriculum would spark students' imaginations, instill in them a desire to learn and ultimately improve their test scores. So far 29 states, using money from the Environmental Protection Agency, have implemented environmental education programs.

My research as a member of an environmental education committee in Texas makes me doubt the usefulness of promoting environmental education at present. The EPA's program seems aimed more at indoctrination than education. Just as troubling, many environmental education materials and textbooks are woefully inadequate.

EPA-sponsored programs discourage objectivity. As evidence:

  • The EPA's Environmental Education Division complained in a report to Congress about a "disproportionate emphasis on science-oriented activities" in environmental education.
  • The EPA makes clear that teachings from its "Environmental Science Education Materials Review Guide" are to "reflect EPA policy on the topics explored."

In other words, regardless of how bad the EPA's science is or how mismanaged its programs are, the value or the function of EPA policies should not be questioned.

EPA-sponsored programs emphasize political activism. For instance, they have encouraged students write letters to public officials concerning complex environmental problems without giving them relevant information.

Authorization for the program lapsed in 1996, but money appropriated before that date is still being spent. Congress is considering renewing the program but if it does, states should be leery since the available environmental education materials are critically flawed.

Arizona was one of the first states to mandate environmental education. Because it foundthe materials and textbooks used were biased towards misinformed environmental advocacy not grounded in scientific facts, Arizona ultimately ended its environmental education experiment. There simply were not enough good materials which helped students learn how to think, rather than what to think.

Wisconsin has also encountered this problem. Wisconsin has made environmental education part of its core curriculum and requires all prospective teachers to complete a course in environmental education. A recent study of environmental education materials used in the University of Wisconsin system to train teachers found that only two of 12 courses met the standards for fairness and scientific accuracy of the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Infusing environmental topics throughout the curriculum has produced confusion rather than knowledge. For example, Colorado's environmental education master plan treats "sustainability" as a scientific concept - which it is not. In contrast, the College Board, which produces the SAT, treats sustainability as one of four alternative environmental policy approaches. Colorado State University received an $11,000 EPA grant to create environmentally sensitive math courses but, as the review of Addison-Wesley's algebra and geometry textbooks mentioned earlier shows, environmentally aware math leaves much to be desired.

Education should produce citizens capable of making informed choices in a complex world. Environmental education can further this goal only if the materials students learn from are scientifically accurate, provide an accurate assessment of the trade-offs inherent in environmental programs and show an understanding of how and why environmental progress depends on economic well-being. Judged by these standards, the materials currently on the market, like U.S. students' tests scores, fail to make the grade. Accordingly, states should not implement environmental education programs until better materials are available.