Teach the children well

Corporations, conservationists vie for students' minds in the unregulated world of environmental education

  • OUTDOOR EDUCATION: Students from John Borowski's environmental education class measure trees in Oregon's Opal Creek area

    Doug Beghtel photo, The Oregonian
  • ON THE GROUND: John Borowski, front row center, and students in their outdoor classroom

    photo courtesy John Borowski
  • "Teachers are so rushed to get kids to be active and involved in environmental politics that the science gets the short end of the stick." - Michael Sanera

  • CORPORATE SPIN: Environmental education materials from Chevron, left, and Dow Chemical

    courtesy Center for Commercial-Free Public Education
  • LEARNING TOOL: Students learn about gray wolves through Project Wild

    photo courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game

PHILOMATH, Ore. - John Borowski sips a fresh cup of coffee in the kitchen of his woodsy home and gazes out the window. His long brown-and-gray beard reaches the crew neck of his black "Zero Cut" T-shirt. A smile crosses his face as two deer saunter into view, browsing at the edge of his back deck.

For the past 20 years, Borowski has taught high school science. Ecology is his favorite subject.

On this foggy Saturday afternoon in western Oregon, Borowski leafs through a stack of clippings about his students and their work for environmental causes. To get high school students excited about science, he puts them on the ground: When he taught in New Jersey, his students learned about shoreline pollution by picking up trash, including syringes and condoms. In Oregon, where Borowski has taught for the past 10 years, his favorite classroom is the 22,000-acre Opal Creek old-growth forest, not long ago threatened with logging. Borowski considers the political struggle over issues such as logging critical to his students' education.

Over the years, hundreds of Borowski's students have joined hands and tried to bear-hug 1,000-year-old trees in Opal Creek. They have looked for fungi and mosses on the forest floor, insects and fish in the creek, and songbirds in the trees.

"We really don't have the first inkling of how these ecosystems work," he says. "If you can get the kids out in the forest, it gives them a very humbling feeling, and a sense of contemplation. And when they figure out something, it's an awesome moment - a teachable moment."

Last year, Borowski had a teachable moment himself, but it wasn't in the woods. At the 2000 National Science Teachers Association Convention in Orlando, Fla., he saw hundreds of exhibitors passing out free CD-ROMs, videotapes, books, posters and other materials. Many of them were produced by foundations that sound green but are actually backed by extractive industries and multinational corporations.

The Greening Earth Society, a fossil fuels industry front group, distributed videos and teachers' guides that downplay the risk of global warming. The Oregon-based Temperate Forest Foundation, a timber industry-backed group, handed out copies of a video called The Dynamic Forest, which shows logging as a solution to wildfire and endangered species problems. Exxon distributed its own video, touting the recovery of fish and wildlife following the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, as if the disaster had been good for the environment.

"They were selling lies, and the teachers were buying - quickly filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes," Borowski says. "Worse yet, they were targeting America's teachers, and ultimately, our children."

With more than 14,000 science teachers attending the convention, how many of them, Borowski wonders, would go home and teach the corporate line about the environment?

In the core subjects, such as reading, math and science, teachers must adhere to strict curriculum standards set by state or local governments. But there are few or no standards for the field of environmental education. In Western states, except for California, teachers are free to use their choice of instructional materials, or to not teach the subject at all; only Washington requires environmental education in its public schools, for kindergarten through 12th grade. Most children get an environmental education only if they have a motivated teacher who "infuses" environmental materials into the core subjects.

All of which means the environmental education field is a free-for-all, where corporations, federal agencies and environmental groups vie for the minds of teachers and students - much as they duke it out politically in the halls of Congress. And, as in politics, who is winning the war is a matter of perception as much as substance.

A regular hodgepodge

Borowski argues that the environmental education field, which grew from the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, is enduring a conservative backlash that began a decade ago.

The most obvious sign is the growing amount of corporate-produced educational material. The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif., has compiled about 2,000 examples of "SEMs" - sponsored education materials - from 250 corporations and nonprofit groups. About 95 percent of them have a pro-industry slant that downplays environmental problems, says Dylan Bernstein, senior program director at the center.

"We see more SEMs about environmental issues than any other subject area," Bernstein says. "The companies have a lot of money to spend and a lot to gain in the battle over public perception."

The American Farm Bureau, for instance, provides a long list of products - including comic books about how farmers improve water quality, even though farms contribute high amounts of sediment and nonpoint pollution in streams.

The Mineral Information Institute distributes a video and classroom workbook called Common Ground, produced by the heavy equipment company Caterpillar, which teaches the importance of minerals and mining. The Institute also sells a T-shirt that proclaims, "If it can't be grown, it has to be mined."

A Shell Oil video tells students that the best way to experience nature is to drive to it, stopping at every Shell service station along the way.

The list goes on. Borowski has collected a thick file of such materials to illustrate his concern about the corporate takeover of environmental education. He spreads his message through the media: Last year, the Portland-based Oregonian did a special series on Borowski and environmental education. Borowski jokes that if he won the lottery, he would hit the road to warn all teachers about corporate infiltration. Meanwhile, his job and budget keep him close to home.

Other environmental educators, though, don't believe their field is in nearly as bad shape as Borowski thinks it is. For one thing, most environmental educators get into the business because they have a deep concern for the environment. They aren't likely to swallow corporate materials hook, line and sinker. And the corporate materials, though numerous, swim in a larger ocean of environmental curricula. Much of it is quite progressive, produced by groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. Surprisingly, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and most other major environmental groups are not engaged in environmental education, though the Audubon Society is developing curricula and has invested millions of dollars nationwide to build nature centers that are frequented by students.

The National Wildlife Federation has been the conservation movement's leader in environmental education since 1975. Its Ranger Rick magazine reaches 500,000 kids, with stories and activities on outdoor and environmental topics. "Animal Tracks" provides print and on-line activities and information about wildlife, especially endangered species. Students are encouraged to get involved, says Bill Street, the federation's education director: "All of our education activities have an action component," he says. "We want to help them create a habitat project or get them involved in protecting an endangered species."

Between the pro-environment and pro-industry educational materials lie several mainstream programs, sanctioned by the North American Association of Environmental Education. Project Learning Tree, launched in 1976, is considered the most popular EE program in the West, though it has come under criticism for its timber and paper industry sponsors (see story page 12). Nationwide, 500,000 teachers have been trained to use the project's activity guides, which focus on forest ecology.

Running neck and neck in popularity with PLT is Project Wild, a wildlife-oriented curricula. Launched in the early 1980s, it is typically sponsored by state fish and wildlife agencies. In Idaho, more than 11,000, or 80 percent of all teachers in the state, have been trained in how to use Project Wild, says John Gahl, director of Project Wild for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"You bring a live animal into the classroom, and suddenly you have everyone's attention," says Gahl. "You're talking real, wild-eyed critters, and the kids are fascinated."

Before teachers can offer courses based on PLT, Project Wild or Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), they have to attend workshops, where they learn how to fold environmental subjects into science, math or English.

"All of the best programs require you to attend a workshop to really learn about the curricula and see how it can be incorporated into the classroom," says Laura Key, environmental education coordinator in Arizona. "Otherwise, a teacher is most likely to put a free book or video on the bookshelf and forget about it."

Federal agencies also are involved in environmental education. Since 1990, when Congress passed the National Environmental Education Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has been offering environmental education programs and grant funds to schools nationwide. In fiscal 2001, the EPA had an annual budget of $7.3 million for environmental education programs and grants. The grants fund activities such as a national EE advancement project, and scores of small grants for teachers and students who work on environmental projects in local communities.

The conservative critic

But the battle over environmental education is more than a contest over who can produce the most materials for teachers. In the early 1990s, wise-use champion Michael Sanera, a former political science professor at Northern Arizona University, took aim at what he considered to be one of the primary sources of unbalanced environmental information in public schools: textbooks.

"No one knew whether Dow Chemical or the Sierra Club was more influential in environmental education, so I decided to take a look at where most kids get their information," says Sanera.

He lays out his findings in a book he wrote with Jane Shaw of the Bozeman, Montana-based Political Economy Research Center. First published in 1995, Facts, Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment, has become the centerpiece of the right's attack on environmental education. In it, Sanera complains that most textbooks and teaching guides are filled with doomsday scenarios about our forests, water, air quality and wildlife. The information is "politicized," in his view, because it reflects the views of environmental groups, rather than scientists.

"When kids walk into the classroom, they shouldn't be bombarded with propaganda from any one particular position," says Sanera, who is backed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. "Sometimes, (the information) is inaccurate. In most cases, it only gives one side of the story."

Sanera says the authors of most biology texts are not experts on environmental science, so they pull material from newspapers and other sources, where, Sanera believes, environmentalists have the upper hand. Environmental science textbooks include even more biased material, he says, because their authors often are unabashed environmentalists.

The result, he says, is that "teachers are so rushed to get kids to be active and involved in environmental politics that the science gets the short end of the stick."

While Sanera was working on his book, the Arizona Legislature presented him with the perfect case study and an opportunity to test his own activism. In 1990, the Legislature passed an Environmental Education Act, mandating EE curricula in K-12 and teacher education on the subject. Sales from a special scenic license plate that says "Protect Our Environment" raised more than $1 million a year for the initiative.

Sanera followed the debate closely, and was especially interested when some parents began to complain that biased materials were being taught under the new program. In November 1994, during the conservative tidal wave that brought the country Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, Arizona Rep. Rusty Bowers asked Sanera to join him in an attempt to repeal the program. Sanera jumped at the opportunity.

In Audubon magazine, Ted Williams reports that Bowers and Sanera accused Arizona educators of using a test devised entirely by the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based activist group - an allegation the group denied. The two also complained about educators writing letters to the editor in support of saving the state flower, the saguaro cactus. Bowers complained, too, that environmental education had made his son "soft on coyotes."

Besides making the program no longer mandatory, Arizona lawmakers stacked a statewide environmental education advisory committee with Sanera and members of extractive industries. The committee funneled license plate monies through the state Department of Lands instead of the Department of Education.

"Sanera thinks all environmental educators are secret Earth First!ers who are out to brainwash our children," says Laura Key, environmental education coordinator in Arizona. "The truth is, we're trying to teach kids about how natural systems work, about the food chain, the web of life, and the nitrogen cycle. It's really important for students - and adults - to understand that stuff."

Despite Sanera's attack, environmental education has not disappeared in Arizona. The license plate funding mechanism is still in place and educational programs continue. In fiscal 2000, $1.1 million was funneled into Arizona schools in the form of small grants.

"We have a lot of money going into the classroom for environmental education, and that's a good thing," says Monica Pastor, chairman of the state's environmental education advisory council.

Sanera, who sits on the Arizona EE advisory council, says he didn't try to kill the program. "I don't think environmental education stands or falls on whether there is a state-required program," he says. "It's going to be taught, and it should be taught. But in Arizona, we make sure that our grant recipients teach all sides of the issue."

Sanera has taken his fight to other states, as well. In Colorado, Sanera issued a report card, criticizing the state's master plan for environmental education. With backing from the Center for the New West, a conservative think tank in Denver, Sanera tried to push a bill that required school districts and teachers to teach what he calls "objective" coverage of environmental issues and provide "critical analysis" of countervailing views.

Because Colorado is a home-rule state, which means the state cannot mandate programs to local school districts, the bill was ruled unconstitutional and died in the Legislature.

"Sanera really tried to politicize the issue, but it didn't work," says Mike Way, executive director of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education.

In 1999, Sanera went to Washington, the only state in the West with mandatory K-12 environmental education. There he worked in tandem with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, another conservative think tank, to remove the mandatory requirement. He kicked off the battle by releasing another environmental education report card, 23 pages criticizing Washington's programs as being "politicized" in favor of pro-environment interests. He used the rhetoric from Facts, Not Fear that downplays the threat of global warming, acid rain, population growth and other issues. And he recommended that Washington adopt the "model" he created in Arizona.

Robert Olson, president of Arrowroot Consulting in Spokane, Wash., an environmental education consulting firm, helped Washington educators defeat Sanera. "If you dig into his anecdotal evidence, it just doesn't pan out," Olson says. "It's like he's standing on legs of sand. He really melts."

Sanera counters that the Evergreen Freedom Foundation lacked financial resources for the battle. Washington educators never showed him EE materials that were balanced, he says. "The materials didn't exist, and the tragedy is, they don't care if they exist."

Who's buying?

Throughout the furious battles, the answer to one major question has been sorely missed: Just what materials are teachers using in the classroom, anyway?

Last year, the National Association for Environmental Education released a national survey of 1,505 teachers that provides some insight. It reveals that teachers find pro-environmental materials and textbooks to be somewhat more credible sources of information than corporate materials. The findings show that:

  • 57.5 percent of teachers use materials from environmental groups.
  • 56.5 percent use materials from local/state/federal educational agencies.
  • 54.9 percent use materials from local/state/federal environmental management agencies.
  • 54.6 percent use information from textbooks.
  • 49.3 percent use materials from educational groups.
  • 38.3 percent use materials from business and industry.

For Sanera, the survey results confirm his belief that pro-environmental materials dominate the classrooms of America. "The environmentalists are trying to throw up this great big bugaboo about corporate-sponsored materials," he says, "but even though corporations are spending tons of money and giving away hundreds of thousands of these things, the survey shows that the teachers aren't using it."

But the survey results haven't reassured John Borowski. He's skeptical that young teachers have the ability to effectively screen EE materials. "Teachers are so busy these days, anything they can get for free about science, they're going to use," he says.

The North American Association of Environmental Education, formed in 1971 to promote the subject, recently published Guidelines for Excellence, a 23-page booklet that teachers can use to effectively screen materials.

Sanera says the guidelines were developed in response to the pressure he has put on the association, but he says they still fall far short because they don't endorse (or condemn) any particular programs. "As a teacher, the guidelines didn't tell me anything about what materials I should use," he says.

Association officials say the guidelines are designed to help teachers do their own evaluations. "At the essence, you're not going to escape bias," says Michele Archie, co-author of Guidelines for Excellence. "But you can do some things that minimize it. One of the most important things I look for in a new curriculum is who's on their advisory committee? Does it have a wide range of points of view? If not, that's a big red flag."

Give teachers a little credit, adds John Gahl. They are smart enough to use corporate-sponsored materials as a way to show how a company might try to slant information to improve the image of its industry. "Teachers can see through it," he says.

A greener future

Despite the flood of corporate materials and Sanera's attacks, environmental education has a strong toehold in K-12 public schools in the West. Teachers with an interest in the environment have a wide array of resources available to engage their students in learning. Robert Olson, president-elect of the Environmental Education Association of Washington, says that from a political perspective, Sanera's attacks have strengthened EE forces and programs in his state.

"It's been a proactive thing for us," he says. "We've been able to show that there are a lot of good things happening in Washington with respect to EE. It's helping teachers, it's helping students and it's helping communities."

On the other hand, it's clear that without state or local district requirements in most Western states, environmental education is still considered an elective, and it may not be taught at all.

As Michael Baker, director of EPA's Office of Environmental Education, says, "Teachers say they're so overwhelmed by the requirements to meet state and local standards that they just don't have time to figure out how to work EE into their classrooms," Baker says.

A recent EPA report found that environmental education "is not a clear priority at any level within our education system or society, and many programs face ongoing resource, funding and staff limitations."

Debora Simmons, a former president of NAAEE and an expert in curriculum development at Northern Illinois University, says EE continues to gain momentum. She cites the National Environmental Education Act, passed by Congress in 1990, which provides policy direction and funding to the EPA for educational grant programs. A nationwide network of state coordinators has been established in partnership with the NAAEE to give teachers and principals a source of information close to home for expanding environmental education.

Community resources such as nature centers, museums and private science schools, such as the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyo., provide more places for children to learn about the environment.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of growing interest in EE," Simmons says.

Sanera, meanwhile, pledges to continue to monitor environmental education programs in Western states and in the nation's capitol for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A new edition of Facts, Not Fear is on the market. The book, now in its 11th printing, has sold about 68,000 copies thus far.

Sanera says he would like to see corporations get out of the environmental education curriculum business altogether.

"They should support true educational materials that teach people how to think about these issues," he says.

At the classroom level, most teachers say they just want to teach. They don't want to be political. Borowski is one of them.

"This has become a crusade for me," he says. "I'm not really comfortable with my name in the lights kind of thing, but if they (corporations) continue to put out lies or circumvent the truth, I'm going to go after them."

Stephen Stuebner writes from Boise, Idaho. This story was made possible by a grant from the Fred Gellert Family Foundation.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- How green is this Tree?

- Science teachers go local

- A quick resource guide for teachers of the wild

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Stephen Stuebner

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