Chesapeake education goal is more words than reality

ON THE BAY

December 20, 2005|By TOM HORTON

Environmental education, teaching kids to respect nature even when no one's looking, has come a long way since the first conference on restoring Chesapeake Bay in 1983.

But it has an even longer way to go if the aim is really to instill a durable environmental ethic in the generations who will be taking over the task of 21st-century bay-saving.

Last month would have been a fine chance to discuss this. The 23rd annual meeting of bay watershed governors was billed as a "Chesapeake Bay Education Summit."

Instead it was an exercise in bureaucratic obfuscation, another example of how to save the bay without really having to save the bay.

Here's how that happens:

The last big set of Chesapeake Bay restoration goals, adopted in 2000, said every kid in the six-state watershed should have at least one "meaningful bay or stream" experience during his or her K-12 career.

It could be a project, a field trip, anything that makes the crucial connection: From planting trees to tossing trash, all we do on the lands where we live has impact, good or bad, downstream, in the water.

A subsequent working group of environmental education officials decided it was too hard to get every kid to water's edge. Getting them outside, making a connection between watershed and water would do.

The work group did go beyond the 2000 goal in recognizing that it wasn't enough to teach a watershed connection once. Three times, in elementary, middle and high school, should be the minimum expectation.

The working group figured that to do this right would cost about $13 million to $14 million a year in new money among Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

Which brings us, five years later, to last month's education summit.

Pennsylvania's Patty Vathis, the state's environmental education specialist, said, "Pennsylvania is meeting the challenge."

Rebecca Bell, her Maryland counterpart, said that with the exception of Baltimore City, all Maryland school systems are "fully implementing" the goal.

Virginia's James Firebaugh, the only official to give actual numbers, said a little more than two-thirds of schools are giving a watershed experience to at least 70 percent of their students.

Some in the audience found that hard to believe. "If you listen to the bureaucrats, it's a success, but if you listen to graduating kids, it's an abysmal failure," said Don Baugh, education director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Baugh, who's supervised bay education for nearly a million kids in his 30-year career, said, "No one really knows how many are getting a meaningful bay or stream experience. ... There's a lack of measurement.

"If I had to guess," he said, "I'd say less than half in all three states, and some of my staff think the numbers are more like 15 percent."

"We're all done [meeting the goals] if you listen to the bureaucrats, but it's just not true," says Stephen Barry, who heads outdoor education in Anne Arundel County.

"My program is the largest public environmental education in the state, and we're not serving anywhere near our total population," he said.

Barry said he, along with environmental education counterparts in some other Maryland counties, declined to certify to the state's Bell that the goals of the bay agreement were being met. "But they just signed off at a higher level," he said.

Indeed, the system of reporting in all three states is voluntary - as is the goal itself. And without any real accountability. Pennsylvania appears to base its "success" on assuming the state's required wetlands ecology course means they are "by law" meeting the bay education goal - never mind if the kids get outdoors or not.

Virginia concedes that many of its school systems lack environmental-education specialists, and that its reporting is based on "superintendents who may be somewhat removed from the classroom."

Bell said she visits some schools and requires certification from them all. "I assume people know what they are doing," she said.

But Anne Arundel's Barry said, "You ask a high school, `Do you do meaningful bay experiences?' and they may say yes, and it may be one teacher - 36 kids out of 2,000 - and that goes down as that school's meeting the goals."

And while all three states say they have cobbled together significant dollars to meet the bay education goal, the bulk of their estimated $14-million-a-year needs never materialized.

"My concern," said Baugh, "is we'd like to help the states get the money, but if they're `meeting the challenge,' how do we call for more resources?"

Education officials say things are "moving in the right direction," and to be sure, environmental ed is happening in ways that didn't exist 10 years ago. No one disputes there's been progress since 2000.

But with more than 100,000 new people moving annually into the bay watershed, upping pressure on the environment, it's critical to know whether moving forward is real progress - or still paddling 4 knots against a 5-knot current.

twh@intercom.net

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