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Leveraging Impact through Policy Changes

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Originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue.

Perhaps more than any other factor, existing school, district, state, and federal education policies hinder the adoption of environmental education in the classroom. While teachers have a good deal of latitude as to what content they teach in a particular course, the overall school curriculum, as well as the standards for specific courses, are in the United States largely set by state, district, and, to a lesser extent, federal policies.

As a result, policy change offers the potential for tremendous impact. a major leverage point in changing how a system operates is to change the rules of that system, and the rules of a system are often embedded in the system’s policies. School systems institutionalize change by embedding that change in their policies, for example by integrating environmental education into the policies related to graduation requirements, learning standards and curriculum, building standards, and budgets. Policy change is one of the few ways to effectively address the problem of scaling —the difficulty faced by so many effective environmental education and green school programs for significantly expanding their reach and audience.

In the U.S., the most influential education policy is set at the level of the individual school or district. State education policies are the next most influential. Least influential is federal education policy; indeed, the U.S. Department of Education feels that they are not allowed to mandate anything having to do with curriculum and subject matter, for example. That said, the U.S. Department of Education is the single largest and influential education entity in the country; if one can work within their constraints, creatively engaging them can make significant impacts on the nation’s classrooms in other ways than mandates.

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James L. Elder is the founder and Director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, and an expert on environmental and sustainability education policy, whose work focuses on strategically advancing these fields at the national and state levels. In 1980, Dr. Elder founded the School for Field Studies, building it over 17 years into the nation’s leading environmental field program for undergraduates and a pioneering model for sustainability education. He has served on the boards and committees of a dozen non-profits, most recently the Norcross Wildlife Foundation and Ocean River Institute. He has authored numerous book chapters and papers, and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Barry University as well as the National Wildlife Federation’s 2009 National Conservation Achievement Award. He lives in Manchester, Massachusetts.

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