Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards

Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards


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Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards: In 2011, Maryland became the first US State to make environmental education obligatory for high-school students. The State Board of Education ruled that each local school system must provide a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education programme that is integrated into the general school curriculum.

While the teaching of environmental education is now required from pre-school to graduation, the focus is on all incoming Grade 9 students (14 and 15 year olds) who must complete a comprehensive environmental education programme that meets the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum Standards.

At a Glance
  • Stemming from concern about the polluted state of Chesapeake Bay the regulation stipulates a locally developed programme of environmental study throughout the curriculum aimed at educating young citizens.
  • There are eight key topics that students must investigate and implement a local action project on, including: local to global Environmental Issues; Interactions of Earth’s Systems; Flow of Matter and Energy; Populations, Communities and Ecosystems; Humans and Natural Resources; Environment and Health; Environment and Society; and Sustainability.
  • Where possible teaching is done out of doors, in the form of natural history field trips, community service projects, experiential lessons in the school yard or local environment and participation in outdoor science classes.
  • Early results look positive with sustained school-wide changes in knowledge, behaviour, and action and broad improvements in student’s learning outcomes across a wide range of subjects.
Policy Reference

The code of Maryland Regulations, Title 13A State Board of Education, Subtitle 04 Specific Subjects, Chapter 17, Environmental Education, states that “Each local school system shall provide in public schools a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education program infused within current curricular offerings and aligned with the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum.”

The list of learning criteria for the eight key areas (or ‘standards’) themselves can be viewed in COMAR 13A.04.17.01.

Connected Policies

In April 2008, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley established the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature by Executive Order 01.01.2008.10. Co-chaired by the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the State School Superintendent, the partnership sought to develop and implement an environmental literacy plan. One year later, the Governor introduced the Maryland Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights.

At the national level, the No Child Left Inside Act was introduced to the 112th Congress on the 14 July 2011 whereupon it was referred to committee. The No Child Left Inside coalition, which supports environmental and outdoor education from pre-school to high school graduation across the US, reported in 2014 that the Act was reintroduced into the 113th Congress by Senator Jack Reed and Congressman John Sarbanes.

Selection as a Future-Just Policy

Maryland is a pioneer in being the first State in the US to require students to be environmentally literate as a high school graduation requirement. The new environmental literacy standards aim to counter the trend of pollution and degradation of nature by building an environmental stewardship ethic in young people.

Studying the environment, particularly in a hands-on practical manner as adopted in Maryland, is a life skill that benefits the children as much as the local environment. Numerous scientific research studies show that children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively impacted by learning in nature. Reduced stress, enhanced creativity and problem solving capacity and improved social relations have all been linked to outdoor learning.

It is hoped that students will use the knowledge they gain in the choices they make for the rest of their lives; what car they drive, what paint they put on their house and how they operate their businesses.

Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and of respect for the environment are all carefully considered by policy-makers.


Sustainable use and natural resources

  • The infused curriculum aims to help students in Maryland become informed and responsible environmental stewards.
  • In interview, the former Maryland State Superintendent of schools reported a lower energy consumption in school buildings as a consequence of improved environmental literacy and improved uptake in recycling.
  • While implementation of the standards requires no additional funding, general state education funding is distributed inverse to wealth so the poorest areas get the largest contribution.
  • In terms of funding provision, Maryland has one of the most generous budget contributions for public education in the US and for eight consecutive years has been ranked as the number 1 public school system in the US.

Equity and poverty eradication

  • All students in the State of Maryland, including those with any special needs, are required to complete a locally designed curriculum of environmental literacy.
  • Certain modules, such as society and environmental standards, look at how pollution and climate change affect different ethnic, religious and socio-economic groups and may also look at intergenerational responsibility.
  • While the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the State of Maryland has used it, in addition to the UN Belgrade Charter on Environmental Education, to inform this policy.

Precautionary approach to human health, natural resources and ecosystems

  • Part of the curriculum is devoted to “Hazard and Risk Analysis”, which increases students’ awareness of environment, biodiversity, natural resources and climate issues.
  • Every student is perceived as a future-player in the ongoing efforts to tackle climate change and environmental challenges. They learn to examine and judge the effects of human actions on the environment. The literacy standards aim to foster new generations of environmental stewards.
  • The policy was based on sound evidence-based educational practices.
  • A more comprehensive assessment of outcomes may only be possible as more data is available on its impact in the coming years.

Public participation, access to information and justice

  • The scheme is noted for its cooperation between governance, civil society and the teaching profession. Civil society groups are able to contribute with respect to the teaching modules as well as with non-formal education and field trips.
  • The curriculum provides for a systematic evaluation and reporting procedure as well as the establishment of a support network where teachers can improve their professional development in order to teach environmental literacy.
  • Students are also encouraged to provide input to development of the policy and curriculum via student representatives on the State Board of Education and Local School Boards.
  • Every April is declared by the Governor as environmental education month, which includes national Environmental Education Week and Earth Day.
  • Prior to adoption, there was a period of wide public consultation on the environmental literacy standards.

Good governance and human security

  • The State Superintendent monitors the teaching of the environmental literacy standards. After each school year, schools prepare a report for the Local School System, which must then report to the State every five years on the implementation progress and impacts.
  • In addition a local Maryland NGO, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has developed a survey instrument – the Environmental Education Literacy Tool (ELIT) – to monitor the progress and impact of the literacy standards.
  • Every school must establish a support network for teachers and administrators for the purpose of their ongoing professional development with regards to environmental education.

Integration and interrelationship

  • Core subjects in the existing curriculum are merged with environmental education requirements, emphasising interconnections and teaching students to consider issues of sustainability in all aspects of life and work, such as in healthcare, energy, the economy and in industry.
  • The policy connects pupils, professors and NGOs to raise awareness of the role each can play in responsible environmental stewardship.
  • Outdoor educational activities stress a practical understanding of conservation and natural resource management.

 Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • All schools have to develop locally designed programmes in order to be relevant to their county needs.
  • The completion of environmental education is compulsory for high school students in Maryland to graduate.
  • The policy is very innovative in its institutional context as the first example of such environmental literacy standards in the US.
Context of Enactment

Primary in the environmental concerns of Maryland’s citizens is the condition of Chesapeake Bay – an estuary surrounded by Maryland and Virginia, inland from the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest such body of water in the USA. For centuries, the Chesapeake was an environmental superconductor: 200 miles of nutrient-rich water, full of sturgeon and ducks and enormous reefs of oysters. However, since the 1970s, marine dead zones, where waters are so depleted of oxygen that they can no longer support life, have existed within the bay due to the inflow of sewage, urban storm drains and industrial pollution. One newspaper report, from 2008, laments the terrible condition of the bay despite great expenditure to tackle its extensive pollution.

It had become clear that a failure to educate young citizens on their relationship with the environment would lead to a lack of intergenerational responsibility and a crossing of an irreversible tipping-point. In 2008 the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, launched the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature – a broad network of local environment and education authorities chaired by the President of the Department of Natural Resources and the State Superintendent of Schools. This action was taken in the hope of fostering a new generation of environmental stewards in Maryland State.

Three years later, in 2011, the Maryland State Board of Education introduced new environmental literacy standards.


According to the Maryland State Department of Education the purpose of Maryland’s Environmental Education programme is to “advance students’ knowledge, confidence, skills, and motivation to make decisions and take actions that create and maintain an optimal relationship between themselves and the environment, and to preserve and protect the unique natural resources of Maryland, particularly those of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.”

Specifically, the objectives of the Maryland Environmental Education Program shall:


(1) Provide a developmentally appropriate instructional program;

(2) Advance students’ knowledge, confidence, skills, and motivation to make decisions and take actions that create and maintain an optimal relationship between themselves and the environment, and preserve and protect the unique natural resources of Maryland, particularly those of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed.

(3) This comprehensive instructional program shall provide for the diversity of student needs, abilities, and interests at the early, middle, and high school learning years, and shall include all of the standards from the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum as set forth in §C of this regulation.

Methods of Implementation

All students from the academic year 2011-12 onwards must complete a locally designed Environmental Literacy Curriculum in order to graduate from high school. This comprises eight environmental standards which must be integrated into the existing curriculum to enhance the teaching of the existing core subjects:


  1. Environmental Issues. The student shall: (a) Investigate and analyse environmental issues ranging from local to global perspectives; and (b) Develop and implement a local action project that protects, sustains, or enhances the natural environment.
  2. Interactions of Earth’s Systems. The student shall analyse and apply the properties of systems thinking and modelling to the study of earth’s systems.
  3. Flow of Matter and Energy. The student shall analyse and explain: (a) The movement of matter and energy through interactions of each of the following earth systems: (i) Biosphere; (ii) Geosphere; (iii) Hydrosphere; (iv) Atmosphere; and (v) Cryosphere; and (b) The influence of this movement on weather patterns, climatic zones, and the distribution of life.
  4. Populations, Communities, and Ecosystems. The student shall use physical, chemical, biological, and ecological concepts to analyse and explain the interdependence of humans and organisms in populations, communities, and ecosystems.
  5. Humans and Natural Resources. The student shall use concepts from chemistry, physics, biology, and ecology to analyse and interpret both positive and negative impacts of human activities on earth’s natural systems and resources.
  6. Environment and Health. The student shall use concepts from science, social studies and health to analyse and interpret both positive and negative impacts of natural events and human activities on human health.
  7. Environment and Society. The student shall analyse how the interactions of heredity, experience, learning and culture influence social decisions and social change.
  8. Sustainability. The student shall: (a) Make decisions that demonstrate understanding of natural communities and the ecological, economic, political, and social systems of human communities; and (b) Examine how their personal and collective actions affect the sustainability of these interrelated systems.

Where possible and practical teaching is done out of doors, in the form of natural history field trips, community service projects, experiential lessons in the school yard or local environment and participation in outdoor science classes.

For each area, specific goals and indicators are provided in order to assist with the implementation of the standards. At the end of the school year, schools must prepare a report for the Local School System (of which there are 24). Each Local School System must report to the state every five years on the implementation process and progress.




There are a number of initial signs of significant positive impacts of environmental education in Maryland.

One impact that is clear is a hugely elevated knowledge, understanding and application of complex environmental and sustainability issues by students, clear evidence of which is now a graduation requirement for all students, certified by the Superintendent of every school system and monitored by the Maryland State Department of Education. Some of the innovative student projects that have been developed include the creation of nature trails, school yard habitat programmes, recycling initiatives and the creation of a new wetlands system.

Meaningful environmental experiences and outdoor science activities such as those mandated in the regulation are known to reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children.

Alongside the mandatory Literacy Standards over 460 Maryland schools have been certified through a complementary voluntary Green Schools programme. These schools must demonstrate even more ambitious commitments to environmental education and sound environmental practices and comprehensively assimilate three areas: (a) enactment of environmentally integrated curricula, (b) installation of environmental management practices on school grounds, and (c) development of school–community partnerships.

Research undertaken with these Maryland schools has shown that the introduction of environmental education has had a measurably positive impact on student achievement in other subjects such as science, English, algebra, and social studies. Researchers compared standardised test pass rates at all elementary, middle and secondary and private schools within the 3 years immediately prior to and 3 years immediately following designation of the schools in the Maryland Green Schools Awards Program (MDGS) and found a significant positive correlation. (see Fig. 1).


Fig.1 Maryland

Fig. 1.


In 2014 these 460 Green Schools were responsible for the installation of 40,603 square feet of green roofs and 109,044 square feet of rain gardens, the planting of 5,381 trees and the recycling of 1,248,178 pounds of paper. Similar outcomes have been achieved by Green Schools in previous years.

As the first such policy to be adopted, there has been something of a domino effect across other States interested in trialling the initiative themselves and a ‘No Child Left Inside’ coalition promoting environmental education has been gaining national attention.

Potential as a Transferable Model
A number of experts on environmental education we interviewed all agreed there is huge scope for transferability to other US States and indeed other countries. States such as Kentucky and Utah have already developed environmental literacy plans based on the Maryland model. The ‘No Child Left Inside’ coalition lists the policies, programmes and plans from other states on their website.

A particular advantage of the pioneering Maryland programme of environmental education is that it requires no additional resources, financial or staff, as the literacy standards are infused into the existing curriculum to enhance existing core subjects. Another important transfer aspect relates to its mandatory nature – students must partake in environmental education in order to graduate from high school. There is deemed to be no exception to responsible environmental stewardship.

Similar plans and policies have been introduced by other national and regional governments which suggests wider diffusion of environmental literacy regulations could be successful.


Bavaria, Germany: Guidelines for Environmental Education in Bavarian schools, Disclosure from the Bavarian State Ministry of Education and Culture [Art. 131, Paragraph 2 Bavarian Constitution. [German]

Since 1984 a sense of responsibility for nature and environment has been an educational objective of Bavaria. The concept is to embrace “Heart, Hand and Head” to ensure a creative and aesthetic connection between nature and the children’s own emotions and to teach empathy skills. Sustainability education is not an additional subject, but integrated into core studies. Other states in Germany which have adapted a similar approach include Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg.


India: Indian Supreme Court Order, 22 November 1991. [English]

Recognising that “protection of the environment and keeping it free of pollution is an indispensable necessity for life to survive on Earth,the Supreme Court of India accepted that environment education should be a compulsory subject. Immediate steps were demanded by the Court in preparation for the next academic year. In 2003, the Court ordered the National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) to prepare a syllabus for environmental education and in 2004 directed its use in every State in their respective schools. However, in 2007 NCERT submitted an affidavit in favour of integrating environmental education into core teaching rather than having it as a stand-alone subject. The Supreme Court accepted the affidavit in 2010.

Additional Resources

No Child Left Inside® Coalition and their No Child Left Inside Act of 2011 factsheet.

Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature: Report and Recommendations to Governor Martin O’Malley.

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). “Developing a Framework for Assessing Environmental Literacy.” 2011.

Edutopia case study: Crellin Elementary School – A Hands-On Approach to Deeper Learning (video).

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