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 program 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 five key topics that students must investigate and implement a local action project on, including Environmental Issue Investigation and Action; Human Dependence on Earth Systems and Natural Resources, Environmental Impact of Human Activity, Consequences of Environmental Change on Human Health and Well-Being, and Individual and Collective Responses to Environmental Change.
  • Where possible teaching is done out of doors, in the form of natural history field trips, community service projects, experiential lessons in the schoolyard 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.
  • In 2019 the policy was reviewed and revised with consultation of various stakeholders from the formal and non-formal educational sector. In April 2020 the revised policy was approved and adopted by the Board of Education.

Last update: 2021

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.”

  1. The latest list of learning criteria for the five key areas (or ‘standards’) themselves can be viewed in COMAR 13A.04.17.01. Connected Policies
    1. 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.
    2. At the national level, the No Child Left Inside Act was introduced to the 112th Congress on 14 July 2011 whereupon it was referred to a 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 careers they choose, 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 ensure that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and 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 an 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 the 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 the 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.
  • The Chesapeake Bay Program, an intergovernmental body with representation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), , has developed a survey instrument – the Environmental Education Literacy   (ELIT) – to monitor the progress and impact of the literacy standards every three years.
  • Every school must establish a support network for teachers and administrators for the purpose of their ongoing professional development with regards to environmental education.
  • The Maryland Green Schools Program provides a portfolio-based structure for demonstrating the integration of environmental education into the curriculum, student environmental actions at school, home, and in the community, and sustainable partnerships that support education and action in school and in the community. The program is not required, however in April 2019, Maryland Legislature passed the Maryland Green Schools Act of 2019 with a goal to have 50% of Maryland Schools receive the Maryland Green Schools Award.

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 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’s 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 the local environment and education authorities chaired by the Secretary 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.

In 2015 Governor Larry Hogan was elected, the Partnership was renamed Project Green Classrooms, representatives from each of the Maryland State Agencies were required to participate. The network continues to have representatives from the local environment and education organizations and is lead by the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and the State Superintendent of Schools.


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 Literacy Program shall:

(1) Provide a developmentally appropriate instructional program with opportunities for outdoor learning experiences;

(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 and of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed and

(3) 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 Maryland Environmental Literacy Standards 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 (updated in 2020):

  1. Environmental Issue Investigation and Action. Environmentally literate students investigate environmental issues in order to develop and implement local actions that protect, sustain, or restore the natural environment.
  2. Human Dependence on Earth Systems and Natural Resources. Environmentally literate students construct and apply to understand of how Earth’s Systems and natural resources support human existence.
  3. Environmental Impact of Human Activity. Environmentally literate students construct and apply to understand the environmental impact of human activities on Earth’s systems and resources.
  4. Consequences of Environmental Change on Human Health and Well-Being. Environmentally literate students construct and apply to understand the consequences of human-induced environmental change on individual and collective health and well-being.
  5. Individual and Collective Responses to Environmental Change. Environmentally literate students construct and apply to understand individual, collective, and societal responses to human-induced environmental change.

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 schoolyard 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, schoolyard 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, 656 Maryland schools from every county in the state 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. By 2021 up to 656 schools received the Green School label. These are 33% of about 2,200 public and independent schools that together have around 1 million PreK-12 students. These numbers show the great possibility to change the behaviour of the students towards more sustainable and environmentally conscious conduct.

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

In 2019, the policy has been revised along the lines of the Protocol for Developing and Revising Standards. The Revision of Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards to make recommendations to the State Board of a revision of those standards. A public survey has been undertaken to ask stakeholders from different universities and schools to assess the quality of the standards. To the question of how well the standards reflect what the students should know and be able to do as environmentally literate students, the answers prompted to make improvements (Fig. 2). Therefore, the review panel recommendations were to make a comprehensive revision of the standards, especially to remove redundancy with other areas such as Health, Science, and Social Studies. Regional meetings were held with stakeholders from sciences, environmental, health, and social studies after the revision that recommended slight changes in the language.

Figure 2.

The amended regulation has been openly published in the Maryland Register from March to April in order for further feedback. Afterwards the new regulation COMAR 13A.04.17 has been adopted in April, 2020 by the Board of Education.

Potential as a Transferable Model

A number of experts on environmental education we interviewed all agreed there is huge scope for transferability to the 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 suggest wider diffusion of environmental literacy regulations could be successful.

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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