Chesapeake Bay Watershed: Implementing Regional Environmental Literacy Policy

    Mission statement 

    The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) is a federal-state partnership that oversees the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay—the largest estuary in the country. It includes partners from federal and state agencies, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions that come together to support goals and outcomes defined in a series of watershed agreements dating back to 1983. In 2014, the Governors of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, along with the mayor of the District of Columbia and the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a new agreement that included an Environmental Literacy Goal to ensure that the 7.3 million students living in the region graduate as environmentally literate citizens who possess the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about the environment. In the spirit of equity, the Chesapeake Bay Program is committed to using innovative strategies to ensure that this powerful approach to teaching and learning reaches the many millions of students living in the Chesapeake Bay states.

    Core focus area 

    Environmental education programs tend to be stand alone efforts that reach pockets of students. Because of the potential for these experiences to foster a stewardship ethic while also increasing student achievement and engagement in learning (Ardoin, 2016), the Chesapeake Bay Program is committed to working with state departments of education and other partners to scale up environmental education to reach all students living in Chesapeake Bay states.

    The Chesapeake Bay Program Education Workgroup, which is led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), is made up of representatives from more than 40 organizations, including state departments of education and natural resource agencies, federal agencies, and nonprofits from around the region. Its early work focused on developing and refining a strong, replicable model for environmental education—the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE)—that draws on the best available research in the field. Once defined, the work shifted to establishing model programs in school districts that represented the full economic, racial, and geographic diversity of the region. This was advanced by state departments of education and their partners, and supported in large part by an intentional partnership between the two major environmental education funders in the region, the NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training Program (B-WET) and the Chesapeake Bay Trust; state funding programs have also focused on MWEEs. Today the work is shifting from the development of models to advancing strategies that will take this work to scale and create systemic change by embedding environmental literacy programming into more than 1,300 school districts in the region.

    This work has been successful for the following reasons:

    A common focus: The MWEE has provided state departments of education and other partners with a common focus for the past two decades, and has served as a driving force behind creating systemic change in school districts throughout the region. The concept was reinforced through stable, long-term funding by NOAA B-WET and the Chesapeake Bay Trust focused specifically on MWEE student programming, teacher professional development, and capacity building.

    Reinforcing Partnerships: Partnerships at all levels are essential to establishing strong environmental literacy programs that include student MWEEs -- from the Education Workgroup operating at the regional level to set expectations, maintain focus, and build capacity; to state working groups establishing policies, identifying resources, and tackling systemic barriers; to school district partnerships taking advantage of local issues and resources to develop and implement programming. These nested partnerships each serve a distinct role, and each is important to achieving the Environmental Literacy goal and outcomes of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

    Commitment from state leaders and agencies: This work is led in the states through the state departments of education and natural resource agencies whose participation has been assured because of the inclusion of specific K-12 environmental literacy outcomes in the watershed agreements signed by the Governors. These agencies convene state-level working groups focused on identifying and addressing opportunities and challenges to implementation, ensuring learning standards incorporate environmental content and inquiry practices, showcasing model programs, and training school district leadership, principals, and educators in the content and pedagogy of environmental education.

    Convening and connecting leaders: Key staff from these state agencies, federal agencies, and lead funders and other partners meet monthly as a steering committee for the work, the full workgroup meets several times a year, and the heads of these agencies are convened by the Chesapeake Bay Program every two years as part of an Environmental Literacy Leadership Summit to discuss progress towards meeting the watershed agreement. The workgroup also hosts regional biennial convenings for practitioners focused on timely and important issues related to environmental literacy implementation.

    School district implementation: An increasing focus of the work at both the state and regional level is working with local school districts and their partners to incorporate MWEEs into the curriculum so that they are provided for all students in a grade—what is often referred to as systemic implementation. This approach not only reaches large numbers of students, but also ensures that the experiences are being used strategically to meet academic objectives, and adds to the buy-in and sustainability of the program. School districts benefit from the expertise, physical locations, and capacity of local organizations such as nature centers, museums, aquariums, environmental organizations, or colleges to support aspects of the MWEE.