Potential Support for Sustainability Education in Middle School Science Standards an Analysis of Existing State Frameworks in the United States
Wahlstrom, Scott A.
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CitationWahlstrom, Scott A. 2018. Potential Support for Sustainability Education in Middle School Science Standards an Analysis of Existing State Frameworks in the United States. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractPressing global problems related to increasing population, affluence, and consumption create a need for widespread sustainability literacy in citizens who must engage these issues in social and political contexts. Unfortunately, few U.S. citizens are exposed to formal sustainability education (SE). Public schools can fill this gap, but state education frameworks already specify a full program of required content for students to learn, and efforts to integrate SE into public schools must fit this structure.
This study’s broad objective was to understand the degree to which existing U.S. public school science education frameworks at the middle school level provide an architecture within which SE can be integrated. Specific areas of inquiry included 1) determining how frequently existing frameworks explicitly require or implicitly invite teaching sustainability, 2) quantifying how frequently they incorporate key concepts of sustainability education, and 3) evaluating their flexibility for supporting integration of interdisciplinary SE concepts into science classrooms.
I hypothesized that there would be only low levels of explicit or implicit inclusion of SE within existing frameworks (less than 3% and 5% respectively). Further, it was expected that less than 10% of standards within existing frameworks would align with key concepts or issues related to sustainability. Finally, it was expected that most states would have structural barriers that hinder integrating SE into science classrooms.
Review of sustainability education literature identified eight recurring sustainability principles across the genre, and three sustainability issues were selected that embody them. Text analysis methods and tools were developed to score all current science standards in middle school (grades six through eight) on a five-dimension scale against these principles and issues as well as explicit and implicit inclusion of sustainability and structural characteristics of the frameworks.
Analysis of 3,700 state science standards established there is nearly no explicit inclusion of sustainability or its principles at the middle school level. Despite this, 10.7% of standards implicitly invite the inclusion of SE because they overlap with at least one important SE principles, and overlap with individual principles ranged from 0.3% to a high of 13.7%. While findings indicate a sizable fraction of state standards direct student learning toward content and concepts that overlap with SE, a majority of states (27 of 51 including the District of Columbia) restrict curriculum sequencing which could hinder integrating SE into the classroom. Further, there is a deficit of core sustainability themes related to intragenerational equity and viewing humanity as dependent upon and interconnected with nature. These factors are hurdles to be overcome in capitalizing upon the existing capacity of state standards to support sustainability education.
Despite the challenges, this creates a space of opportunity where SE can be implemented as a thematic vehicle for teaching required state content. Advocates for sustainability education can focus on reducing these barriers and promoting wider inclusion of standards that direct student learning toward thematic elements identified as driving most existing support for sustainability principles, understanding the nature of human impact upon the environment, and engaging students with solving environmental problems.
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