May 9th, 2010

Education for Sustainability in Washington State: A Whole Systems Approach

By Victor Nolet and Gilda Wheeler

It can be difficult to imagine that which we have never seen. However, as the great philosopher Pogo said “if it exists, it’s possible.”

The children who begin school this coming fall will encounter unprecedented opportunities and challenges by the time they reach young adulthood at mid-century. They will share the planet with nearly 9 billion other humans and during the years they are in school, ideas of diversity will change tremendously as the demographics of the northern hemisphere increasingly resemble those of the south. Technology and the adoption of English as the de-facto world language will continue to “flatten” the planet and they will have finger-tip access to the entirety of all human knowledge. World economies and governments will continue to be inextricably linked and interdependent; the idea of global citizenship will no longer be an ideal but rather a fact of daily life.  At the same time, the natural systems that these 9 billion humans must depend upon for their very existence will continue to be at tremendous risk. Biodiversity will continue to decline around the planet. Water will become an increasingly scarce and contested commodity, and the effects and implications of global climate disruption will be evident even in the temperate zones. At no time in human history has it been more important for individuals to understand and come to terms with the inextricable interconnectedness of the planet’s many systems.

Education for Sustainability (EfS) is an approach to teaching and learning that addresses interconnectedness. It focuses particularly on the interdependence of ecological, social, and economic systems. EfS is a solution-based, data-based, and intergenerational approach that provides individuals with practical strategies for making individual as well as public decisions.  It involves learning about the separate and interconnected ecological, social justice, and economic systems and it involves learning how these systems interact to create a whole larger than the parts. The goal of EfS is for individuals to find ways to meet the needs of people alive today while at the same time ensuring that future generations can meet their needs.

Education for Sustainability represents a new paradigm for teaching and learning. It does not replace the existing curriculum but it does entail a new way of thinking about the curriculum.   EfS implies learning that is focused on authentic problems, personal behaviors, and decision-making in complex, ill-structured problem spaces.  It implies new knowledge and skills for teachers and a new way of thinking about school outcomes.  Beginning in 2005, Washington State developed and implemented a number of policies and initiatives to articulate and support sustainability education in K-12 and Teacher Education programs. This paper provides a brief overview of these policies and initiatives and their implications for 21st century teaching and learning.

Statewide Sustainability Education Policies and Initiatives

Education for Environment and Sustainability Office: An Evolution from Environmental Education to Sustainability Education

The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has had a statewide environmental education program since 1948 with dedicated federal funding and state staff for the program from 1967 until 2002. In 1990, the State Board of Education created a rule defining environmental education as part of Basic Education and mandating its instruction in public school at all grade levels in all subject matters. WAC 392-410-115, Subsection (6) reads, “Pursuant to RCW 28A.230.020, instruction about conservation, natural resources, and the environment shall be provided at all grade levels in an interdisciplinary manner through science, the social studies, the humanities, and other appropriate areas with an emphasis on solving the problems of human adaptation to the environment.”

Funding for the environmental education program was cut in 2002 at which time OSPI conducted a study to assess the educational needs for such a program in light of state and federal requirements, as well as the expressed needs of the students, educators, businesses, and communities throughout the state. Based on this research, in 2005, the state legislature funded the establishment of a smaller and more integrated program at OSPI which was called “Education for Environment and Sustainability.

The mission of the OSPI Education for Environment and Sustainability program is to support academic success and life-long learning, and develop a responsible citizenry capable of applying knowledge of ecological, economic, and socio-cultural systems to meet current and future needs. The program coordinates statutory and regulatory obligations mandating instruction about the environment; participates in overall efforts to improve student achievement through engaging them in meaningful instruction which enable students to develop deep understanding of the total environment and their place in it; complements efforts to ensure all students achieve at high levels, and inspires the practice of sound principles of stewardship and sustainability in communities throughout the state

Although sustainability education may be implied from the 1990 legislation, an explicit reference to sustainability first appears in the 2005-07 Biennial Operating Budget, which funded OSPI to “… provide direct services and support to schools around an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to instruction in conservation, natural resources, sustainability [emphasis added], and human adaptation to the environment.”

Sustainability Education in Teacher Preparation Programs

Washington State recently approved two policies focused on the teaching of sustainability concepts that have the potential for transformational implications in the preparation of new teachers and the continuing professional development of existing teachers. These policies are described below.

Residency Certification -The Preparation of All New Teachers

When we think about the challenges and opportunities humanity faces today, it is clear that engaged citizenship will require some level of sustainability literacy. Therefore, to the extent that public schools are charged with the job of educating for citizenship, the work of creating sustainability literate citizens falls on teacher education programs that must attend directly to the preparation of sustainability literate teachers. Washington, like many states, has a two-tiered teacher licensure process. Teachers earn the Residency Certification during the pre-service phase of their professional preparation. They then continue to engage in professional development work to earn the Professional Certification around their 5th year of contracted teaching. In addition to the Residency Certification, teachers also acquire one or more endorsements that address their grade range or content discipline specialization. In 2007 the Washington Professional Educator Standards Board, which has oversight of teacher licensure, passed a new program approval standard pertaining to teacher knowledge and skills. This new standard requires teacher preparation programs to provide evidence that beginning teachers are able to prepare K-12 students “to be responsible citizens for an environmentally sustainable, globally interconnected, and diverse society”. Furthermore, according to the new standard, beginning teachers in Washington are now expected to “consider student learning in the context of social, political, environmental, and economic systems.”[1] Following passage in 2007, the new program approval standard was revised to better facilitate implementation in pre-service teacher education programs and the Standards Board reasserted its support for the language focused on preparing sustainability literate teachers in January, 2010.

Environment and Sustainability Education Endorsement

In 2009, the Washington State Professional Educators Standards Board approved a new Specialty Area Teaching Endorsement in Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) for K-12 teachers. The passage of the ESE Specialty Endorsement is the outcome of multi-sector support for environmental and sustainability education in Washington state. The endorsement, developed by a broad-based committee of formal and community educators, consists of three main categories (Content, Instructional Methodology, and Professional Competencies) containing 32 competencies. The committee worked to be consistent with principles of sustainability and systems, aiming to keep the list of competences to the essentials.[2]

The specialty endorsement in ESE is intended to create new roles and leadership opportunities for teachers; offer students new opportunities for learning; (e.g., senior projects related to ESE); and encourage interdisciplinary teaching. Now that the endorsement is approved, colleges of education are in the process of developing programs that meet these competencies. Several programs have submitted proposals to the Standards Board and it is expected that the endorsement will be available statewide in 2011.

Sustainability Education in K-12 Classrooms

Washington State recently developed policies and programs to integrate sustainability into K-12 standards, curriculum, assessment, and campus facilities.

K-12 Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education Standards

In 2009, OSPI approved K-12 Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards[3]. These standards describe what all students should know and be able to do in the area of Environmental and Sustainability Education. Consistent with the intent of the law governing environmental and sustainability education in Washington State, these standards are intended to be integrated into core content areas and across all grade levels.

The process for developing these standards involved a review of existing state, national, and international environmental and sustainability education standards. The review and report was provided by an independent consultant, Facing the Future, a national non-profit global sustainability education organization located in Seattle.

A draft document, the Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards, was developed by a committee of teachers, administrators, higher education faculty, and community educators. Following review by various stakeholder groups and national and state content experts, the standards were approved by the state superintendent of public instruction in 2009.

In developing the Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards, Washington identified three broad overarching standards that are specific to Environmental and Sustainability Education.

Standard 1: Ecological, Social, and Economic Systems

Students develop knowledge of the interconnections and interdependency of ecological, social, and economic systems. They demonstrate understanding of how the health of these systems determines the sustainability of natural and human communities at local, regional, national, and global levels.

Standard 2: The Natural and Built Environment

Students engage in inquiry and systems thinking and use information gained through learning experiences in, about, and for the environment to understand the structure, components, and processes of natural and human-built environments.

Standard 3: Sustainability and Civic Responsibility

Students develop and apply the knowledge, perspective, vision, skills, and habits of mind necessary to make personal and collective decisions and take actions that promote sustainability.

The document includes an alignment with Washington K-12 science and social studies standards at each grade band. These new standards also serve as a meaningful and engaging context for mathematics, reading, writing, communications, the arts, health and fitness, and world languages.

The Sustainable Design Project: A Curriculum Model for Integrating Sustainability into K-12 Classrooms

The Sustainable Design Project is a public-private partnership led by OSPI, the Environmental Education Association of Washington, and Puget Sound Energy with the goal of engaging students in designing solutions to real world issues within the context of systems and sustainability. The project addresses two overarching and critical issues: 1) unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenges; and 2) a growing academic achievement gap for disadvantaged students. It is predicated on the belief that every student should benefit from the rich learning and developmental opportunities inherent in creating a healthy environment, equitable society, and a vibrant economy.

The Sustainable Design Project provides the structure and support to connect businesses, industry, higher education, and community organizations to the K-12 learning process. It provides a system, structure, and resources to bring community expertise into the classroom and to bring students outside the classroom in a meaningful and coherent way. By offering students the chance to solve real-world problems through interdisciplinary project-based learning, the Sustainable Design Project captures and builds upon the imagination and creativity of students, teachers, and community members. In providing resources and tools linking active, hands-on learning to core content standards, it allows students to work together with experts in their communities to solve these problems and become active participants in creating a positive, sustainable future.

Key principles guiding Sustainable Design Projects include:

●        Consideration of whole systems, addressing the interconnections between ecology, economy, and society

●        Authentic student engagement and cooperative group learning

●        Alignment with core content standards (e.g. science, social studies, language arts, etc)

●        Connection with community resources and stakeholders’ perspectives

●        Design of a solution to a real-world challenge

●        A plan to implement the design solution and, if feasible, the actual development of the product or service

●        Sharing of the project

●        Evaluation and assessment of student and project impacts

Through partnerships with the federal Learn and Serve America grant program and an EPA regional grant, a cohort of lead teachers and administrators from across the state are using the Sustainable Design Project framework with their students while also engaging other teachers in their school and district in this curriculum.

CTE Green Sustainable Design and Technology Course

In 2008, OSPI’s Career and Technology Education division developed a year-long middle and high school course called “Green Sustainable Design and Technology.”[4] The purpose of this exploratory course is to expose students to career opportunities in the new green economy. Exploratory courses are described as “a little bit about a lot” in other words broad exposure to a range of career opportunities. Preparatory courses, on the other hand, are designed to be “a lot about a little bit’ in other words the deeper knowledge and skills a student needs to attain a high level of expertise in the chosen career path.

The Green Sustainable Design and Technology course content includes:

●        Principles of Sustainability

●        Impact of Human Activities on Sustainability

●        Standard: Sustainable Transportation Technology and Systems

●        Sustainable Power Generation Technology and Systems

●        Standard: Sustainable Resource, Materials, and Waste Management

●        Sustainable Agricultural Systems

●        Sustainable Ecosystem Management

●        Sustainable Design and Construction

●        Sustainable Manufacturing Practices

●        Healthy Homes and Communities

●        Sustainability in the Work Place

●        Students’ Role in Building Sustainable Communities

●        Career Paths in Sustainability – Postsecondary Options

The course was approved by the CTE director and can now be offered in districts across the state. 2009 was the first year of the course and there are currently 11 districts offering it. In addition to this exploratory course, the CTE division has redesigned several preparatory courses to include a green sustainability focus.

Sustainability in School Facilities and Operations

In 2006, the state adopted the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol.[5] The protocol mandates certain requirements for all new school construction and major remodels to adhere to a set of sustainability design features. From construction materials to energy efficiency, the protocol provides detailed requirements for all state funded school construction projects with a goal of sustainable school facilities and operations.

Sustainability Education Summer Institute

The first Sustainability Education Summer Institute (SESI) was held in 2009 at Islandwood, a LEED designed environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, in the Puget Sound region of the state. SESI was designed through a collaboration of Western Washington University, Islandwood, and OSPI. The three day institute brought together sustainability experts, K-12 educators, college of education faculty, and students with the goal of deepening the knowledge and skills around effectively integrating sustainability into schools. SESI 2010, again to be held at Islandwood, will continue to build a learning community around sustainability with a focus on the socio-cultural sphere of sustainability, as well as curriculum design and appropriate assessment strategies.

There have been several positive outcomes resulting from the summer institute. Two of these outcomes are of special note. One is the development of the ‘WA Sustainability Education” NING social network site that continues to grow and provide a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas, and the other is the formation of a “Diversity and Sustainability Education Coalition” with the purpose of “developing strategies and action plans to promote the intentional inclusion of people of color in the work of sustainability education in Washington State.” The Sustainability Education Summer Institute provided a meaningful learning opportunity which we expect to continue to flourish in the coming years.

Governor’s Proclamation on Sustainability Education Week

In November of 2009, the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development launched the first Sustainability Education Week. Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire was the first governor to sign a proclamation recognizing the week and calling for students, teachers, schools, colleges of education, and community members to participate in sustainability education learning opportunities during the week of November 9-13 and continue throughout the school year. The proclamation reads in part: “Whereas, sustainability education helps students learn skills, perspectives, and values that can guide and motivate them to seek sustainable livelihoods, fully participate in a democratic society, and live in a sustainable manner.”

Conclusion – Going to Scale

Washington is a leader in development of EfS policy initiatives in the pre K-12 sector but it is not alone.  Initiatives are emerging around the country as educators are recognizing the need to reorient education systems to meet the opportunities and challenges of this century. In St. Louis, the St. Louis Sustainability Network includes a partnership among public and private schools, teacher education programs, and the Missouri Botanical Garden to develop curriculum and professional development for teachers. This project is addressing the needs of schools in very distressed and diverse communities through development of school-wide initiatives and strong strategic partnerships. In Connecticut, the Connecticut Partnership for Education for Sustainability is bringing together teacher educators from public and private teacher education programs around the state for professional development sessions, resource sharing, and policy initiatives. This project is associated with the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, which is a multi-sector initiative focused on development of a national strategy for EfS. The Washington model exemplifies the idea that “if it exists, it’s possible”. As Education for Sustainability goes to scale in the US, the work underway in Washington can serve as an “off-the-shelf” template for other states and education organizations.


PESB, Program Approval Standards, 2007

PESB, ESE Specialty Area Endorsement, 2009

OSPI ESE Standards, 2009

OSPI CTE Division Green Sustainable Design and Technology Framework, 2008

OSPI Facilities Division, Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol: Criteria for High Performance Schools, FINAL DRAFT January 15, 2006

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Comments (3)

  1. […] of the articles is co-authored by one of my former professors at WWU. There is also the following video from Facing […]

  2. Pheo Martin says:

    I have lived in Washington State most of my life, and this article is an inspirational record of what all states can implement for Sustainability. Hope I can contribute to the Washington State efforts. Pheo