05/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National Ecological Literacy Standards

In Time magazine this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of creating more unifying national standards for education in our country, which currently has a patchwork of local and state standards. The focus for such education standards tends to be on reading, math and other traditional subjects. Duncan also noted that our kids spend 25-30% less time in school than in India or China and thus wants to increase the amount of time our kids are in school.

Given that we face an unprecedented global ecological crisis, what if we created national ecological literacy standards that helped to ensure that every child in the United States had the basic understandings necessary for us to become a sustainable country? This might lead to excellent after-school or Saturday supplement curricula, or even a week or two of training each summer, which would help to extend school hours while providing essential knowledge to navigate an increasingly resource-constrained world.

These national standards could include practical elements such as creating your own garden, reducing your energy bill, recycling, or saving money with compact fluorescent bulbs. More advanced courses would lay the groundwork for green collar jobs such as energy retrofitting of houses or even solar panel installation. A lot of the work of greening our country can provide fun and engaging subject material for children, as well as something they can enroll their parents in doing as home projects.

What if all kids in 6th grade all learned about how to conserve water in their household and had a competition to see who could make the most improvements, with each school offering an award to the winners? What if every child in our country was required to calculate their own carbon footprint in the 10th grade and thus knew about the various ways that their lifestyle contributes to global warming, along with solutions for reducing their impact?

National ecological literacy standards for each grade level would help to create a larger library of course materials, curricula and media that teachers and local ecological leaders could use in working with kids, as well as a national database for locating these materials. Instead of ecology being only a special field trip or tangential to traditional school basics, it would eventually become as foundational as other courses. The Internet would provide a great repository for resources and media, as well as ways for local schools to share their successes with other schools.

By seeding such curricula at a young age, when we are most open to change, we could start to pattern in a healthier, less consumptive lifestyle for America's future that has the benefit of saving money, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, preserving our natural resources, and making our cities more beautiful.

On a practical level, unifying our national standards for math and reading requires dealing with all the existing standards and the politics of changing those. If we focus first on National Ecological Literacy Standards, it would be far easier to pass national standards and demonstrate the positive benefits for other subject areas.

Earth Day was born 29 years ago on April 22, 1970. What if we make a more organized push for National Ecological Literacy Standards to be passed on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day next year? That would be a fitting maturation of the movement. Just as a typical 30-year-old is moving towards creating a family and raising the next generation, so would the environmental movement be moving into the next stage of its maturity by offering the best wisdom to the next generation on the 30th anniversary.

Given the Obama administration's commitment to addressing our ecological crisis head on, a national push for such standards would likely be met favorably and adopted. And the benefits of training all of our youth in ecological literacy would be felt for generations.

If you like this idea, I encourage you to share this article directly with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at