WASHINGTON — When Tom Ackerman first began his teaching career in Harford County, Maryland, the end of the school day always brought about frustration.
During the final minutes of the class, he would attempt to wrangle his most challenging students’ attention and connect them with his lessons.
But one day, Ackerman’s principal — a former gym teacher — gave the science teacher a piece of advice that changed everything: Take the students outside.
Ackerman started teaching his most difficult class outside on Friday afternoons. Each week, students would return to the classroom and excitedly share what they discovered. Before long, all of his classes wanted the same experience.
“They were just into it,” said Ackerman, who is now the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for education.
That moment was one of many that spurred Ackerman to join a nationwide coalition to improve access to outdoor education opportunities for K-12 students.
For more than a decade, educators, environmentalists and dozens of policymakers have struggled to spur congressional action on Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes’ No Child Left Inside Act, which would allocate federal funding to environmental education initiatives.
Last month, the bill’s sponsors reintroduced the No Child Left Inside Act in Congress, more than a decade after it was first proposed. The coalition’s reiterated push for action on the measure comes as climate change education and pandemic learning loss conversations have become increasingly present in American politics.
If passed, the No Child Left Inside Act would provide states with federal grants to develop partnerships between schools and organizations to foster real-world environmental and scientific experiences.
Outdoor education programs have been proven to have a positive effect on the educational, physical and emotional development of young people, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
One 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology compared outcomes from identical lessons taught inside and outside, and concluded that teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students after outdoor lessons.
The No Child Left Inside Act has been reintroduced multiple times in Congress since first stalling in 2007. Even in years where the bill has passed out of the House of Representatives, it has consistently faced challenges in the opposite chamber.
Despite the initiative’s bumpy history, Sarbanes said its timely passage is crucial to help future generations prepare for and combat the looming effects of climate change.
“Our young people are going to be the stewards of the planet, and they’re the leading edge of what we do to preserve our planet and combat climate change,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way of getting them ready for that responsibility than making sure that they have strong environmental education opportunities.”
Advocates also believe the bill’s subject matter revolves around a top priority for parents, students and educators across the country, as they emerge from distance learning and attempt to make up for massive pandemic learning loss.
The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed an average four-point drop in learning nationally compared with 2019 — equating to roughly two decades of educational progress.
“You would think that learning outdoors would have been the solution to living through a pandemic, but there were all kinds of reasons why that didn’t work,” said Jackie Ostfeld, who directs the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign. “There’s no quicker way to make up for learning loss and to grow test scores and to get your kids outdoors.”
The pandemic “shined a light” on how important engaged, in-person learning experiences are for students, Ostfeld said. Mitigating the pandemic’s impact on American education has also coincided with the bill having its strongest coalition ever this year, she added.
The coalition has made progress in recent years by aligning the bill’s goals with other federal education efforts. The 2015 Every Students Succeed Act included a provision from the No Child Left Inside Act that helped states integrate environmental learning into their regular curriculum.
But the No Child Left Inside Act is still a “long-game” initiative, Ostfeld said.
Despite its slow progress, the bill’s consistent presence in Congress has already prompted dozens of states to develop environmental literacy plans in anticipation of its passage. Maryland was the first state in the nation to implement this plan, as the state requires an environmental literacy graduation requirement for all high schoolers.
Bills that are proactive and work to guide slow but steady progress take longer to pass than those brought on by a glaring national issue, Ostfeld said. Even if 2023 is not the year for federal action, millions of students in states that have started to incorporate outdoor education curriculum will continue to benefit from advocacy related to it.
“We’re not reacting to some horrible thing in the world. We are being proactive and saying, ‘This is what the future needs to look like,’” Ostfeld said. “This bill helped to spark a movement, but now, the movement is out there, and the movement is strong. Every time the movement gets stronger and stronger and stronger, decision-makers in Washington will hear about it.”