Research Summary

Influences on and Obstacles to K-12 Administrators’ Support for Environment-Based Education

Administrators’ Attitudes Influence Their Support for EE

The Journal of Environmental Education

This study used the term environment-based education (EBE) to describe a type of environmental education in which “the environment is used as a context for integrating core subject areas and a source of real world learning experiences.” In EBE, students often work on community-based projects in which they learn firsthand about issues and develop skills to take action. Previous research has suggested that administrators play a key role in the success and extent of any pedagogical reform, including the use of EBE in schools. In particular, how administrators support teachers’ use of EBE has been shown to be critical for teachers to successfully implement EBE. In this study, the author analyzed what influences and impedes K-12 administrators’ support for EBE.

K-12 administrators who already support the use of EBE in their school or district were the first focus of this study. The author wanted to know what these administrators perceived to be the greatest influences and obstacles to their support for EBE implementation. Second, the author wanted to know if the perceived influences on and obstacles to their support for EBE differed among K-12 administrators who (1) supported EBE as a comprehensive school reform model (school-wide EBE); (2) supported EBE as an instructional method by one or several teachers (partial-school EBE); and (3) supported other more traditional forms of school-based EE (other EE).

To address these questions, the author surveyed 98 administrators using a questionnaire modified from earlier studies of teachers and EBE. The sample varied fairly evenly across administrators who supported school-wide EBE, partial-school EBE, and other EE.

In the first round of analysis, the response data was organized using conceptual clustering. This resulted in 11 clusters that described influences to support EBE, which the author described as influence-composites. For example, the “environmental sensitivity” influence-composite included items such as “high level of comfort with the outdoors” and “frequent contact with nature as a child.” It also resulted in six clusters that described obstacle-composites such as “logistical obstacles” and “standards-based education obstacles.”

The second-level analysis looked at administrators who already support school-wide or partial-school EBE. The author found that the strongest influences on these administrators’ support were positive environmental attitudes, environmental sensitivity, and receptiveness to the EBE approach. Concerns about safety and liability were reported as the most significant obstacles. Those with such concerns reported significantly less support for EBE.

The third analysis looked at differences between the groups of administrators who support school-wide EBE, partial-school EBE, or other EE. The influence-composites that varied the most across these three groups were receptiveness to EBE and access to other forms of professional development in EE (such as attendance at a professional conference where an EE/EBE approach was presented). In particular, school-wide EBE administrators perceived receptiveness and access to other forms of professional development as having a stronger influence on their support for EBE than did other EE administrators. The obstacle-composites that varied across the three groups were administrator obstacles (such as “my own lack of training in this approach”) and safety/liability obstacles. In general, school-wide EBE administrators perceived their own lack of training, knowledge, and so on as less of an obstacle than partial-school EBE or other EE administrators did. Similarly, school-wide EBE administrators viewed safety and liability concerns as less of a problem.

Another significant difference between the groups of administrators was their level of support and the level of effort, time, and financial commitment they reported devoting to EBE or EE. Those who supported school-wide EBE or partial-school EBE implementation characterized their support and the level of effort, time, and financial commitment they devoted to EBE/EE as significantly greater than the administrators who supported other forms of school-based EE. The author noted that this finding may be strongly linked to why EBE is not more widely practiced, in spite of the demonstrated positive educational outcomes.

One of the implications of this study is that although environmental literacy plays a large role in influencing teacher support for EBE, it appears to be less important for administrator support. Rather, efforts to increase professional development around EBE overall may be the most fruitful in influencing more administrators to support school-wide EBE. One example of this would be providing administrators with opportunities to participate in environmental projects where they see the need for their involvement and they see that their actions make a difference. Such professional development could concurrently help administrators develop positive environmental attitudes, environmental sensitivity, and receptiveness to EBE, which are all critical factors in administrator support of EBE. Professional development could also be directed at addressing the major obstacle of concerns related to safety and liability in EBE programs. This professional development could occur in multiple forms, including mentoring, professional conference attendance, and observations at schools with school-wide EBE.

The Bottom Line

Although this study focused on K-12 school administrators, this research can be applied to just about any educational setting where administrators are key in supporting comprehensive environmental education (EE) or environment-based education (EBE). Positive environmental attitudes, environmental sensitivity, and receptiveness to EBE were found to be the strongest influences on administrators’ support for EBE. Safety/liability concerns were found to be the biggest obstacle to administrator support for EBE. In addition, administrators who support EBE reported a greater willingness to devote time, effort, and money to EE than administrators who support other forms of EE. Environmental education organizations could play an important role in providing varied support and professional development for school administrators towards the goal of EBE. This support and professional development could target the key influences and obstacles identified in this exploratory study.