The K-12 Environmental Literacy Movement in California: A Timeline of Significant Events

According to Dr. Lieberman, in his book Education and the Environment (2014), “The major educational and environmental challenges that our society is currently facing are inextricably connected to the ways humans interact with the world around them… changing the way teachers teach and students learn is the only way to develop an educated citizenry capable of resolving these challenges.”

Set out below is a summary of significant events over the past two decades related to environmental literacy programs that have sought to make the changes referenced by Dr. Lieberman for K-12 education in California.


Assembly Bill 1548 (Pavley), later refined with AB 1721 (Medina) in 2005, triggered the launch of the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI). This multi-agency partnership facilitated the development of the Environmental Principles & Concepts (EP&Cs)—the big ideas about the interdependence of natural systems and human social systems that every student should understand.


The State Board of Education approved the EP&Cs. The EP&Cs focus on the interaction between natural and human systems and serve as the foundation for all environmental literacy curriculum frameworks.


The EEI Curriculum was completed and approved by the State Board of Education, becoming the first environmental curriculum to be formally adopted by the State of California.


California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which upgraded science standards for the first time since 1996. The NGSS has created the opportunity to construct new curriculum frameworks that tie in the EP&C’s “big ideas” and a systems thinking approach.


Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, launched a task force to write A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy.


California published its environmental literacy plan, A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy. The Blueprint positioned environmental literacy as central to the education of every child in California and essential to achieving the ambitious vision of the NGSS and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

At the national level, the No Child Left Inside Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act were passed. Environmental education became more explicitly eligible for funding.


Torlakson formed a steering committee, which is now operating as the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI). Led by Ten Strands, members of CAELI bring together a wide range of expertise and resources in education, environment, and community.

The EP&Cs were included in the California Science Test Blueprint and integrated into the assessment of student progress in the fifth and eighth grades, as well as in high school. The EP&Cs were also integrated into state curriculum frameworks, leading with Science and History-Social Science.

San Francisco was the first district (and county) to hire a dedicated Environmental Literacy Coordinator. San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, San Diego, and Orange counties followed in subsequent years. Most recently Solano county has made a similar commitment.     


Sponsored by Ten Strands, Senate Bill 720 (Allen) codified California’s EP&Cs into the California Education Code as the state’s definition of environmental literacy. The bill included environmental justice and climate change in the list of covered topics. This legislation supports the ongoing work to ensure that all public-school students have access to high-quality environmental education programs. Two months later, the State Board of Education approved 29 K–8 science programs that incorporate the EP&Cs.


The EP&Cs were integrated into the state’s Health Framework. This was the third curriculum framework in California that integrated the EP&Cs.


The State Seal of Civic Engagement was announced. It is awarded to students who demonstrate excellence in civic learning, participation in civics-related projects, contributions to their community, and an understanding of the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, and the American democratic system.

The EP&Cs were integrated into the Arts Framework.

As we move into 2021, there’s much to look forward to. There is a growing need to bring students out of the classroom and recognize the real-world issues happening within their communities and beyond. California has 350,000 public school teachers, 6.2 million K–12 students, and over 1,000 school districts. As Dr. Lieberman said, “it’s like moving a giant ship,” and it looks like the ship is on the move!

Relevant Links

State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER)

Have a look at the work Dr. Lieberman is doing with SEER in advancing environmental literacy and promoting their EIC Model ™ (Environment as an Integrating Context for improving student learning).

Ten Strands

Learn more about the leader of CAELI and one of the most influential organizations for promoting environmental literacy in California for K-12.

History and Development of the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum

What was the process of developing the EEI curriculum? Who were the key supporters? What are the concepts? This document answers these questions and more.

California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI)

CAELI works with school districts and county offices of education throughout California, building the capacity for all K-12 students to become environmentally literate.

State Seal of Civic Engagement (SSCE)

California students can now earn a State Seal of Civic Engagement. The award, announced by the State Board of Education on Sept. 10, is aimed at encouraging active and ongoing citizenship.

Environmental Education and NGSS in an Era of Uncertainty

The idea of using the environment to drive science instruction is a daunting task at the classroom level but once you get started you pick up strong tailwinds from students, who tend to be passionate about environmental causes. Get tips from these leading teachers.

California Environmental Literacy Project

The Environmental Education Grant Program (EEGP) is awarding grants up to $120,000 each to support programs that will result in long-term educational benefits to California educators and students. Learn more and apply before February 12, 2021.

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