By. Jaimie Cloud, The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education


Why, What, and Where are the Education for Sustainability Benchmarks?

Seventeen years into the 21st Century, educators and decision makers on the ground need to be able to trust that what they are doing, and what they are receiving in the way of assistance, meets the standards of excellence for Education for Sustainability (EfS). For that to happen, we needed to agree upon standards for EfS. Every legitimate field of inquiry has to define and re-define itself over time. If it doesn’t, others will define it, it will disappear, or it will become distorted. A field of inquiry has to establish boundaries for the system of interconnected elements with which it is concerned, and it has to set and re-set the bars of excellence so that those who want to study it, deliver it, and assess for it can aspire to the highest degrees of readiness and quality. For years, many countries from around the world have been examining the attributes of EfS/ESD (Education for Sustainable Development as it is often called around the world) through their federal-level education systems, in colleges and universities in general, and Schools of Education in particular. In the U.S. a handful of dedicated thought leaders and scholars, in both NGOs and universities, have studied the historical antecedents—(ex. Leopold (1949), Fuller (1969), Bateson (1972), Armstrong (1970), Meadows (1972), Brundtland (1987), Agenda 21, Chapter 36 (1992), Cajete (1994), The Earth Charter (2000), Orr (2004) to name just a very few) from around the country and the globe, studied the needs for a sustainable future, and created multiple EfS frameworks articulated from their own perspectives. This has made the work rich, robust, and relevant for our context. As demand for EfS increases, so does the need to measure the outcomes of it, which in turn, activates the need for consensus on what “it” is.


Education for a Sustainable Future Benchmarks for Individual and Social Learning was published by The Journal of Sustainability Education on Earth Day 2017. This 70-page account is authored by and represents the current and best thinking of forty-two of the major scholars and practitioners in the EfS field. The Benchmarks include the Big Ideas, Thinking Skills, Applied Knowledge, Dispositions, Actions, and Community Connections that define EfS. Following the Benchmarks are Supporting Instructional Practices and Perspectives, Organizational Policies and Practices, and an Afterword. Several Appendices provide information about the topics often associated with EfS: contributing disciplines, aligned innovations, preliminary research findings on the impact of EfS, and a bibliography.


What are the Different Ways to Use the EfS Benchmarks?


When a State, District, or School considers adopting standards of excellence for their constituents, they need to know exactly what they are adopting. They need to be able to compare one set of standards with another so that they can choose the standards they believe are the most robust, current, and useful for their community members. Standards should reflect the best thinking by the most accomplished authors available to date in a particular field. New standards of excellence are iterated and evolved over time as we evolve and grow our knowledge and capabilities. The EfS Benchmarks will serve those interested in educating for a healthy and sustainable future and will certainly be iterated and evolved over time.



Existing Curricula: Aligning EfS Benchmarks with pre-existing standards/content and performance expectations is a logical first step to implementation. The following types of questions can all be pursued:

  • Where can EfS add value to what we are already teaching?
  • Where are we educating for sustainability already?
  • Where might EfS improve teaching and learning?
  • If we align to EfS in all the appropriate places, what do we need to change?
  • What will stay the same? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to start doing?


New Curricula: New curriculum development projects have the option to begin with a lateral or vertical scope and sequence of EfS Benchmarks by discipline, grade level, or grade level bands, and can then align discipline specific content and performance standards/expectations to the EfS scope and sequence where appropriate. It can work the other way around as well. Which way a district or school decides to do it depends on the purpose of education in that place, and the intentions and aspirations of the leaders there. Either way, EfS Benchmarks can be elegantly embedded into new and existing curricula with powerful results.



Curriculum: Once the EfS Benchmarks are aligned with required content and performance expectations, unpack them, uncover the synergy between them, and watch the unit plans and courses become meaningful, relevant, and engaging for students.


Professional Development: EfS Benchmarks can be used to develop professional development protocols for teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents. They are appropriate for anyone who wants to learn how to thrive over time in an interdependent and changing world.


Diagnostic, Growth, Formative, and Summative Assessment and Evaluation Instruments: Use the EfS Benchmarks when building assessments and evaluation instruments. Remember to assess for the EfS Benchmarks with other content and skills you are in the habit of assessing for and ultimately evaluating.


Quality Criteria: Use the EfS Benchmarks to communicate explicit quality criteria, content, and performance expectations and articulate the degrees of quality and depths of knowledge for each dimension in the form of rubrics, checklists, and exemplars.



Curriculum: Use the EfS Benchmarks to audit your existing curriculum, assessments, and performance criteria.


Personalized/Self-Regulated Learning: Students and adults can use the EfS Benchmarks to self-assess the quality of their EfS knowledge and performance capabilities by using personalized learning tools to track expectations, and by submitting student work as evidence of the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.


Measure the Effect of EfS on Measurable Indicators of Sustainable Community Development: Once you have evidence that you are successfully educating for sustainability and the supportive policies and practices are in place to sustain and improve your work over time, and if your school or district is in a municipality that has a sustainability plan, you can look for evidence of a correlation between educating children and young people (and their families by extension) for sustainability and improved performance on the measurable indicators of sustainability that are tracked there.


What are the Next Steps for Practitioners?

The next step is the Call for Exemplars. We are asking educators at all levels of education to send The Journal of Sustainability Education the case examples they have of EfS as defined by the benchmarks presented here. We want to know what EfS looks like, how educators are achieving results, and how they are communicating quality criteria at various depths of knowledge, grade levels, and degrees of quality. We are inviting curriculum plans, assessment instruments, performance indicators, quality criteria, and exemplary student work, and we want to know which aspect(s) of EfS the authors designed for, and which ones they achieved. We will build an open source database of these exemplars so that the field can begin to calibrate the work for grade level appropriateness, continuity, creativity, and continuous improvement.


About The Journal of Sustainability Education

The Journal of Sustainability Education serves as a forum for academics and practitioners to share, critique, and promote research, practices, and initiatives that foster the integration of economic, ecological, and social-cultural dimensions of sustainability within formal and non-formal educational contexts.