04/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Weep or Reap: The Flap on School Gardens

"Cultivating Failure," the much talked about Caitlin Flanagan article in the current issue of The Atlantic, lambastes school gardens. So it's no surprise that many garden proponents have already shot back with their objections -- reiterating the value of getting kids into gardens, exposing them to healthy food, and giving them experiences that teach them something about nature, especially in these times of unprecedented environmental instability.

But I didn't quite grasp why Flanagan's article had the effect it did until I had a completely unrelated conversation this week with a mom at my sons' school. She was concerned about a teacher who was doing such a poor job that even his students were complaining they weren't learning enough.

"We're all worried about the economy," she said. In this climate, any sign that a school (even an excellent or basically good one) may be failing to absolutely and definitively prepare our children for whatever the future will bring is likely to provoke greater anxiety than usual.

This collective angst is what Flanagan played directly into -- pitting, moreover, the relatively advantaged in our society against those desperately counting on school to help them raise themselves out of poverty. And this beckons the reader into the terrain of charged emotions, where it can be challenging to keep one's focus on the facts.

In truth, the first time I read Flanagan's article, I too felt a paroxysm of worry. Were school gardens actually robbing our most vulnerable students of more basic and important learning experiences?

In Search of Answers
With these questions in mind, I called Michelle Ratcliffe, one of few people in the United States who has a doctorate in agriculture, food, and the environment.

"She's right about two things," said Ratcliffe. "One is that not everyone learns from experiential place-based education," which is one of the things that happens in school gardens.

"The other thing is that school gardens are not a fringe element anymore, but are becoming a social norm," said Ratcliffe, farm-to-school program manager for the Oregon state Department of Agriculture. There are, as Flanagan cites, already nearly 4,000 school gardens in California alone and many more nationwide.

But what about Flanagan's main argument -- or, rather, the rationale on which she rests her criticism of school gardens -- that there is not "one bit of proof" that spending time in a school garden will result in kids' getting an education or a high-school diploma?

"She is so wrong about that," said Ratcliffe, echoing the sentiment of numerous other experts who have been writing on the subject in recent weeks.

To be sure, school gardens are still relatively new in the world of education, which means that there has not yet been time to develop a robust body of peer-reviewed quantitative controlled studies on the topic.

But here is the larger and more insidious point: Flanagan suggests that because there has not yet been significant research to show that school gardens advance reading and math, they are a distraction from a school's central mission.

This reflects a jump in logic that would make most teachers' heads spin. School gardens are not in the same category as after-school electives, such as chess, cooking club, or chorus. Schools use gardens not to give their students a chance to develop a hobby but to enhance their overall instruction. They see gardens as laboratories where students apply what they have learned in the classroom and a fragmented curriculum can become unified through hands-on experience that draws on math, science, and social science.

Gardens, moreover, are places where students can explore the living environment and be challenged to consider: What is the web of life? How do organisms interact with each other and the physical environment? How do we get and use the food energy all living organisms need to survive and begin to understand the effect of human activities on the biosphere.

Moreover, to suggest that because there is not a significant body of research that connects school gardens to advances in reading and math means they must are distraction from a school's central mission ignores what, in fact, is an enormous body of research-- on social and emotional learning, student health and academic achievement, and the study of science and ecological literacy.

It also ignores nearly a century of educational philosophy and practice that makes one basic point very clear: If you want students to perform well in school and beyond, you have to consider the whole child and whole-school experience.

Social and emotional learning. The whole student, of course, includes the student's social and emotional learning, something that can be naturally cultivated in the garden. And as the Collaborative on Emotional and Social Learning recently reported, schools with social and emotional learning programs lead on average of 11 percent improvements in achievement test scores, 9 percent improvements in school and class behavior, and 9 percent decrease in conduct problems.

Student health and academic achievement. After decades of epidemic rates of childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses, the health of young people has recently become the focus of a new initiative of Michelle Obama (who, yes, also planted an organic garden with school children on the White House lawn in 2009.)

Given this trend, it is not surprising that more schools have planted school gardens, where students have the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of fresh and healthy food; where, as garden educators nearly universally report, students are more likely to try fruit and vegetables they have never tried before; and where they may develop the habits that make them more likely to eat healthier foods as adults.

It is also not surprising, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated: "The academic success of America's youth is strongly linked with their health." Children who eat well are more likely to perform well and have fewer behavior problems.

The only surprising thing is that the Atlantic published an article that failed to make these basic connections.

Science and ecological literacy. While Flanagan narrowed her look at school gardens down to whether they promote reading and math, she ignored the field that has been the focus of most research -- namely, science.

In the Winter 2009 issue of The Journal of Environmental Educationn Dorothy Blair, an assistant professor at Penn State University, reported on a review of garden literature, concluding: "Gardens can improve the ecological complexity of the schoolyard in ways that promote effective experiential learning in many subject areas, particularly the areas of science, environmental education, and food education."

Flanagan also ignores the fact that gardens are an ideal place for students to develop the ecological literacy they will need to address the coming environmental challenges and become leaders and citizens who understand how the natural world works, see the patterns that connect human activity to nature, and have the knowledge, values and to act effectively on that understanding -- something we should want if we ever want a hope of changing our downward environmental slide.

To Weep or Reap?
Flanagan's critique upset many educators who have reason, experience, and, yes, it turns out, the research to support their belief that school gardens have a positive influence on students and the whole schooling experience.

In times when so many truly serious challenges face us -- in both the environment and education -- that is unfortunate. It serves no discernable social purpose to take sweeping potshots at people doing good, creative, and heartfelt work. Instead of tilting at windmills, one wonders: Why not bring such skillful writing to the real problems that plague schools, including inadequate funding, bureaucracies that stifle teacher independence, and a system which continues to put test performance above actual learning and, perhaps even more important, above the cultivation of a love of learning?

Still, in the end, perhaps Flanagan has done the school garden movement a great service. Anyone who loves education, after all, ought to love a good debate; and anyone who cares about the environment has reason to be interested in environment-based education. So let's thank her for raising the tough questions -- for while she may have failed to answer them, she provided a fine platform for others to do so.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009).