The School Garden Debate: To Weep or Reap?

The Atlantic article lambasted school gardens and stirred up charged emotions. But what are the facts?

The School Garden Debate: To Weep or Reap?

I was speaking today 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 that 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 economic angst, I believe, is what Caitlin Flanagan played into in "Cultivating Failure," an article that lambastes school gardens in the January/February 2010 Atlantic. But to separate the angst from the facts, it is necessary to first look at the angst and then the facts.

Flanagan opens the article by asking the reader to imagine being a young and desperately poor Mexican who has made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields to give his or her child the chance at a better life. An entirely different life. A life that embodies the American dream. A life made possible by education.

But, ironically, it turns out this child is forced to spend hours tending a garden at school so he may learn what his parents could easily teach him about how food grows. He is effectively robbed, Flanagan argues, of the time he should be spending reading important books and learning math — the things he actually needs to lift himself out of poverty. In the end, he is likely to be relegated to an "uneducated underclass" while his better educated peers prepare to pass him by.

With the growing trend of school gardens, "the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom," she concludes. And who is to blame? An "agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology" — in other words, by unexamined assumptions that spending time in school gardens will give children a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma.

To some, this may have appeared (at least on first blush) to be a devastating critique. Moreover, it pitted the more advantaged in our society against those desperately counting on school to help them raise themselves out of poverty. And this invocation of class differences, as well as racial and ethnic ones, 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. Was this growing trend in education actually robbing our most vulnerable students of more basic and important learning experiences? Were school gardens, more broadly, ill-suited to the central task of nurturing what we all want for our children, that they grow up to be happy and well-rounded young people who can successfully make their way in the world?

Or, as one Berkeley resident commented on an Atlantic blog: "No one is opposed to gardens. No one is opposed to healthy eating. Just don't put it in the schools." What if he and Flanagan were right? What if school gardens are not part of the solution to the problem of bad schools, but, rather, part of the problem?

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 often a feature of 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. "I must have received 1,000 calls this past year from people asking me to help them start a school garden or farm-to-school program." 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 there is research and a significant body of teacher experience to consider, as evidenced by many of the educators who have written responses to this article.

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 where a fragmented curriculum can become unified through hands-on experience that draws on math, science, and social science. They 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, Flanagan ignores an enormous body of research (on social and emotional learning, project-based learning, and student health and academic achievement, as well as the study of science and ecological literacy.) She 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 a recent meta analysis published by the Collaborative on Emotional and Social Learning reported (), schools with social and emotional learning programs lead on average to a:

  • 11 percent improvement in achievement test scores
  • 9 percent improvement in school and class behavior
  • 9 percent decrease in conduct problems, such as classroom misbehavior and aggression.

Project-based and place-based learning. School gardens can create opportunities for  what is  called project-based and place-based learning; and on this there is a growing body of research that highlights benefits, including:

  • Higher scores on standardized reading, writing, math, science, and social studies tests
  • Improved behavior in class
  • Increases in self-esteem
  • Improved conflict resolution, problem solving, and higher-level thinking

Research also shows that teachers become more excited and motivated, more engaged with students, and more able to collaborate effectively with other educators. (For a sampling of some of the research, see the Center for Place-Based Learning and Community Engagement: , and the Buck Institute for Education: .)

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 led by Michelle Obama (who, yes, 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 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, as research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows, they may develop the habits that make them more likely to eat healthier foods as adults.

It is also not surprising, as reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention () have 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 (a finding that might resonate with any of us who have ever noticed the impact of food on our own performance).

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.

For example, one 2005 study, "Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science Achievement of Elementary Students," ( ) found that students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students who had no garden-based learning.

She also ignores the fact that gardens are an ideal right-sized place for students to develop the ecological literacy they will need to address the coming environmental challenges and be leaders and citizens who understand how the natural world works, see the patterns that connect human activity to nature, and have the knowledge and values to act effectively on that understanding.

As Dorothy Blair, an assistant professor at Penn State University, concluded in a review of the research on the benefits of school gardens in the Winter 2009 issue of The Journal of Environmental Education (<>):

 "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."

Where Are We Now?

Flanagan's critique deeply upset many educators who have reason, experience, and, 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 education, the economy, and the environment — that is unfortunate. It serves no discernable social purpose to take sweeping potshots at people doing good, creative, and heartfelt work on behalf of students. Instead of tilting at windmills, one wonders: Why not bring such skillful and passionate 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 more important, above 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. 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.

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post ().