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Geography Educators Release First Draft of Curriculum Standards

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Emerging standards in geography education sketch a broad, ambitious view for teaching that subject in classrooms nationwide.

The draft standards were developed by a national panel of geographers and educators led by the National Council for Geographic Education. Released last month, the 18 standards describe what students should know and be able to do in that subject in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Although geography is named in the national education goals as one of five core subjects for which students should meet "world class'' standards, educators acknowledge that the subject generally receives scant time and attention in the school curriculum. Geographers maintain, however, that the proposed standards would give the subject a major boost.

"In terms of a level or a benchmark,'' said Anthony R. de Souza, the director of the geography-standards project, "these standards are at a level that far exceeds what's going on in the majority of classrooms today.''

Geography is one of seven curricular areas for which the federal government is supporting the development of standards. Funded jointly by the U.S. Education Department, the National Geographic Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the final geography standards are expected to be completed later this year at a total cost of $700,000. The draft released last month for public comment includes only performance standards.

More Than Maps

The standards are based on five organizing themes for geographic education developed in 1984 by the American Association of Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education. They are: location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and regions.

A framework for developing the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in geography also served as a springboard for the new benchmarks.

Like both those documents, the 18 proposed standards espouse a broad view of the discipline.

"We want students to know not only where the Nile River is, but what are the consequences of it being where it is and what are its connections to other parts of the world,'' said Norman Bettis, a geography professor at Illinois State University and a co-chairman of the national panel.

The standards suggest, for example, that 8th-grade students should be able to trace the spread of language, religion, and customs from one culture to another; to describe the ocean circulation system and its role in climate systems; and to draw pictures of ecosystems in various parts of the world.

"Some of this will be new to a lot of teachers who usually don't teach the physical side of geography because it comes under earth science,'' Mr. de Souza said. "To be a good geographer, you need to understand the physical and social sciences.''

However, Chester E. Finn Jr., a founding partner with the Edison Project and a member of the national geography-standards panel, said that the standards should also retain some of the traditional focus in geography on map skills and knowing where things are.

"This is a responsible, respectable, and ambitious piece of work,'' he said.

He added, however, that "professional geographers do take it for granted that people know the difference between north and east.''

"They are so worried their field would be thought of as rudimentary map skills, they bend over backward to take this more expansive view,'' he said.

The guidelines also address the role of technology in geography education, suggesting, for example, that high school students should be able to generate computer maps to explain patterns of population distribution, hunger, pollution, or trade and that they should become familiar with satellite imagery.

"That is something we have to careful about,'' said Mr. de Souza, noting that some schools may not have access to the kinds of technology suggested by the standards.

"On the other hand,'' he said, "we are trying to develop world class standards.''

The standards also call on students to come away with a "balanced'' understanding of environmental issues, and they stress the interrelatedness of geography to other areas of the curriculum.

Meeting the proposed standards, however, would require more time on geography in the classroom, more training in geography for teachers, and better resources and materials for teachers than most schools provide now, standards-setters conceded. They demurred, however, in defining how much more time and investment would be needed.

"One of the problems with all of the standards projects is that, when they try to answer what is most worth knowing, an awful lot of stuff comes out,'' Mr. Bettis said. "If we're going to get standards effected in schools, we're going to have to couple it with a change in the way we do schooling.''

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