Geography Makes Comeback In U.S. Classrooms

By David J. Hoff — July 10, 2002 6 min read
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After falling off the curriculum map a generation ago, geography has made a quiet comeback in U.S. classrooms. Still, its supporters are looking to hold on to the ground they’ve gained, especially at a time when political and economic stakes have been raised to learn about other places and cultures.

The subject is being taught more widely in stand-alone courses—mostly in middle schools—and its content and methods are being integrated into history, economics, and other parts of the social studies curriculum, geographers say.

“We’ve made tremendous strides in getting the discipline taught—not only more, but better,” said Sarah W. Bednarz, an associate professor of geography at Texas A&M University in College Station.

As schools start to track students’ reading and math skills, though, as required under new federal education law, geographers are seeking new ways to teach students the basics of geography while they prepare for states’ tests of reading and math.

“The good thing about geography is that it can be woven into anything else,” said Barbara A. Chow, the executive director of the National Geographic Society Education Foundation here.

Building Blocks

To succeed, geographers say, they will need to build on the success they’ve had since the late 1980s, when the National Geographic Society led the way to resuscitating geography curriculum.

Since 1988, the private, nonprofit group has spent more than $100 million on giving professional-development seminars, building statewide networks of geography teachers, and helping to write the recommended national standards for the subject.

The National Geographic Society’s efforts have been the most important ingredient in getting geography taught on a wider scale, say Ms. Bednarz and others.

Also spurring interest in the subject is the demand from business and political leaders that schools produce graduates with knowledge to understand global economic and political issues.

“The business community felt that students coming out of high school were not worldly wise,” said David A. Lanegran, the coordinator of the Minnesota Alliance for Geography Education and a professor of geography at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn.

The growth in geography education can be seen in a variety of measures. U.S. 4th and 8th graders’ scores improved from 1994 to 2001 on the geography exam given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, with higher percentages of students in each grade ranking at the test’s “basic” level. Yet high school seniors’ scores remained essentially flat between 1994 and 2001, according to the report released by the National Center for Education Statistics last month.

In their survey of teachers, the NAEP researchers found that 8th and 12th grade teachers were dedicating more time than in 1994 to teaching the staples of geographic knowledge: maps, natural resources, and countries’ cultures.

What’s more, 26 states include geography in their high school curricula, and 17 more offer the subject as an elective. Meanwhile, the College Board’s Advanced Placement program launched a geography course in the 2000-01 school year. More than 3,000 studentsdouble last year’s numbertook the AP test this spring.

What NAEP Shows

Each of those indicators shows that geography has recovered from the slide it experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, as schools increasingly combined courses in geography, history, civics, and economics under the generic “social studies” umbrella.

The network of geographers and teachers built by the National Geographic Society has helped change that. The National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both federal agencies, have also supported the development of curriculum materials in recent years.

The geographic society offers two-week seminars in which teachers learn how to leave behind rote teaching styles that require memorization of places, landmarks, and what Ms. Bednarz and other geographers call “the principal products of Peru.”

The goal is to make the subject come alive and give students the skills and knowledge they need to “understand their world,” Ms. Chow said.

Geography teachers have been transforming their subject into case studies of current topics as diverse as why a new Wal- Mart opens near their town or why U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some of the National Geographic Society’s efforts have resulted in higher student achievement. In an analysis of NAEP data commissioned by the society, the 8th graders of 62 teachers who had participated in the seminars scored higher on the NAEP geography test than those whose teachers had not taken part in the professional development.

In addition to changing classroom practice, the society has financed statewide networks of teachers and geographers—who call themselves “geo- evangelists"—that push state officials to include the subject in curriculum materials and social studies standards. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada now have such networks.

Networks in 23 states have each been given $1 million endowments created through fund- raising efforts that the geographic society matched dollar for dollar.

On the national level, geography also won notice during the past decade. In 1990, federal and state leaders agreed to national education goals that specifically cited geography as a core subject targeted for higher student achievement by 2000.

Separating geography from other subjects in social studies was significant, Ms. Bednarz said, because it ensured that the discipline qualified for a federal grant to devise national standards in the subject and also made sure that students’ geographic achievement would be measured by NAEP. Ms. Bednarz was one of the authors of those standards, published in 1994.

The standards have become the basis for states’ efforts in writing geography into their own social studies standards, according to Lanny Proffer, a consultant to the society’s education foundation.

Left Behind?

Despite the progress of the past 14 years, all is not rosy.

In the latest NAEP, 34 percent of 4th graders were unable to write down the name of the state or district where they lived and then mark that state on a map of the United States. And 60 percent of 4th graders and 26 percent of 8th graders failed to identify Florida as an example of a peninsula.

With many students still failing to learn such basic facts, geographers are entering an era in which they fear their discipline will be given short shrift.

The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires states to document achievement in reading and mathematics in grades 3 through 8 and once during high school. As teachers focus on those goals, subjects not tested— geography included—might be left out of the curriculum.

“All of the social studies are in the beginning of benign neglect,” said Peggy Altoff, the supervisor of social studies for the Colorado Springs District No. 11 in Colorado. “We’re not even on the radar screen because it’s not in the federal legislation.”

But geography’s advocates see opportunities for creatively working their subject matter into reading and math lessons. Stories about other cultures are great practice materials for nonfiction reading passages that appear on state tests, and maps are real-life examples in understanding ratios and fractions, they note.

“There’s one social science that allows [teachers] to teach reading and math, and that is geography,” said Mr. Lanegran, the coordinator of the Minnesota alliance.

Many geography lessons in elementary schools are already taught that way, Ms. Chow notes.

The challenge will be to prepare teachers to do so to ensure that the subject isn’t swept aside in the rush to raise reading and math scores.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Geography Makes Comeback In U.S. Classrooms


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