Social Studies

World History and Geography Gain Traction In Class

By Sean Cavanagh — March 20, 2007 7 min read
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Long belittled for their ignorance of foreign cultures—not to mention an inability to locate well-known countries on world maps—an increasing number of U.S. high school students are taking courses designed to expand their international knowledge.

A recent federal study shows that the percentage of American students taking world history and world geography in high school has risen faster than enrollment in any other social studies classes over the past 15 years.

Educators and advocates who have fought to expand the teaching of internationally themed lessons have been heartened by those findings, which were included in a study released last month of high school transcripts among students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Many see the results as the outcome of years of state and local efforts, dating back to the 1980s, to increase graduation requirements in world history and create new course offerings in other, related classes, such as geography, which is often taught as an elective.

Others say the impact of events such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled new demand for international affairs in school districts.

“There’s a growing interest in world history. It’s coming of age in its own right,” said Graham C. Andrew, a history teacher at the Miami Country Day School, a private school in Miami. Students, teachers, and administrators see news unfolding in the Middle East, he said, and “they want to understand the roots of that.”

Global Strides

World history and world geography have dominated the growth in high school coursetaking in the social studies.

*Click image to see the full chart.


* Significantly different from 2005

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Many of Mr. Andrew’s students already bring a cross-cultural perspective to class. His school’s population includes an eclectic range of ethnic groups; the teacher’s classes in recent years have included students from India, Colombia, Venezuela, and Lithuania, among other nations.

Like many educators devoted to history, Mr. Andrew believes the proliferation of students taking world history has been helped by an expanding pool of course offerings for schools to consider. His school now offers an Advanced Placement course in world history, which the College Board introduced in 2002. In its first year, about 21,000 students nationwide took the AP exam in world history; more than 83,000 did so in 2006.

Over the past two decades, interest in the study of geography has risen on several fronts. A world geography NAEP was introduced in 1994. The College Board created an AP Human Geography course in 2001, and test-taking in the subject has risen from 3,000 students then to more than 21,000 last year.

State Efforts Expand

Students at Miami Country Day must have school approval to enroll in Mr. Andrew’s AP world history course, and more of them, primarily sophomores, are signing up. Only six students took part the first year he taught the class; he has 23 students this year.

Because of the demand, said the teacher, “we’ll have to be more stringent in who we accept, or break it into two sections.”

The federal study of coursetaking, titled “America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study,” was based on information from a nationally representative sample of 26,000 public and private school students.

The percentage of high school students who had taken world history by the time they graduated in 1990 was 60 percent, according to the study. By 2005, that number had jumped to 77 percent. The percentage of students who had taken world geography, while smaller, climbed from 21 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2005.

But overall, coursetaking in most of the social studies, including U.S. history, held steady over the decade and a half covered by the study.

U.S. history remains the most common social studies course, according to the study, with 94 percent of high school students in 2005 having taken it before graduation.

Similarly, 79 percent of students who graduated in 2005 had taken a course labeled “government,” “civics,” or “politics.”

State requirements in world history have increased over the years, representatives of several education organizations said. Most states today require students to complete three years of social studies classes in high school, said Peggy Altoff, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional association in Silver Spring, Md.

At least 14 states today, as well as the District of Columbia, require students to take a world history course before graduating from high school, according to information collected by the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy clearinghouse. In many of those states, the classes include a geography component.

While she is pleased to see the burgeoning enrollment in world history and world geography, Ms. Altoff, like many social studies advocates, cautions that what students gain depends on the content of those courses. Successful world history lessons should draw connections between historical events and time periods, and leave sufficient time to discuss 20th-century developments, she said.

“Just because it says ‘world history’ in the course title doesn’t give an indication that students have a greater depth of understanding,” said Ms. Altoff, the social studies curriculum coordinator in the 29,000-student District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Moving Beyond Europe

Despite the apparent gains at the high school level, Ms. Altoff also believes world history and world geography suffer earlier in the education pipeline. Under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, she said, elementary and middle schools face increasing pressure to cut class time in history in order to focus on raising test scores in reading and mathematics. The federal law requires students to be tested annually in those subjects in grades 3-8, and once during high school.

In addition, the federal transcript study does not indicate the extent to which teachers are delving into studies of such regions as Asia and the Middle East, which are unfamiliar to many students but are of obvious relevance today, noted Michael H. Levine, the vice president for new media at the Asia Society.

Research undertaken by Mr. Levine’s New York City-based organization, which promotes cross-cultural understanding through education and other means, shows that internationally themed school lessons tend to give too little attention to non-Western cultures.

“We’d like to change that,” Mr. Levine said. “Of course, it’s great that more students are [taking] geography, world history, and foreign languages, but there’s a lack of study of regions of the world other than Europe.”

Stronger state requirements are not the only factor driving increased enrollment in world history and world geography, Mr. Levine speculated. “Significant growth” has occurred in individual, internationally themed schools across the country, he said.

There are also more resources available to teachers who propose world history or world geography courses, he noted. Many virtual schools offer online coursework and other content in international studies for teachers and students. In addition, the amount of professional-development resources for teachers seeking to increase their international content knowledge has expanded, added Mr. Levine.

Advocates such as the National Geographic Education Foundation have pushed to make the study of maps, regions, and the interaction of different societies and communities a more central part of the curriculum. Since the 1980s, the foundation has provided professional development, training, and other support to more than 100,000 K-12 teachers nationwide through “geographic alliances,” an effort to connect college faculty with expertise in geography with teachers at all grade levels.

“We’re seeing very solid growth in the understanding of the importance of geographic literacy,” said Chris Shearer, the director of grantmaking at the foundation.

Margaret S. Branson, the associate director of the Center for Civic Education, in Calabasas, Calif., called the growth in world history and world geography “very pleasing,” adding that “we’ve been very insular” in what kinds of history are emphasized in schools.

But educators should not be content with 79 percent of students taking a course labeled government, civics, or politics, said Ms. Branson, whose organization promotes understanding of citizenship and law.

“That’s not a satisfactory number,” she said. “Everyone’s entitled to vote, serve on a jury, express opinions. That’s almost one-quarter of the population that’s not getting anything.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as World History and Geography Gain Traction in Class

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