Geography too often gets short shrift in schools

BY DOUGLAS A. HURT Published: March 10, 2012

In an era of increasing global economic connections, U.S. involvement in major military conflicts in the Middle East and widespread adoption of geospatial technology (including geographic information systems and satellite remote sensing), the Oklahoma Department of Education has chosen to ignore the imperative of funding geographic education.

A recent decision to withdraw funds from teacher training programs for geographic education will contribute to the miseducation of students. Geography is vital for preparing students to understand these issues. Frequently misunderstood as solely the memorization of state capitals, geography is the study of the relationships between people, places and the environment.

Geographic illiteracy is pervasive in many American schools. A 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) survey of more than 26,000 students showed that only one-fourth of students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades scored at a “proficient” level, demonstrating a solid understanding of geographic material. More disturbingly, only 1 percent to 3 percent of surveyed students performed at the “advanced” level, designating superior performance.

Longitudinal NAEP trends also don't lead to optimism. Only at grade four have students improved their geography scores in the past 20 years. Grade eight scores have remained static while grade 12 student achievement has actually declined.

All too frequently, geography in K-12 classrooms disappears into a nebulous grouping of “social studies” or “world cultures.” Even state high schools rarely offer courses designated as geography that prepare students for college coursework. Rarely, on any level, is geography taught as a stand-alone course led by an educator with extensive college geography coursework.

Funding of enhanced teacher training through in-service workshops and summer institutes, readily available lesson plans vetted by experienced classroom educators and mentoring opportunities for early career geography teachers are necessities if students are to be exposed to intellectually rich geography courses.

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