Geography Ed for a Flat World: Schools Are Only Beginning to Prepare Students for a Changing Landscape

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Geography isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, that subject is often buried--and therefore inadequately covered--in a social studies curriculum itself under siege because of the extended commitment in schools to reading and math.

But geographical knowledge also isn't what it used to be. It's become essential to understanding a brave new world of international economic and political developments, as well as preparing for a host of jobs that did not even exist 20 years ago. The release of revised national standards for geography later this year--the first revision since these standards were introduced in 1994--will emphasize the changing geographical landscape.

Over the past decade, meanwhile, business and educational leaders have retooled their approaches to deal with rapidly emerging economies and societies, from China and India to Mexico and Brazil. Even Facebook has realized the importance of knowing geography, having added a world map to users' pages so they can include all the places they have visited in their lives.

In a 2004 report, the latest report available, the U.S. Department of Labor declared that geotechnology--the combination of geography with an ever-expanding array of new high-tech jobs--represents one of the labor megatrends for the 21st century. These changing realities are posing a problem--and an opportunity--for American schools and their students, who by most measures lag behind the rest of the world in geographical knowledge and skills.

The Geography Problem

In a 2002 geographic literacy survey of 18- to 24-year-olds in nine countries by the National Geographic Society, a nonprofit that has long promoted geographic literacy, the United States ranked eighth--just ahead of Mexico and behind the likes of Canada, Japan, Great Britain and Italy. In 2006, a follow-up questionnaire aimed just at Americans found that 88 percent could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, 70 percent could not locate North Korea, and 50 percent had no idea where New York state was on a U.S. map.

Last year, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average geography score for high school seniors (282 on a 500-point scale) on the National Assessment for Educational Progress had not changed between 2001 and 2010 and had declined from 1994. Only 1 percent of those taking the 2010 test achieved the "advanced level," which required tasks from explaining the reasons for American imports and exports to describing how wetlands function.

American students are not even on the map when it comes to advanced geographical knowledge--and it's no secret to Jackie Walte, director of educational affairs for the National Association for Geography Educators in Washington, D.C. "No Child Left Behind has significantly reduced the focus in schools to just a few areas and to the detriment of geography," she explains.

Waite notes that NCLB blunted a "growth spurt" largely promoted by National Geographic in the mid-1990s that included the creation of alliances in all 50 states to promote geography in schools, the proliferation of statewide geography bees, and the development in 1994 of a set of national geography standards.

Along with the District of Columbia, Texas, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia are the only states that require stand-alone geography courses and standardized testing on the subject. (California, Rhode Island and New Mexico require a combined history and geography course.)

"I really struggle with why geography isn't more important," admits Kevin Gasner, who teaches a seventh-grade geography course at the Oregon Middle School in the Oregon (Wis.) School District. "We're all connected globally, and if we want to prepare kids for a global economy, we better teach them what culture and life is like around the globe."

Not Your Parents' Geography

That message is beginning to sink in at districts and larger institutions around the country, including the College Board, which since 2001 has offered an AP exam in human geography that covers a curriculum worlds apart from what was taught years ago. …