Academic journal article Geography

Reading the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education in the United States

Academic journal article Geography

Reading the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education in the United States

Article excerpt


For decades, young people in the United States have demonstrated considerable lack of geography knowledge and understanding. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s showed students' minimal knowledge of the subject (Wise, 1975; Helgren, 1983; Meredith, 1985), and the landmark study titled A Nation at Risk (NCEE, 1983) specifically mentioned the need to increase and improve instruction in geography. In 1988, American young people scored only 43% on a test of geographic literacy, the lowest of the nine industrialised countries surveyed (Gallup Organization, 1988). Additional studies showed continuation of the trend into the twenty-first century (RoperASW, 2002; National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs, 2006). In 2010, a large nationwide assessment (NOES, 2011) showed only one in four students achieving at or above the proficient level in geography and one in five scoring below the basic level (Table 1).

Working throughout these decades to rectify the trend, geography educators succeeded in establishing a stronger place for geography in school curricula and in government policy. This extended to a national proclamation signed by the then US President, Ronald Reagan, in 1987 to establish Geography Awareness Week across the country (National Geographic Society, 2014), but the main focus was on individual states because they hold the primary responsibility for education in the United States. Unfortunately, according to Edelson and Pitts, 'these successes in improving the place of geography in the educational system have not been followed up with the levels of effort or resources necessary to bring about widespread improvement in the quality of instruction' (2013, pp. 2-3, emphasis added). Therefore, improving the quality of geography education became a primary purpose of the project entitled A Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education, which was launched in 2010 (National Geographic Education, 2013).

Overview and critique of the Road Map project

Genesis and structure

The four major geography professional organisations in the United States1 have collaborated for many decades to improve geography education in the nation's schools. They spent particular effort over the last 10 years complimenting work at the state level with increasing the priority of geography in federal education policy and funding. In large part because of this effort, the US Congress issued a statement in 2009 that expressed concern "that K-12 students need a better foundation in geographic literacy' and directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) "to work with external partners with experience in geographic education to improve geography teaching, training and research in our Nation's schools' (US House of Representatives, 2009, p. 767). As a result, the NSF awarded a US$2.2 million grant to the National Geographic Society to 'create frameworks that will guide the planning, implementation, and scale-up of efforts to improve geographic education over the next decade' (NSF, 2010, p. 1). As lead partner in the project, the National Geographic Society collaborated with the other three professional organisations to define the critical issues for improving geography education and to organise the efforts to address them. Four components of this effort emerged (Table 2). A committee, established for each of the first three components, was charged with conducting research, developing frameworks and producing recommendations about its respective focus. For the fourth component, the American Geographical Society produced a pilot study of public beliefs and values towards geography education.

A total of 58 individuals are listed by name and affiliation as members of the three project committees, of the Project Steering Committees and of the Project Advisory Board. Short biographies of the project committee members show their substantive background and experience related to the focus area of their respective reports. The ten-member Project Steering Committee included five members from the project committees, which was crucial (no doubt) in coordinating such a large project. …

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