Virtually every industrialized nation except for the United States treats geography education as a strategic priority. In our complex 21st-century world, America’s national security and economic competitiveness will depend on having a population that can reason geographically. Yet the United States continues to leave geography out of its efforts to improve education.
The results of our inattention to geography education are manifest in the results of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress for Geography — “The Nation’s Report Card.”
In 2010, fewer than 30 percent of the students tested in all three grades (4th, 8th, and 12th) scored at the level of “proficient” or above. The test developers characterize “proficient” as “demonstrating solid academic performance” at grade level. At the top of the scale, fewer than 3 percent of students received advanced scores. At the bottom of the scale, more than 20 percent of students did not even achieve the “basic” level of mastery. At 12th grade, a full 30 percent of students scored below “basic.”
These results are disappointing on their own, but the worst news is that — with the exception of the lowest-performing students in the lower grades who have improved somewhat — these scores have stayed the same or worsened since 2001.
This inattention to geography stands in contrast to the demand for geographically literate individuals in the workforce. There is substantial demand in both the public and private sectors for people who have the ability to interpret and analyze geographic information. The number of jobs for such analysts is growing rapidly, while the supply of Americans who can fill them is not. By not preparing young people for careers that depend on geographic reasoning, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable.
In our global economy, the understanding and analytical skills developed through geography education are essential to make well-reasoned decisions about where to conduct business, how to conduct business in particular locations, and how to transport materials and goods from one location to another. Critical business choices such as where to build facilities, how to design a supply chain, and how to market to different cultures all require geographic reasoning.
These skills are equally important for emergency preparedness, defense, intelligence, and diplomacy. In our government and military, we need individuals who understand the dynamics of specific locations well enough to prepare for and respond to emergencies. We need analysts who are able to track people and events around the world and put appropriate responses forward for decision-makers. We need people who are able to operate on the ground in every kind of foreign context and can read the cultural and physical landscape appropriately.
When 79 percent of our high school students are not proficient in geography and 30 percent do not even have a basic understanding of geography, we are not meeting those needs.
The United States leads the world in the development of geographic information systems (GIS) —software for mapping and analyzing geographic data — but we are not keeping pace with the rest of the world in preparing our young people to use GIS or interpret GIS analyses to make decisions. We need to pay as much attention to the pipeline of geo-analysts and geo-scientists as we do to the pipeline of engineers and other scientists.
The 2010 NAEP results for geography are a wake-up call for the United States. We need to restore geography education to its appropriate place in our country. We need to invest in curriculum materials and the preparation of teachers, so that we can offer students an education that will prepare them for the world they will inhabit. And we need to ensure that this education is available to every student.