The Geo-Literacy Coalition Tackles Americans' Geographic Preparation

September 6, 2011

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Directions Magazine (DM): How did the coalition come about? What sort of organization is this? Lobbying? Funding?

Kim Hulse (KH): Building on 25 years of work focused on bolstering geographic education in K-12 classrooms, the National Geographic Society recognized two important issues in its efforts to improve the nation’s geo-literacy: the fact that one concerned group cannot make this kind of change alone, and the need to reach beyond the world of the school and classroom to involve the general citizenry, business and industry as well. To address these issues, National Geographic formed the Founding Council of the Geo-Literacy Coalition along with CH2M Hill, Esri and the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. These organizations have a shared interest in the importance of having a geo-literate American workforce and a society that can make sound decisions about economic, environmental, diplomatic and community planning issues. The coalition is currently recruiting like-minded corporations, non-profit organizations and individuals to become members.

The nascent coalition is in the process of planning what the organization can do, and how it can be most effective in reaching its goals. Coalition activities are currently focused on advocacy, messaging and communications efforts.

DM: Our understanding is that the coalition is responding to the lack of geographic knowledge rather than the minimal improvement/decrease measured in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. What statistics would the coalition use to make its point for education funding?

KH:  The fact that NAEP shows that fewer than 30% of students tested in grades 4, 8 and 12 scored at the level of “proficient” or above in geography is disappointing in itself, but more worrisome is knowing that these scores have stayed the same or gotten worse since the last test in 2001. This trend underscores that there has been no investment in geography education in the last decade, despite a growing recognition that this is a strategically important issue.

Geography should be viewed as a strategic priority on par with engineering and other sciences. By neglecting geography education in schools we fall behind the rest of the world in turning out graduates who can reason about geographic challenges, understand human and physical systems and how they interact, and make systematic decisions. While every state currently includes geography content standards at some level in its curriculum, only 15 states require that these standards actually be taught. Of the 24 states that require high school exit exams, only two include assessments in geography as part of that process.

At the federal level, geography has been officially recognized as one of the courses necessary for a well-rounded curriculum since the release of the “Goals 2000” documents, and subsequently in the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation and laws. However, geography has received zero federal dollars under NCLB, making it the sole recognized subject area not benefitting from federal funding. Current legislation in Congress known as the “Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act,” Geo-Literacy Coalition advocacy activities, and the Speak Up For Geography petition are some of the ways in which we seek to rectify this situation.

DM: The press release refers to a statement from the coalition. What are its key points?


[The following is a summary of the statement which is not currently online. - Ed.]

Virtually every industrialized nation except for the U.S. treats geography education as a strategic priority. Our national security and economic competitiveness depend on having a population that can reason geographically, yet the U.S. consistently neglects geography education in its schools.

There is an enormous—and increasing—demand in the public and private sectors for individuals that have the ability to analyze and interpret geographic information. The number of jobs for such analysts is growing rapidly, while the supply of Americans with these skills is not.

We are constraining young Americans’ ability to compete in the global economy by not helping them develop the skills necessary to make well-reasoned decisions. Where to conduct business, how to conduct business in particular locations, how to transport materials from one location to another, how to design a supply chain, how to market to different cultures are all examples of critical business decisions that require geographic reasoning.

These skills are equally important for emergency preparedness, defense, intelligence and diplomacy. We need individuals who can understand the dynamics of specific locations well enough to prepare for and respond to emergencies. We need analysts who can track people and events around the world and understand the systems in which we all operate in order to put appropriate responses forward to decision-makers.

The U.S. leads the world in the development of 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.

DM: How will the coalition pursue its goal noted in the release: "a call for the U.S. to invest in geography education"? 

KH: The Geo-Literacy Coalition plans to stay active in bringing attention to the issues of the importance of having a geo-literate population, and the need to invest in geography education in our nation’s schools. Coalition activities to date involve underwriting Geography Awareness Week—a public awareness and education program encouraging people to explore their own communities with a geographic eye, seeing new things, making new connections, and understanding their community’s relationship with the rest of the world—and developing messaging around the importance of geo-literacy for various audiences.

Coalition members are also brainstorming and advising approaches on how to best support the “Teaching Geography Is Fundamental Act” in Congress as well as developing a long-term plan for coalition activities and new member recruitment.


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