Geography has an image problem, especially in K-12 schools in Tennessee. Despite the best efforts of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance (TGA), since 2013, the required seventh grade stand-alone World Geography course has been eliminated from the curriculum, and the number of high school elective World Geography courses offered have plummeted because it can no longer be taken as a required credit toward graduation. The only cohesive and meaningful geography instruction that a student will receive during their time in K-12 in Tennessee is in the third grade, unless they take Advanced Placement Human Geography in high school. The good news is that more schools are offering the course and the number of students taking the AP Human Geography exam grows significantly each year. In 2016, 4,691 Tennessee students took the exam.
“This degradation of geography in the K-12 curriculum has a direct impact on the geography department because students are not adequately introduced to the discipline in middle or high school,” says Kurt Butefish, coordinator of TGA. “We have to actively educate students that geography is a viable career path and then recruit them into our programs of study.”
During the 2016-17 academic year, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) revised the Tennessee social studies standards, which the State Board of Education voted to accept. While significant rewriting of the standards occurred, the disturbing practice of hybridizing standards by rolling inadequate geography content into “history and geography” courses in middle and high school curriculum continued. For example, a student in high school now takes a required course called World History and Geography: The Industrial Revolution to the Contemporary World. No college or university in Tennessee teaches a geography course based on a chronological timeline.
“At a time when ‘college and career readiness’ is the mantra coming out of Nashville, and while geography related jobs are at an all-time high and increasing, we have to work overtime to attract students into the discipline,” Butefish says.
Since 2012, members of TGA have had to shift a great deal of their focus from outreach to teachers and students toward advocating for geography education and educating decision-makers in the state legislature, the TDOE, and the State Board of Education about the value of the discipline for Tennessee. Unfortunately, the idea that geography is about memorizing state capitals appears to be deeply ingrained.
Some good news, however, is coming out of the TGA’s efforts. In addition to the growing popularity in AP Human Geography, the Career and Technical Education (CTE) division of TDOE did catch on and, in 2013, an Introduction to Geographic Information Systems course was added to the CTE curriculum. The challenge is that the DOE does not provide support to train teachers to be qualified to teach the course. During the summers of 2014, 2016, and 2017, however, the TGA sponsored or co-sponsored Geospatial Academies to provide training to 60 teachers. They are making some progress. In 2016, there was one teacher in the state offering the course. This year, there will be three, and two of those are recent graduates of the academy.
“It might not sound like much, but it is progress,” Butefish says. “Although, again, we have to educate and sell school administrators on why the course is valuable and why they should expend their effort and scarce resources to offer Intro to GIS. My message to our readers is that geographers have to sell their discipline, and we can use your assistance.”
Butefish encourages everyone to be aware of the place of geography in the state’s K-12 curriculum. Volunteer to speak about geography at a local school’s career day. Sign up to be a GeoMentor through the AAG-Esri Connect ED program at geomentors.net.
“If you are a resident of Tennessee, please send me an email and ask to be added to my list of GeoEvangelists,” Butefish says. “This is a list of professionals who I keep informed of educational issues in Tennessee and who are willing to communicate with decision-makers through letters and email about their geography education concerns. It has been my experience that people who employ geographers or who are employed in the discipline are heard in Nashville much louder than those in the education community.”
To join Kurt Butefish on his mission to communicate the importance of geography to decision makers, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.