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Summer 2010
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Needed: A National Blueprint for GIS and Geography Education in Our Schools

photo of Doug RichardsonThe Obama Administration recently released its blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known as No Child Left Behind. Last reenacted in 2002, the law funds K12 education in the United States and has been long overdue for congressional reauthorization, but political clashes have prevented action until now. With the debate over health care reform—which had been sucking all the oxygen out of political Washington—finally over, the administration has started to turn its focus to other policy issues, and the ESEA is near the top of the list.

The AAG has been actively engaged with key officials on Capitol Hill regarding No Child Left Behind in recent years. Our biggest concern is that geography is the only core academic subject identified within the law that does not receive a specific funding allocation for implementing programs to further the teaching of geography at the K12 level. The AAG and many others throughout the GIS community have been working with individual members of Congress, as well as the leadership of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and the House Committee on Education and Labor, for several years now to respond to their requests for information, and we have gained some traction.

The Senate HELP Committee, which is chaired by Tom Harkin (D-IA), has already begun hearings on the ESEA reauthorization and recently hosted Education Secretary Arne Duncan for a discussion of the topic. Duncan noted that the current eight-year gap between reauthorizations is the longest in the 45-year history since the law was first enacted and that it is crucial that Congress act now to fix flaws in the law. Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY), the ranking Republican on the HELP Committee, applauded the administration's initiative in releasing the blueprint and especially commended the focus on the special needs of rural school districts. He specifically cited the lack of attention to rural needs in the program, asserting, "No Child Left Behind has been criticized as a one-size-fits-all law, a claim that has rung especially true in rural areas." This line of argument should work well for geography and GIScience education in that we can argue that geography and GIS, of all subjects, are especially suited to adapting to the places where they are taught.

The general Obama ESEA blueprint for education reform does not mention geography or provide any dedicated funding for the teaching of geography or GIS at the K12 level. The blueprint, however, is generic in nature and offers only a big-picture look at the major changes the administration is seeking. These changes include a request to the states to adopt college- and career-ready standards and reward schools for producing dramatic gains in student achievement. The focus on careers is especially valuable for geotechnologies, which have been recognized by the Department of Labor as one of three critical growth fields. On a promising note for geography, the document does challenge the nation to embrace educational standards that would put America on a path to global leadership.

In addition to reaching out to members of the administration in the coming weeks and months, the AAG will continue to work with Congress to respond to congressional requests for information on the importance of teaching geography and the funding of geographic education. At the recent AAG Annual Meeting, we hosted several special sessions focused on geography education and federal education policy. Speakers included Congressmen Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who holds an influential House leadership position, and Tim Walz (D-MN), a former high school geography teacher. Van Hollen and Walz applauded the efforts of geographers and GIS users to promote geography education at the K12 level and urged our community to continue to reach out to members of Congress.

As an integral part of our long-term effort to address K12 geography education and the ESEA reauthorization, we have released a draft AAG Blueprint for Geography Education to complement President Obama's initiative and lay out a more comprehensive strategy for enhancing geography education in the United States. We view this blueprint as an evolving document, and we invite the Esri user community to review it and make comments or suggestions for improvements at aag.org/cs/education/blueprint_for_geography_education.

Separately, the AAG will also continue to engage with other decision makers, including the National Governors Association (NGA), the Chief State School Officers, and other leading state officials, to advance and support key geography education programs. The NGA serves as the leading voice of the states in Washington and is attuned to the critical issues being debated on Capitol Hill, including the reauthorization of the ESEA. Perhaps of greater importance, the NGA runs a center on best practices that can be a key starting point for promoting ideas. We will work through the NGA and other avenues to bring attention to the importance of geographic education at the K12 level and the value of this education to GIS and related careers involving geotechnologies.

Ultimately, we at the AAG will be looking to the GIS community for assistance and leadership during this process. We suggest that you consider contacting your members of Congress to provide your own perspectives on the need for teaching geography and GIS in U.S. schools and the importance of dedicated federal funding for this purpose. The effort to bring attention to geography at the federal level has been an important cause to the AAG in recent years. As we engage in the reauthorization debate this year, we will redouble our efforts and ask you to join us in this crucial undertaking. To learn more about how you can help support the teaching of geography and GIS in our schools, visit aag.org.

Doug Richardson and John Wertman
drichardson@aag.org

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