Why most 8th graders are not good at geography

Most eighth-graders are not proficient in geography, a new report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office finds, with just 24 percent of eighth-graders “proficient” in geography in the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

NAEP testing is a statistical sample only at selected school, and no one school is judged by the results, which means schools are not motivated to teach to the NAEP test. NAEP is widely seen as the gold standard of U.S. educational assessment.

Geography is measured every year. It was measured in 2014 and in 2010, but prior to that the last test was in 2001, and then it reaches back all the way to 1994. Since 1994, things have not changed all that much. The same 24 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in geography then as 20 years later in 2014.

The GAO report found several explanations for the lack of progress, including misconceptions about what geography is, lack of teacher training, poor instructional materials and lack of geographic technology in the classroom.

Narrowed focus

Geography is being shortchanged by a narrow focus on reading and writing, argues Thomas Herman, a geography professor at San Diego State University and a coordinator for the California Geographic Alliance, part of a network of state alliances started in 1986 with the support of National Geographic.

The network’s mission is to help improve geography education in classroom by offering teachers training and curriculum tools to integrate geography. The network also helps nudge policymakers, administrators and teachers to broaden the curriculum, Herman said.

In Herman’s view, the heavy emphasis on standardized testing of reading and math is driving out the content-oriented learning that, ironically, provides the purpose and motivation for those basic skills.

This emphasis actually flies in the face of the new Common Core curriculum, which strongly emphasizes critical thinking, Herman notes. “I see a misalignment between what is being tested and the accountability feedback loop,” he said, “which results in overemphasis on ultra-fundamentals.”

“If testing only measures reading and math,” he adds, “it doesn’t matter what the guidance says about integrated, inquiry-driven learning. The superintendent will only be focused on making the test scores look better.

“Geography offers relevance,” Herman said. “We live in a geographically constructed world. Our roles are constructed around geography. Kids are interested in what’s going on out there.”

Advancing technology

Geography is not about memorizing state capitals,” said Rebecca Theobald, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the coordinator of the Colorado Geographic Alliance.

Ideally, Theobald said, as students get older and gain more content knowledge, they can become knowledge producers, using rapidly advancing geospatial technology, the more rudimentary forms of which are now found on most smartphones.

“Geography is an integrative discipline,” Theobald said, “and can be used to shed light on all kinds of social and scientific issues, from politics and economics to hydrology or morphology.”

Some students have mapped rat sightings in New York City, while students in the Northwest have mapped pine beetle infestations, Theobald said. Google Earth also offers possibilities. One analysis of the Darfur tragedy, Theobald noted, outlines a map of Sudan with villages that had been burned in the genocide.

At the early grades, Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Institute, said geography is simply about land forms and earth science — being able to identify continents, rivers and lakes, or understand the difference between desert and tundra.

“A literate person knows what Tundra means,” Pondiscio said, “and when they encounter it in reading, it doesn’t slow them down.”

These concepts build on each other, he continues. A history text may state that “annual flooding in the Nile delta made Egypt a fertile agricultural superpower.” But without some knowledge of geography, that phrase might make little sense to young readers, Pondiscio says.

Content is king

Preoccupation with reading and math scores is self-defeating when those skills are divorced from the content that gives them form and purpose, Pondiscio said.

“Decoding language is a skill,” he said, “but reading comprehension is not. Reading comprehension requires shared background knowledge between reader and writer.”

After students master basic skills in the early grades, the teacher’s job is to provide content knowledge, and with it the basic skills needed to expand, Pondiscio said.

After basic decoding is mastered, Pondiscio said, “any effort to treat reading as a skill makes things worse, not better. If you are not learning geography, you are not learning to read.”

Pondiscio agrees with Herman that, properly understood and implemented, the much-vilified Common Core curriculum is an antidote to the preoccupation with testing. “If I could have one wish,” he said, “It’s that every elementary teacher would understand that teaching reading is teaching content.”

Sandy teacher gets Google donation to fund project for special needs students

SANDY — Diane Nahalewski spent last summer scouring the Internet, garage sales and hardware stores for something that could make getting through the school day a little easier for her students.

As a resource teacher at Park Lane Elementary, Nahalewski — affectionately called “Mrs. N.” by her students — teaches about 30 special education students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Some days are easier than others, but most of the time, helping students “get the fidgetiness out” while completing their work has been difficult, she said.

After experimenting with PVC pipe, bungee cords, pool noodles and zip ties, Nahalewski was able to retrofit some of the students’ desks into standing desks, letting them either stand while they work or sit on a stool and move their feet with a foot swing that bounces.

Buying new standing desks for students would cost about $300 per student, plus the cost of a stool, but Nahalewski was able to convert existing desks for about $15 each. Even so, the school couldn’t afford to extend the project to every special needs student.

Until Monday.

In a surprise announcement, representatives of Google and national charity DonorsChoose.org came to the school and agreed to fully fund Nahalewski’s project for all of her students.

About $60,000 in funding was also announced for similar projects that would help more than 50 teachers and some 5,000 special education students in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“The real intention behind what we did today is to just honor teachers who are thinking creatively about how to support all students, especially those who might learn in different ways,” said Hannah Peter, partnership manager for DonorsChoose.org. “So we’re just really excited to spotlight a teacher who’s doing just that and also hope that through her amazing work, maybe there will be ripples and other teachers will find inspiration in how she’s approaching her work.”

Nahalewski originally posted a request for funding on the website, which connects willing donors with teachers or schools that need help funding a project. If a funding goal is met, the charity ships the needed materials to the school.

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not just the kids that show being fidgety, but the kids that don’t show it as well that need this.’ So I wanted it for everyone in my room,” Nahalewski said.

As part of a company-wide initiative, Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, is providing funding for teachers across the country to improve educational access for students with special needs. The company focused some of its efforts in Salt Lake and Utah counties with the ongoing installation of Google Fiber and worked with DonorsChoose.org to find suitable projects, according to Google spokeswoman Angie Welling.

It was then that Nahalewski and her desk project came up.

“We loved Mrs. N’s project. We thought it was really creative, really innovative,” Welling said. “Here’s a teacher who recognized a need in her classroom and got really creative about how to fix it: PVC pipe and bungee cords and pool noodles and things like that.”

The donation includes funding for Nahalewski’s desk project, $500 for each of the five other DonorsChoose.org projects in the school, $2,500 for future projects in Nahalewski’s class, and about $60,000 to help some 50 other projects in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“Those are students who have different ways of learning or they need different tools and technologies that they don’t have right now,” Welling said. “For those 5,000 students and for those 50 some-odd teachers, we really hope that this has a direct daily impact in their lives, helps the kids learn, improves the classroom environment and gives the kids some tools that they didn’t have before.”

Park Lane Elementary Principal Justin Jeffery said letting teachers, such as Nahalewski, have the flexibility to be innovative is important in meeting the needs of students, especially those in special education.

“We’re trying to meet the needs of all learners,” Jeffery said. “When I think of the things that she’s doing, she’s meeting the needs of a specific group of learners that have trouble, and even some that don’t. We’re trying to do all kinds of things to meet their needs.”

Nahalewski accepted the surprise donation Monday amid the cheers of students and teachers. She said she looks forward to extending the project to all her students that want to participate.

“It’s just all finally come together,” she said. “We’re hoping to just keep moving forward.”

Experts discuss how to handle defiant high school students

COLUMBIA, S.C. — How should adults respond when a teenager defies her teacher?

Disturbing videos showing a school resource officer flipping a girl from her desk and tossing her across the floor this week raised tough questions.


Police officers are commonly brought into public schools nowadays to maintain safety and deter illegal behavior. But the School Resource Officers’ Association says school districts should first agree not to involve officers in classroom discipline.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has a “memorandum of understanding” delineating when officers should be involved, but the district has declined to make it public, so it’s not clear whether Senior Deputy Ben Fields was asked to cross a line at Spring Valley High School.

Sheriff Leon Lott, who fired Fields after seeing the videos, told The Associated Press on Thursday that his deputy should not have been summoned in this case.

“It would be totally different if she were threatening the safety and security of the classroom,” Lott said, “but she was just exhibiting defiant behavior and being disrespectful to the teacher.”

“The role of an SRO is not a disciplinarian. We’re there to keep the peace and make sure people don’t break laws,” Lott added.


The girl broke a school rule by using her cellphone in class, but the teacher could have spoken to her quietly, even when she refused to surrender it, rather than delay the lesson for everyone else, said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor and expert on police violence.

Lott suggested another possibility: “Completely ignore her. She was the one who was suffering.”

Delaying consequences can be effective, said Larry Thompson, a former Kansas teacher who consults with schools via his “Responsibility-Centered Discipline” program.

“Time often helps the brain get out of the fight mode,” Thompson said. “The old model of classroom management does not fit the new model of what our kids need.”

Even when the girl refused to leave her seat, Alpert wonders, “Why didn’t they call a school counselor? She’s not doing anything to hurt anyone. She’s just being disruptive.”

Attorney Todd Rutherford questions why the deputy was “brought into a classroom to deal with a student who was sitting quietly, simply not wanting to leave class.” He represents both the girl in question as well as another student who challenged her treatment. Both are charged with “disturbing schools,” a misdemeanor publishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.


Touching a student should always be an officer’s last resort, Thompson said. “Physical contact is the very last piece that we ever want to have to do.”

Removing other students from the room is something both Alpert and the sheriff suggested, but Alpert said it could cause other problems.

“That gives her power in front of all of her friends,” Alpert said. “It’s a horrible message. Worse than that, what are you going to do to, leave that cop and the little girl in the room alone?”

Physically confronting her was “probably avoidable” said Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney in South Carolina. “When he saw that she was not going to react, is there another way to do this? Could you get another resource officer in? Could you just let the thing de-escalate? Wait until she’s after class instead of getting everybody into this confrontation?”

The officer had “so many options available,” Rutherford said. “The first is to say, ‘She’s not bothering anybody.’ The second’s to say, ‘Ma’am, are you going to sit quietly and listen?’ and she says yes. The third one is, if she absolutely refused to get up and she’s causing a problem and he wants to get her up, there are pressure points, grabbing her under her arm, wrist lock, there are a number of things that can be done, none of which include telling the student next to her to move so he can flip her desk over, slam her and toss her across the room.”


Sheriff Lott believes society should re-evaluate the role of police in schools, because officers are there to enforce laws, and one of them criminalizes classroom misbehavior.

“We have a bad law in South Carolina called “disturbing schools,” Lott said. “If an administrator or teacher did ask the officer to intervene, most likely the officer is going to do it. Generally, they’re going to do what they’ve been asked to do because they’ve been placed in the school.”a

Erin Stewart Is your child a bully or a victim

It’s not easy for parents to know if their child is being bullied, and even harder yet to admit that their sweet youngster might actually be a bully.

There are always going to be some parents who see all the signs and even have people tell them that their child is bullying other children but choose to ignore it. “He’s just being a kid,” they often say. “That other kid needs to learn to take a joke.”

But bullying is not a joke. It has led to life-or-death decisions for many children as technology has taken bullying to new levels. Kids can no longer escape to their homes for refuge. Instead, the bullying follows them on cellphones and social media accounts so that some children are victims of bullying 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I loved the video that went viral this month of two girls teasing a third girl at a bus stop. The girls were all in on the experiment to see what the adults would do about the bullying in front of them. Fortunately, the adults stepped up and told the girls to stop, encouraged the bullied girl to be who she was, and even invited her to come sit by them instead.

It was awesome to see adults stepping in to help this girl, but it also made me wonder if parents would be as likely to intervene if their own kids were the ones doing the bullying. Sometimes I think parents have difficulty admitting their child is a bully because they believe it reflects on their parenting. Maybe they feel defensive that their child’s behavior is their fault or that outsiders will think they condone or model such aggressive behavior at home.

That was certainly not the case for a good friend of mine, who has two sons that attend the same elementary school. The older one was constantly bullied at school while her younger son was often in trouble for picking on other students.

She seemed to have the worst end of both sides of bullying to deal with, which became painfully obvious on the day the principal called her into his office. There sat her two sons: the eldest with a bloody nose and the youngest in trouble because he had set up a “Fight Club” beneath the playground in which his brother got pummeled.

He didn’t mean for his brother to get hurt, but the moment made my friend step back and realize she was parenting both a victim and an aggressor. She had reared them the same and yet there they were, opposite ends of the spectrum.

The most important thing she could do at that moment was not run away from the situation and make excuses for her son. She didn’t. Instead, she worked with both children to understand why such behavior was unacceptable. She cared so little about what other people might think of her as a parent and more about what she could do to help her son and end the cycle of bullying that was directly affecting his brother.

I wish more parents could see the signs of bullying in their children and not be afraid to admit there might be a problem. Bullying doesn’t have to define a parent any more than it defines a child. The behaviors can change. But they often won’t go away on their own or even with the help of parents. There is no shame in getting help from counselors.

If your child is being bullied, get help. If your child is bullying, get help. Either way, someone’s child is being hurt.

The anti-bullying campaign, stopbullying.gov, offers these warning signs to parents.

Signs a child is being bullied:

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide

Signs a child is bullying others:

  • Get into physical or verbal fights
  • Have friends who bully others
  • Are increasingly aggressive
  • Get sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently
  • Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • Blame others for their problems
  • Don’t accept responsibility for their actions
  • Are competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity

Have you dealt with bullying in your home? What did you do to get help?

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her 8-year-old and 5-year-old daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her.