By Lisa Fingeroot | The Tennessean
A state plan to move geography lessons into history classes to create more time for teaching the language skills measured by standardized tests has some teachers worried that students will lose out.
Geography educators think combining the two subjects will cheat Tennessee students of information that's increasingly important -- a grasp of the geotechnical systems that create intelligence maps for the military, keep FedEx packages moving and create the mapping systems used in smartphones and cars. They fear students won't be college- or career-ready without that information.
State officials, however, say intertwining the two subjects will give every student a deeper understanding of both topics and students will no longer be forced to choose between history and geography classes in high school.
A letter-writing campaign by some educators last month caused the state to rethink at least one proposed change to its geography curriculum, which would have had students studying geography in fifth grade -- an age that educators say is too young.
A rewrite of the proposed curriculum won't move geography to fifth grade, but it will still intertwine geography and history. The proposal is to be offered for further public comment next month.
Educators who teach both history and geography see how combining them in one class could enhance student understanding of each topic, but they worry that key technical elements could be left out because the information doesn't fit nicely into a history lesson.
"Geography provides the context for history, and history makes geography that much more relevant," said Rich McKinney, lead teacher at Knox County's West High School. As a teacher of both history and geography, he has a mixed reaction to the state move.
"I have concerns that physical geography will not be adequately represented," he said. McKinney thinks political and human geography could fit appropriately into the history curriculum, but he said he doesn't support the plan unless it reflects all aspects of geography that will prepare students for college and career.
If geography were still taught only with maps and pencils, he would be more supportive, McKinney added. He does not believe, however, that geography is being ignored in favor of the math and language arts curriculum that will be measured by standardized tests.
"Part of this (change) is to make room, time to focus on literacy expectations" of the Common Core State Standards, said Emily Barton, assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education.
The Common Core, a set of curriculum standards shared by almost all states, was adopted in Tennessee in 2010. The Common Core now sets benchmarks only for math and language arts -- not for subjects such as geography or history.
"It will make room in the curriculum," Barton said of intertwining geography and history. "Right now (social studies teachers) feel like they have to cover so much content they don't have time to go into the literacy work."
The design of Common Core standards and the opinion of other education experts is that reading and writing skills should be reinforced in other classes, she added. For example, a child would read a social studies passage and then write a paragraph explaining the material he read.
Tennessee high school students now choose either geography or world history to meet graduation requirements, but either choice causes them to miss some information, Barton said. Intertwining the subjects will correct that knowledge gap, she added. Students who now opt for a stand-alone geography class in high school can miss all of world history from 1500 to current times, Barton said.
Stand-alone geography classes will be available as electives, and the Advanced Placement Human Geography class will not be affected by the changes.
Barton's research shows that no state requires a stand-alone geography class for a full high school credit, she said.
Kurt Butefish, coordinator of the Tennessee Geographical Alliance, which spurred the letter-writing campaign, said "social studies has been minimized as a curriculum at the expense of reading, writing and arithmetic." He worries that economic and political geography are being ignored in the rush to achieve high scores in math and language arts areas tested by standardized tests.
Tennessee's current standards call for students to understand the characteristics and uses of maps, globes and other geographic tools and technologies, but Butefish doesn't believe those skills could be adequately addressed in a history class.
"We're deeply committed to geography," Barton said. Geography will receive even more focus in the new curriculum as students are given a better understanding through knowing both where and when historical events occurred, she added.
Barton believes the debate should wait until March, when the standards are complete and ready for public comment.
"We really need to look at the standards themselves, and that will allow us to have a more concrete conversation," she said. "The course sequence is not intended to shortchange geography." She thinks the changes will allow "a really robust understanding" of both topics.
To Butefish, whose organization is on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that lack of high school requirements is showing up when students get to college and the geography departments have to start "at square one."
Lisa Fingeroot can be reached at 259-8892 or at LFingeroot@ Tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaFingeroot.