Powerful Geography
IES Research Grant Proposal Synopsis

Significance: The National Center for Research in Geography Education (NCRGE) proposes exploratory research to inform the next generation of national and state geography standards. In this study, national geography standards are conceived as the ‘malleable factors’ that stand to influence student learning outcomes and the nature of state standards. State and local education agencies, meanwhile, are the mediators whose relative acceptance of the content recommended in national standards will influence student learning outcomes in geography.

Drawing on the theoretical framework known as the capabilities approach, this project will produce quantitative and qualitative measures of disciplinary geographic knowledge and practices that advance well-being, agency, and justice in society. This ‘powerful’ geography is defined as the disciplinary knowledge that supports specialized and distinctive thinking, yet which is also highly practical, connected to student diversity and aspirations, and useful in a variety of workforce and personal contexts. The findings of this research will be used to recommend geography subject matter and future educational interventions for schools, especially those that serve low income and minority students who persistently score at or below Basic on the NAEP Geography assessments.

Research Plan: The methodology for this research was developed in a pilot study in June and July 2018 involving six states: TX, NE, MN, CO, NC, and CA. Our proposed research has four components.

Year 1: The first research component will be an exploratory analysis of NAEP Geography data (1994, 2001, 2010, 2014, and 2018) aimed at measuring patterns in elementary, middle, and high school students’ knowledge of geography subject matter in relation to:

  • individual-level attributes (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic status),
  • classroom-level attributes (e.g., instructional strategies), and
  • school-level attributes (e.g., rural vs. urban district, % free lunch, public vs. private).

Staff in the National Center for Education Statistics confirmed this analysis is doable, but will require a restricted-use license to access the relevant secondary data (an application is currently pending approval). State comparisons are not possible because NAEP Geography is a national-level assessment.

The second research component will operationalize the capabilities approach in a manner that enables us to define and measure the societal value of geography through an analysis of the work and civic engagements of professionals with backgrounds in different areas of geography. Qualitative methods will gather data initially in the six states that participated in the Powerful Geography pilot study (TX, NC, MN, CO, CA, NE). Our target population is defined as non-academic professionals with undergraduate, master’s, and doctorates in geography and related spatial sciences (e.g., spatial statistics, econometrics and regional science, and earth system science). From these professionals we will seek detailed examples of the ways geographic knowledge is being applied for problem solving, analysis, and improvements to the environment and the well-being of people and their communities.

We will define ‘powerful’ geographic knowledge as comprising:

  1. substantive geographic knowledge, g., knowledge and understanding of geographic terminology and substantive concepts such as alluvial plain, metropolitan area, ethnic group, tertiary economy, coniferous forest, geologic fault, flood zone, natural hazards, etc.
  2. conceptual geographic knowledge, e.g., using “big ideas” in geography such as location, place, region, interconnection, spatial relationships, etc., to think about people, places, and environments, from the local to the global.
  3. procedural geographic knowledge, e.g., spatial analysis with a GIS or other geospatial technology, designing a geographic inquiry and research study, collecting spatial data in the field, etc.

Additionally, we are interested in learning more about the ways geography education connects with personal aspirations, career goals, and the choices individuals make about how to live and participate in civic affairs. The data will be analyzed contextually to account for the gender and racial/ethnic diversity, academic preparation, and career interests represented in the sample.

Year 2: The third research component will focus on gathering data on student aspirations. Former Alliance Coordinators from the six pilot states will develop surveys and conduct focus groups with elementary and secondary school teachers and students. The surveys and focus groups will be designed to obtain age-relevant information about students’ curiosity (about their neighborhood, community, state, and world), what students aspire to be and to do, their goals and concerns, and their relative interest in various social and environmental issues. The state samples will be structured in a manner that reflects the diversity of student and school characteristics.

The fourth research component will determine what geography subject matter to recommend as the basis of future standards. A series of research workshops will convene geographers, teachers, teacher educators, education researchers, and curriculum writers in the six pilot states to review their state datasets and identify the subject matter that 1) students presently do not understand, 2) is connected to the aspirations of students of diverse backgrounds, and 3) is important for economic development, civic engagement, and addressing various social and environmental needs (Figure 1). This is the subject matter that we will recommend for future standards development.

Year 3: This year will focus on reporting and dissemination activities, including scaling-up data collection to a new cohort of states via National Geographic’s Educator Network.

Future Work (IES Development Grant): This project will provide the empirical foundation for future standards development at the national and state levels. NCRGE, in close consultation with GENIP, will organize working sessions in which the results of this project will be applied to develop a Powerful Geography curriculum framework featuring a new set of national standards. These new national standards will guide states to the subject matter that our research supports as being highly significant for life, work, and citizenship. The curriculum framework will organize subject matter in four content domains: Human Geography, Physical Geography, Environment & Society, Places and Regions. Cross-cutting concepts and processes (e.g., spatial thinking, geospatial technologies) will integrate the elements of these content domains, while connections will also be drawn to other curriculum frameworks such as C3, the Next Generation Science Standards, and National Geographic’s geo-inquiry process. Personnel from various states will then use the curriculum framework and respective state datasets to craft state-level standards, scope-and-sequence documents, and related teacher guides.


Figure 1. Data and perspectives that will define the Powerful Geography curriculum framework. Future development of state standards for geography will prioritize improving knowledge of geography subject matter that connects with student aspirations and is significant for life, work, and citizenship.