Strong Schools for a Strong Democracy: When Schools Teach Reading and Writing Using History/social Science Texts, Students Make More Connections and Build Greater Understanding Than Is Possible with Isolated Reading and Writing Tasks

By Hill, Margaret | Leadership, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Strong Schools for a Strong Democracy: When Schools Teach Reading and Writing Using History/social Science Texts, Students Make More Connections and Build Greater Understanding Than Is Possible with Isolated Reading and Writing Tasks


Hill, Margaret, Leadership


Climbing out the window of his bedroom, where his parents had grounded him, Joshua glanced at his watch. "I've got to hurry to the school. Our 'We the People' Congressional hearing starts in a few minutes and I don't want to let my team down by being late. Besides, my part is the best argument for why student free speech rights should be constitutional.

While students all across California are dropping out, Joshua was breaking into school for a learning activity. When the teacher told me about him, I asked, "What motivated this student to want to participate so badly in the Congressional hearing that he risked almost certain punishment for breaking out of his house?"

She answered, "He said he worked hard learning about the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court cases related to the First Amendment because he really believes students have ideas that need to be heard. He wasn't about to give up the opportunity to talk about it."

Though the name was changed, this was a real incident, reported by a teacher in a low-performing school where history/social science time had been shortened to make room for language arts and math intervention classes. The teacher herself had been as surprised as others at how hard the students had strived to successfully comprehend this advanced material about political philosophy and constitutional law.

This is not happening today in many schools in California. Though equal opportunity for every person to succeed through the economic, social and political freedoms of America is the fundamental ideal of our nation, it continues to elude us. After all, providing access to that opportunity was the primary purpose of public education. Many believe that America's public schools were the economic engine that produced achievement that was unmatched in the world through much of the 20th century.

Now, the report "Democracy at Risk" (2008) finds that the U.S., over the past 25 years, has fallen from first to 14th in higher education rankings, and concludes, "Absent education, U.S. citizens will be unemployable in the global marketplace and our position as a world power will continue to erode."

The reading comprehension problem

The situation has not improved significantly through the recent reform efforts. NAEP English language arts assessments at grades 8 and 12 have been flat and in grade 4 have risen by only one or two scaled score points, even after students have experienced years of the new intense reading approaches.

The Education Commission of the States reports only one in 50 Hispanic and black 17-year-olds can read and gain information from specialized text--such as the science section of a newspaper--compared to about one in 12 white students. Students are not showing the ability to tackle the type of reading needed in today's complex world.

When schools have devoted so much money, time and energy to improving reading skills, what else is needed? Researchers are beginning to isolate the answer. The reading comprehension problem is a knowledge problem (Hirsch, 2006), and this need for knowledge must be met alongside the decoding skills on which schools have focused.

Fiction may be used to learn generic reading skills, but for comprehension of the complex material required in advanced education and today's economy, readers need to understand history, geography, civics and economic ideas and vocabulary.

Another reason America's democracy is at risk is that the civic goal of schools has suffered the most in the current reform. Voting rates for 18- to 25-year-olds have been abysmal, but schools have not implemented the types of practices that foster civic participation. We know that in addition to a thorough and meaningful study of government and history, open discussion of current events and issues about which students care deeply has a long-term impact on voting. (Remember Joshua). These strategies also lead to the ability to resolve conflicts and deal with social diversity, critical skills for success in today's world. …

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