Education for a Democracy

"Why should I sit in a room day after day proving how stupid I am? The other kids see me getting big red F's on my tests. Who needs it?" 16 year old in Teen Dropouts by Gail Stewart

"the objectives of basic schooling should be the same for all because what is common to all is more fundamental than the ways in which human beings differ" Mortimer Adler, inspired by John Dewey's book Democracy and Education

Democracy and Education are two fundamentals of America. They ought to work hand-in-hand, but often they have not. Their coordination has not been easy, and it remains a challenge today. But some groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are pointing towards a workable solution. This paper outlines such a system.

Upon becoming18, each youth is eligible to vote. Those students who have experienced a rich high school program are better prepared to analyze election issues than their classmates on a less rigorous track. Students who have developed critical thinking skills in English classes, or whose Chemistry course enables them to understand an Environmental Impact Report, can cast more thoughtful votes. But all votes count equally. Democracy works better when all youth gets a solid education. Unfortunately many students are not getting that now. But they could, with some relatively minor school changes.

First, let us see where we have been and how far we have come. Dewey's Democracy and Education was written in 1916, when the number of Americans attending high school was growing rapidly. For the first time, many who were getting a high school diploma were not headed to college:

1900 6% of youth get a high school diploma; 4% go to college.

1920 29% get diplomas

1940 51%

1960 70%

1990 75% get a high school diploma, 41% go to college

This 75% does not include those who later get a GED or another high school equivalency credential. Including such credentials, the U.S. Dept. of Education computes a dropout rate from 12.1% - 10.7% (for1990 -2001). While an 11% dropout rate may seem manageable, it is a tragedy for those involved. The unemployment rate for high school dropouts is around 20%, while high school grads with no college typically have a 10% jobless rate. And GED recipients have greater unemployment and earn less on average than high school graduates.

American high schools are fairly democratic now

Segregated and non-academic vocational schools have largely been phased out. Today, we mainly have big, all-inclusive high schools. They symbolize democracy, because all the youth of a community can mix in them. Educators are recognizing that the changeable US job market in the 21st century means that specialized vocational training is no longer appropriate as lifelong career preparation - for any student.

In contrast, high schools in Europe and most of the rest of the world are less democratic. Outside the USA sons of a town's bankers are likely to go to an academic high school, while the factory workers' children are likely to end up in a vocational high school. Around age 12, students in many foreign countries take exams that determine whether they are fit for pre-college or for a vocational education. They then move on to quite different high schools and rarely have the chance to switch back. Some very bright children of lower class background do pass those life-determining exams. But overall most foreign high schools tend to group together students from the similar backgrounds.

American public schools may have more social class mixing, but they could still be more democratic. By the time students get to high school, their counselors have identified which students are headed for college vs others will be lucky to graduate. Youngsters of varying IQ take quite different courses. Aside from participation in athletics and school events, adolescents can have very different experiences, even within the same high school.

Being able to write a flawless essay or getting the algebra homework done correctly does not make anyone a better voter. Heated issues in a democracy do not have right and wrong answers. The opinions of average or below average students are just as valid as those of their brighter classmates. In the workplace, the opinions of managers and of technical specialists may carry extra weight, but in the voting booth all opinions are weighed equally. This equal power of the vote should be recognized and dealt with in high school classrooms.

A core high school curriculum for all

All students in a democracy can benefit from the critical thinking skills that are emphasized in pre-college courses. Unfortunately, many students are discouraged from taking such classes. Their counselors consider the work in them too difficult. But suppose teachers found ways to make their pre-college courses accessible to all students.

For example, those who can't deal with the language in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet might discuss a simplified version in class. Every student at the same grade level could watch a movie of Romeo and Juliet. Afterwards, students across campus would likely discuss the social pressures in medieval Italy, just as they now discuss current movie releases. The important concept is that all students at the high school would have a Romeo and Juliet experience. The opinions of every student would be focused on the same social issues, and each should be given equal consideration, as in elections.

To become an informed voter, students need to have a base of knowledge about how things work. Their opinions should be based on facts, not prejudice or tradition. Social Studies provides such a base for matters of how humans act. For how the rest of the universe acts, Science provides the guide. These two subject areas can cover all knowledge, and they should be at the center of what every student learns in high school.

What about English and Math? They are important courses in high schools and should be taken every year. But for average students, they could be most useful as a support for Social Studies and Science courses. In elementary schools, the three R's are emphasized (Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic). By sixth grade, students should be able to read a newspaper and do basic math calculations. These skills are essential for any citizen, but more advanced studies in English and Math sometimes have less relevance. Reading classic English literature or doing trigonometry may be the modern counterparts of the Latin translations that were prevalent in high schools 100 years ago.

One reason why average and below average students have difficulty in high school is that they have to deal with the separate demands of many courses. If instead they could focus on Social Studies and Science (taught in a core curriculum of four courses) they could learn in a more unified way. Consider this recommendation for grades 9-12 from Standards 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:

"Their understanding of statistics and probability could provide them with ways to think about a wide range of issues that have important social implications, such as the advisability of publicizing anecdotal evidence that can cause health scares or whether DNA "fingerprinting" should be considered strong or weak evidence. Secondary school students need to develop increased abilities in justifying claims, proving conjectures, and using symbols in reasoning. They can be expected to learn to provide carefully reasoned arguments in support of their claims. They can practice making and interpreting oral and written claims so that they can communicate effectively while working with others and can convey the results of their work with clarity and power."

To meet the NCTM's above goals, it would be helpful if a student's core courses would coordinate efforts. DNA fingerprinting evidence involves both science and social studies knowledge. "Practice making...written claims" could best be done in an English class, while the statistics would be done in Math class. In this and other topics helpful in developing informed citizens, high school English and Math can serve well in supportive roles. There are two major benefits to this support. First, the average student could focus on just two topics (Science and Social Studies) yet still gain a full knowledge of the world. Second, interdisciplinary topics like DNA fingerprinting are likely to grab the interest of students, encouraging them to stay in high school,

A core curriculum seems to be supported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It recommends for grades 9-12 "that all students learn the same foundation of mathematics but some, if they wish, can study additional mathematics." The same concept could be extended to English, Science, and Social Studies classes taken by all students. All students would study the same basics, but in Advanced Placement and similar classes, students could study additional topics or do more in-depth work. The key is that all students in a grade would deal with topics like DNA fingerprinting at the same time. The next sections show how a core curriculum for all students might be structured.

English in a high school education

Few would argue against high school students having English classes every year. Continued practice in reading and writing is useful for their other courses, in college admissions, and for doing well in the workplace. But there are questions whether some of the literature that students are required to read is really as worthwhile as it could be.

Educators give many reasons for including classics of great literature in the curriculum. They say it provides models of good writing. They feel that students should be exposed to the great works of the past. These reasons have some validity. But other educational criteria ought to have weight in selecting literature for English classes:

- Tie-in with other high school classes, particularly history

- Character development that is based on actual facts or psychological research

- Language and plots that motivate students to read the material

- Writing styles that are similar to what most people use in the work world

- A literature classic that has been made into a good movie

Often works of historical fiction can accomplish many of these goals. A Tale of Two Cities, for example, deals with a more important topic that any other of Dickens novels. Similarly, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra provide more historical context than his more famous works.

For character development, one wonders if the on-stage musings of Shakespeare's Hamlet give a realistic portrayal of what a person would actually think or do. In Victorian novels, do the many plot twists and characterizations really represent what people did in the 19th century? Even if they do, are the characters' actions relevant today? Novelists can think up and bring to life a complex character, but it doesn't follow that such descriptions are realistic or worth studying.

Below are some suggested works that could be studied by English classes. They are designed to support the History - Social Science Framework for schools in California. Similar lists could be developed to enhance the social studies curriculum in other states.

The list below include some of the literature typically taught in high school English classes (works by Twain, Dickens, and Shakespeare), and it adds other relevant works. All items are listed for reasons beyond literary merit. Each generates a picture of an important period in history, usually supported by an important movie that further enhances a student's understanding of the period.

Unlike much literature now taught in English classes, the items below often had a major impact on history. Several were written by leaders who influenced history. Usually their plots are taken from important, real events, not the imaginings of a clever writer. The relevance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar grabs students much more than his Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In addition to works selected for their historical importance, others have been added as examples of social sciences, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics, and economics. To show students that good writing can occur in many formats, the list includes biography, reports, poetry, diary, speeches - even an opera libretto! Whatever the form, each work raises important issues in a realistic way. Unlike typical literary discussions of plot twists and character development, English class discussion of the works below can focus on genuine historical or sociological issues.


Suggested works to be taught in English classes, with topics taken from the California Social Studies framework:

grade 6 - Ancient Civilization (to 500 AD) -

Bible book of Exodus - (movie The Ten Commandments)

Homer's Iliad - simplified, selected portions (movie on Trojan war)

Caesar's reports on wars in Gaul 46BC (movie Spartacus 71BC)

Cleopatra biography (movie Cleopatra)


grade 7 - Medieval and Early Modern Times (worldwide 500 AD to 1789)

selections from 1001 Nights (movie on Sinbad)

Polo's account of his travels or Jennings' Voyager (movie on Marco Polo)

Clavel's Shogun (parts of TV miniseries Shogun)

Jennings' Aztec (documentary on archeology in Mexico City)


grade 8 - US History to 1914


Franklin's autobiography (parts) - shows Maslow's motivations hierarchy

(movie documentary on Franklin's political and scientific careers)

Twain's Huckleberry Finn (movie of same name)

Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (parts of Roots miniseries)

Mitchell's Gone With The Wind (movie same title)


grade 9 - elective - in California history education framework


Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (movies: R+J, West Side Story)

Critical Thinking about History - the Arthur legend:

Tennyson's Idylls of the King, plus a book on what's known of Arthur (movie Camelot)

Comparative Cultures:

libretto of Puccini's Madame Butterfly (TV special of the opera)


Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (documentary on a primitive culture)


grade 10 - The Modern World (Non-USA 1789 to present)

Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (movie of same name)

Tolstoi's War and Peace (movie: War and Peace, or Desiree)

Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills (movie on colonial India, like Kim)

Anne Franks' diary (movie on same subject)


grade 11 - US in the 20th Century

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (movie of same title)

Wouk's War and Remembrance (parts of TV miniseries)

Martin Luther King speeches (TV documentary on civil rights movement)

Puzo's The Godfather (movie of same name)


grade 12 - Principles of American Democracy (civics) and Economics

Comparative Politics:

Plato's The Republic

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (movie of same play and/or Cleopatra)

Machiavelli's The Prince


Sinclair's The Jungle

Tarbell's articles on The Standard Oil Company

The major emphasis in all levels of English classes should be on effective oral and written communication. The suggested readings above are likely to stimulate class discussions, including applicability to today's concerns. After such discussions (which should influence part of the course grade), students should write and correct papers on the topics raised. Clear thinking and an understanding of historical precedents are desired outcomes. A student's grade should depend on effective presentation of ideas, not on political leanings or "correctness."


Mathmatics in high school

"Hardly any subject is more in need of fresh presentation than mathematics in the schools." Adler 1983

It is relatively easy to adjust English classes to support a high school's Social Studies curriculum. Just substitute some of the works read, while keeping the traditional methods of analysis and practice on writing skills. But modifying the Math curriculum to provide an integral support for a schools' Science classes will require more effort.

The math now taught in most high schools is largely unrelated to the other subjects a student takes. Many operations, such as factoring in algebra, seem to be included as mental exercises, rather than for their relevance to the real world.

But many types of math have indispensable uses in the world of business and science. Topics like statistics and probability are immensely important. Surprisingly they are usually less covered in classes than algebra and trigonometry. It is rare to see a required math course in high school labeled Statistics.

This proposal suggests a fundamental shift in the way math is taught in high schools. Current math instruction in elementary schools is appropriate for learning the basics. But in high school, it is the application of math principles that needs much greater emphasis. Doing more word problems is not the answer. Such problems now usually start with the topic covered in the text's current chapter, then add a veneer of quarts or acres to the numbers. The real world works in the reverse. It starts with a challenge, then looks to math as a way to quantify and analyze the situation. Math instruction that is developed in such a way is far more meaningful (and motivating) to a student.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends an applications oriented approach. For example, in its Standards 2000, the NCTM writes:

"Middle-grades mathematics also needs to prepare students to deal with quantitative situations in their lives outside school. For example, consumer magazines regularly publish comparisons of characteristics of various consumer products, such as the quality of peanut butter, the duration of rechargeable batteries, or the cost, size, and gas mileage of automobiles. When using data from such sources, students need to determine which data are appropriate for their needs, to understand how the data were gathered at the source, and to consider limitations that could affect interpretation."

The proposed math curriculum below incorporates the recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It starts with real world operations that are part of the Science being studied concurrently by that student. For example, medical research is based on concepts in a Biology course. An understanding of statistics is vital in both medicine and biology. Given a medical research issue in math class, a student has real motivation to learn about statistics and related maths. And what he learns (as compared to factoring in algebra) will have many future benefits, as when he reads about new medical procedures that could affect his life expectancy.

Suggested Math course content to support a typical Science curriculum:

grade 7 Health/ human body systems

Drug store chains and Hospitals math

(inventory calculations, income/ spending projections, computing pay)

grade 8 Earth sciences

Energy and Construction companies math

(geometry useful for mapping, materials costing, profitability)

grade 9 Biology

Medical research math

(Statistics, population patterns, double blind studies)

grade 10 Chemistry

Chemical company and Environmental math

(algebra of chemical calculations, probability)

grade 11 Physics

Technological maths (auto engineering, computer design)

(algebra of physics, number systems, computer programming)

(Add for advanced classes: functions on a scientific hand calculator)

grade 12 elective

Wall Street maths (to go with Economics course)

(concepts behind functions on a business hand calculator, like ROI)

The math courses proposed above would be quite different from what is now taught in high schools. Courses would start by showing the needs for math analysis in real situations. For example, algebra might be presented as a way to calculate pressures and volumes of a gas. In contrast, textbooks now present algebra as a set of abstract concepts and manipulations. No wonder many high school students now lose interest in math! They can't see its relevance.

Existing textbooks could be of help as reference material in the new approach to math. But some new teaching materials would be essential. For each grade 7-12, students would start with a "case study" describing an existing situation that obviously needed some analysis of the data involved. Such case studies, like those used in many Business Schools, would describe a situation, including lots of facts and figures (some of them not helpful in a solution, as with the real world). Each case would point to a mathematical technique as a tool useful in the situation. Only after students had a thorough class discussion of the analytical need would the teacher introduce them to a new math concept. This reversal in the traditional way of teaching math may be a challenge for teachers, but students should find it highly motivating.

As with the proposed new English classes, all regular students at a high school would study the same basic math topics. Those headed to college would likely add more challenging topics like trigonometry in their math classes. But the basics of math and its application in the real world (as in the NCTM Standards above) are needed by all citizens.


Courses outside the Core Curriculum

The major emphasis for all students in high school ought to be general knowledge useful lifelong in careers and as thinking citizens. Social Studies and Science courses can provide the bulk of that knowledge on how the world functions. English and Math classes can provide useful support, particularly in writing and analytical skills.

Unfortunately many high school elective courses do not provide similar long term benefits. Electives with little academic content are often taken by low achieving students. The result is a non-democratic ghetto of below average students in them. High schools can and should do more for their non-college bound students. A core curriculum for all can be a big help in the right direction, and is democratic as well.

Physical Education is one course outside a core curriculum that is often required. It can be a useful outlet for pent-up energy, particularly for students who are not exercising on a sports team that season. And PE can be a good place for group discussions of social skills, vital in any career.

Students whose grades are above average should be encourages to take electives that will help in college admissions, including:

- Foreign language (Spanish makes the most sense for US students)

- Performing music, drama, dance and arts groups

- Advanced Placement courses. AP Math and English courses should cover the basic topics outlined above, then add additional segments as needed to prepare students for the tests. The same recommendation would apply to students in non AP English and Math courses who plan to take SAT !! (subject tests).

Above average students should also be encouraged to participate in challenging after school activities. Work on a school newspaper, yearbook, debating group, and cross age tutoring can demonstrate talent, ambition, and leadership skills - all qualities colleges seek Such activities should not be elective courses.

For students whose grades are below average, one or more homework/ tutorial periods in the four core curriculum courses would be more helpful to them than electives. Some of the brighter, older students at a school could provide such tutoring and themselves benefit in the process.

All students could benefit from some real work experience with local employers. This work could count as an elective, provided that the employer gives regular written feedback on a student's job performance. For brighter students, such work should not exceed 15 hours a week, so they can give their schoolwork the priority attention it deserves. A real work experience is usually more valuable than school vocational training in shop, home economics, business skills, etc.

A good work experience program can help with school drop out problems Because school funding often is related to attendance, a school could even offer to pay high dropout risk students a bonus to stay in school, and still come out ahead money-wise. In any case, a student who is thinking of dropping out of high school should be allowed to work more than the recommended maximum of 15 hours a week. Keeping then in high school will benefit them greatly in the long run.

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