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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | How Science and Social Studies Devolved into “Content”

How Science and Social Studies Devolved into “Content”

This will be the final post in a series of Why I Had to Leave Education … for now. (Until something else sets me off.)

When my nephew started third grade at my former school this past fall, my brother-in-law asked me, “What’s this ‘content class’ Joe keeps talking about?”

And I groaned. Because the dismissive term administrators used to refer to science and social studies had finally trickled down through the teachers and is being used with students. That was something I always refused to do. I always called the class science or social studies in spite of what it said on my schedule. (Social studies was a term that confused kids enough, since it included history, geography, civics, and economics). Calling any part of a student’s day “Content” is like — in my daughter’s words — offering a high school class called “Stuff.”

I can trace the use of the term “content” back to a philosophy of education that states: “Process is more important than content.” That is, teaching students strategies for learning was more important than what you were actually learning. The facts themselves didn’t matter. I disagree with this philosophy. Yes, it’s important to teach students how to find the main idea and supporting details in a non-fiction text. It’s important to teach them how to research, how to summarize, how to analyze — how to learn.

But the content matters! Elementary students should be learning the classification of animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians), the continents and oceans of the world, the difference between climate and weather, the geography of the U.S., the water cycle, etc. These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.) It may be true that in today’s modern world, we can Google anything we want to know, but that does not replace the benefit of having a wealth of information already inside our heads!

I saw this for myself every year when I used a released item from the PSSA as a reading assessment. The story was called Running from the Sun, and it was about two space cadets trying to survive on an asteroid after their shelter explodes. A rescue ship is hours away, and the cadets are in danger of being boiled alive in their space suits when the sun rises. So, they decide to run across the surface of the asteroid – using the low gravity to help them – keeping just ahead of the sunrise until the rescue ship can arrive. It’s a great short story, one of the very few reading tests from the PSSA that was worth reading on its own (exciting, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and bravery) as well as an excellent reading assessment.

Over the years, I saw reading comprehension greatly decline on this test. Why? When I started using it, I could count on fifth grade students knowing what an asteroid was and some facts about space. In my final year of teaching, most students did not know even the most basic concepts necessary to understand the story.

The final blow for me, as a teacher, came last year when the 60 minute Content class was slashed back to barely 30 minutes to make room for RTII – Response to Instruction Intervention. What the heck is that? It’s a Pennsylvania mandate requiring reading intervention for 100% of students, based on data from diagnostic tests. For RTII, each teacher in my building was assigned 2 or more different groups for reading intervention, including a “core” group that didn’t really need intervention but was going to get it anyway. The groups ran for 6 weeks, and then we would have 2 weeks off to analyze the data and form new groups.

What did we do with the 2 weeks in between?  Here’s a quote from my former principal:

“Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

Sneak more content in. Remember: Content is science. Content is history. Not … you know, cigarettes.

This was yet another nail in the coffin for me: Why I Had to Leave.


12 Responses to How Science and Social Studies Devolved into “Content”

  1. mshatch says:

    “Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

    Yeah, because we wouldn’t want you to sneak any knowledge to the kids; God know what they might do with it.

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    “These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.)” This. This is insane.

    Curious – what’s your opinion on charter schools? There are a BUNCH in my area, and my kiddo is about one year away from me having to make the decision. (Which probably means there are some waiting lists or things I need to start working out now). Most teachers I know seem to hate charters (I think the teachers don’t need as many credentials?) but most moms seem to prefer it over the general school system because of stuff like this. So, I’d like to know what you think… I just want my kiddo to actually have a good education (without me having to do home school, because I just don’t have the patience for that.)

    • DianneSalerni says:

      I think it depends on the individual charter school. Some are wonderful. Some, not so much. When making your decision, I would ask about the accreditation of the teachers, whether they take state tests and if their funding depends on the scores, and ask to see some samples of student schedules. That will give you a pretty good idea about how they spend their time.

  3. The education of my children depresses me. In the UK, the government like to come up with new ideas regularly – and most of the time it’s just pasting over the cracks left by the last change they made – much like you describe in the US.

    People no longer seem to know the information I take for granted. How could anyone not know the basics of space?

  4. Wow. And I can’t believe they called it ‘content’ – there is so much wrong with that. I’m still working on my rant ;), but in Germany, anything outside of reading, math, and English has long lost importance. I can’t believe they’re doing that here too. How sad. Really sad.

  5. The way the focus in schools has changed is depressing. Too much time is spent teaching for testing too.

  6. Doesn’t matter if they know how to read when they can’t understand what they are reading. Wow, our school system is so messed up.

  7. Honestly, I am flabbergasted. “Sneak more content in”???? That is utter insanity. Educational red tape has gotten in the way of actual learning and they wonder why our scores are going down? It’s ridiculous. I just worry about those poor kids who have to suffer through it. Hopefully they have some good parents to make sure the learning is still happening! *heavy sigh*

  8. J E Oneil says:

    Content. They call science content. They don’t want you sneaking in more content. I want to cry.

  9. Tess Grant says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for teachers. My father was one, and so is my brother. I know you’re frustrated. We parents are too.

  10. Robin says:

    I couldn’t agree more with JE O’Neill’s comment. Reading this made me want to cry. I don’t know how you stood it as long as you did!!! These poor kids… their poor parents… our poor country. Sometimes it feels like we’re headed to hell on rapidly moving freight train. This explains why.

  11. ChemistKen says:

    Unbelievable. My daughter, who’s a freshman in high school, spends her time at home complaining about how the school and teachers are dumbing everything down. She loves science, so she may be a bit biased, but if this keeps up, no one is going to want to read science fiction because know one will know enough science to understand it.