Don't Forget Grammar!

There's a big disconnect between what students think is necessary for college and what colleges think—a topic discussed extensively in this American Educator. A survey from ACT shows there's also a big disconnect between high school teachers and college professors on the importance of ... grammar. The 2003 ACT National Curriculum Survey includes responses from middle school teachers, high school teachers, and entry-level college course instructors. Respondents agree that English proficiency is vital to students' achievement. But, there is a great divide between those respondents when ranking the importance of six English skills: grammar and usage, organization, punctuation, sentence structure, style, and writing strategy. As the chart above shows, high school teachers rank grammar and usage skills as the least important, while college teachers rank them as the most important English skills.

Not surprisingly, what high school teachers consider important affects what they teach: While only 69 percent of high school teachers taught grammar and usage, the other five English skills were taught by 83 to 96 percent of high school teachers. For more information about the 2003 ACT National Curriculum Survey, visit

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Basic Education: A Priority That Saves Lives

Of the 680 million elementary school-age children in the developing world, 115 million of them do not attend school—and three-fifths of those children are girls. A new report by the Basic Education Coalition called Teach a Child, Transform a Nation opens with these startling statistics. It goes on to document the desperate need to expand basic education—which ought to span early childhood through early secondary schooling—throughout the developing world (meaning countries that have high rates of poverty and low levels of industrialization and economic productivity). It also explains the benefits of even a few years of schooling. Here are some more of the findings:

  • Compared to children whose mothers have attained secondary (or higher) education, children whose mothers have no education are more than twice as likely to die or be malnourished.
  • Attending school reduces the chances that a child will be drawn into abusive and dangerous work. As secondary education enrollments rise, the percentage of 10- to 14-year-olds in the workforce decreases.
  • In the developing world, 25 percent of adults are illiterate—that's 879 million people.
  • On average, a farmer with just four years of education is 8.7 percent more productive than one with no education. And among the labor force in general, each additional year of education increases individual output by four to seven percent.

Governments in developing countries are becoming more aware of these data, but increasing access to basic education is a struggle. Kenya, for example, eliminated primary school fees in 2003, only to be overwhelmed by the new students. When 1.5 million previously out-of-school children enrolled, class sizes swelled from 40 to 120. But there are reasons to be hopeful: Between 1990 and 1999, nearly 90 million additional children enrolled in school. At the same time, worldwide illiteracy rates fell about four percent. To read the full report, go to

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History Contests Help Students Hone Research, Writing, and Speaking Skills

As the school year progresses, motivating students to do their best can be a challenge. Next year, consider a national competition to keep your students engaged, focused, and willing to work hard. From individual projects to contests for the whole class, exciting challenges for students abound:

American Legion High School Oratorical Contest

An Extra Challenge for Independent Students
In the American Legion Oratorical Contest, students in grades 9 to 12 compete to demonstrate their knowledge of the Constitution and the rights and privileges of citizenship in the United States, as well as their ability to speak clearly and intelligently. Students deliver a prepared speech of eight to 10 minutes and then have five minutes to collect their thoughts to speak for three to five minutes on a randomly selected topic related to the Constitution.

Qualifying competitions are held at the local and state levels, where they are organized, respectively, by local posts and department (state) headquarters of the American Legion. One contestant per state advances to the national level and automatically receives a $1,500 college scholarship. Travel and lodging expenses for attending the national competition in Indianapolis (with a chaperone) are paid for by the American Legion. After the quarter- and semi-finals, three finalists compete for awards ranging from $14,000 to $18,000. For more information, go to or call your state's American Legion headquarters.

Profile in Courage

Add Outside Judging to the Regular, Short-Essay Assignment
For the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest, high school students around the nation submit 700- to 1,000-word essays to the Kennedy Library in Boston on an individual who exemplifies political courage. These essays pass through three phases of judging that focus on originality, depth of critical analysis, and clarity. Judges include graduate students, teachers, heads of Massachusetts' Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the Profile in Courage Award Committee. The first-place winner is awarded $3,000 and a $500 JFK Public Service grant for his or her school. The second-place winner receives $1,000. This essay contest is a companion to the annual Profile in Courage Award, which honors elected officials. Winning essays offer persuasive evidence that the chosen subject displayed extraordinary political courage; they also inspire readers to emulate the elected officials, past or present, who have tried to make a difference in the world. More information, including winning essays from the past seven years and curriculum ideas on the Profile in Courage, is available at

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution

Turn Your Class into a Congressional Hearing
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, is an instructional program and national competition for high school students in which a whole class simulates a congressional hearing. Students must present statements and defend their positions on historical and/or contemporary issues while judges pose as congressional committee members. This three-tiered contest proceeds from the congressional district level to the statewide hearings and culminates in the spring in Washington, D.C., for a three-day national competition. There is no purse—students compete "for the glory."

In addition to the high school competition, there are We the People courses for upper-elementary and middle school students that culminate in non-competitive congressional hearings. At each level, the Center for Civic Education offers curricula, textbooks, and professional development to support teachers. For more information see

American Educator, Spring 2004