What Does Your Child Know About Thomas Jefferson
“What exactly do you know about Thomas Jefferson?” That simple question started me on a quest. It was the summer of 2011, and Congress was in the midst of the debt ceiling debate. I asked that question of my son who had recently completed the 8th grade. We were discussing the debate, and I was amazed by some of the things he did not understand. I began to quiz him about the people and the documents associated with the founding of our country, and my amazement grew further still. I was particularly surprised because he is an avid follower of all things political. He also received history-related awards in the 5th and the 8th grades when the history of our country is a component of the social studies curriculum. His answer to my question? Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence, he was the third president, and he owned slaves. Upon further questioning I decided he knew far less about Jefferson than I expected. Later that day I decided to ask my other children what they knew about Jefferson. My middle child, who had just completed the 6th grade, told me that there was no focus on any individual founder when she was in fifth grade. She could have learned about Jefferson if he was the topic of her independent study project for social studies, but she chose to study the Sugar Act instead. She could, however, recite a dearth of extraneous information about Jefferson which she read in book I bought for her about the American Revolution. My youngest child, who had just finished 2nd grade, responded to my question by asking, “Isn’t he the guy with the kite?”
I challenge you to have the same discussion with each child in your family. Ask each one what he or she knows about an important figure in American History. If you have a child who is in an upper primary grade, middle school, or high school, try to have him or her properly sequence significant events in our country’s past. Then ask your child to detail a few important points from one of the Founding Documents. You, too, may have an unpleasant awakening.
This is not intended to be a condemnation of the public schools my children attend, or any other public school for that matter. My children attend schools which have received California’s Distinguished School Award. The students perform well on state standardized tests, and the teachers who work in those schools are top-notch. In fact, the teacher who taught 5th grade social studies to my two older children is also an attorney. Who could ask for a teacher better equipped to teach about the Founding Documents? The problem lies not in the individual teachers or the local school. The problem is that there are multiple issues which have coalesced to negatively impact the instruction of American history in the public schools across the country. As I examined what and how students learn about the Founders and the Founding, I was shocked as to how the topics of civic responsibility and patriotism are viewed by many educators.
Which issues negatively impact how the history of our country, civic responsibility, and patriotism are taught in present-day public schools? I believe the following issues cause the bulk of the damage, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The federal government is increasingly controlling the educational process: The Department of Education was created, and began collecting information, in 1867 in hopes of improving educational practices within each state. It has since mushroomed to employ approximately 5000 bureaucrats who continually spew out new regulations and programs. Federal funding is then dangled, like a carrot, in front of the states in order to promote compliance with said regulations and participation in new programs. If No Child Left Behind has proven anything, it is that when the federal government entwines itself in the process of educating young Americans, well intended ideas can be translated into a bevy of problematic results. Relief from ESEA has been sought by a majority of the states, and Congress continues to argue about how to reform it. Race to the Top has been widely criticized as another attempt by the Obama Administration to nationalize an issue that should be left in the hands of each state. If only President Regan had been able to carry out his desire to disband the department entirely. I might add that each state also has a sizeable education bureaucracy of its own which dictates policies, creates standards, and approves text books for use within each school district.
Each state has developed a plethora of standards which may, or may not, be well written: In that public education is the responsibility of each state, standards for the subject of U.S. History vary greatly across the country. Curriculum specialists, committees, and/or commissions are responsible for creating standards within each state. There has been a long running discussion amongst educators about the advisability of having a large number of standards for each subject. The standards may be poorly written and consequently difficult to teach and later assess. When a bevy of standards are created, there may not be sufficient instructional time to teach the material necessary to cover each one. Consequently, schools, or even individual teachers, are left to sort out which standards should be the focus of instruction. Parents have little input into the formulation of the standards and are often unaware of which standards are driving the content that is delivered in the classroom. While adoption of the Common Core Standards by almost all of the states will improve the consistency of instruction nationwide, there are concerns that the federal government will use it as excuse to further grab power and solidify a nationalized education system.
A minimal amount of instructional time is available to teach students the subject of U.S. History: One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind is that less time is spent learning about history, science, and other subjects because there are simply not enough instructional minutes in the day to give them the same attention as is given to reading and math. However, there are lengthy lists of standards that teachers are expected to cover for each of the above listed subjects. Material that is connected with only a handful of questions on a state standards assessment test (such as the names and capitals of the 50 states) may be minimally covered because of the limited amount of instructional time. The minimal time given to the study of U.S. history is not limited to elementary, middle, and high schools. While a U.S. History course was once a routine requirement for college undergraduates, this is no longer the case. If future educators are not required to study American history during their collegiate studies, consider what occurs when they later try to teach the subject to others.
History is no longer a stand-alone subject: The subject of history has gradually been incorporated into the social studies curriculum. One of the results of this inclusion has been to restructure how the subject is taught. Students study U.S. history in conjunction with a social studies theme. Memorization of content is considered less important than the development of a skill such as creative thinking or cooperation. Material is not necessary taught in terms of its occurrence on a timeline, and the piecemeal delivery can result in students being unable to grasp an event in terms of the context in which it occurred. NCLB has also hastened the movement away from inquiry-based education toward standards-based instruction. Time tested learning strategies such as in-depth research and analytical writing are often replaced with entertaining skits and bullet-filled posters. Such methods are viewed as a means by which to quickly deliver a level of knowledge that is sufficient for responding to questions on a standardized test.
Limited instructional minutes may be consumed by special interest driven content rather than focusing on core facts: In 2011, it became the law in California that instructional time in each grade (from kindergarten to 12th grade) must be dedicated to the contributions of gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. Such laws further limit the time teachers have to focus on the basic facts, prominent figures, and significant events in U.S. history. The question becomes what information in the already limited curriculum will be replaced, so that the schools can comply with this new law?
Bias and presentism impact the material which is taught: Although no one would think to criticize the Pilgrims for traveling at speeds slower than a modern cruise ship, students are routinely encouraged to judge the actions of their forefathers by our current values and practices. Historians refer to this practice as “presentism,” and it discourages recognition of the historical, political, or cultural context in which a situation occurred. Bias further clouds the subject of U.S. History. The bias of an individual instructor may leave a lasting impression on his or her students. Additionally, political bias may impact the creation of academic standards within a state. This built in bias leads students to perceive events in terms of a particular point of view rather than the context in which they occurred.
The Founders and Founding Documents are seen as irrelevant: I was surprised how little my children knew about the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution until I understood the changes in how U.S. history is taught in the classroom. In light of the limited amount of instructional time, incorporation of U.S. history into the broader subject of social studies, and the standards-based focus of instruction, just what people, documents, and events warrant inclusion into the curriculum? If the history of our country is something that is plugged into the theme of a social studies unit, how will its relevance be communicated to our children? If the Constitution is viewed as a living document which evolves over time, then research and analysis of its content seems to be of little value. If the lives of the Founders are viewed through the lens of presentism, then their flaws will no doubt be of more interest than their incredible accomplishments and the events in which they were involved.
Patriotism is considered a controversial issue: Since when is it controversial to be patriotic? I never dreamed that teaching American children to be proud of their country had become a controversial idea until I searched the Internet using the phrase “teach patriotism.” While there was a smattering of websites with ideas about raising young patriots, I found a plethora of articles by and for educators questioning whether children should be “indoctrinated” with such ideas at all. Many authors also questioned whether it was the school’s role to teach civic responsibility. It seems that instead of teaching children to love their country, and understand practices, such as slavery, in historical context, the trend in public schools is to teach cynicism, divisiveness, or even outright distain and hatred for our nation. The resulting consequence can only be ignorance about the history of the United States of America, a lack of interest in civic responsibility, and ultimately a diminishment of a national identity in future generations.
The impact of these issues is seen in the standardized test results for the subject of U.S. History. The sad fact of the matter is that standardized test scores for this subject are dismal. My son was amongst the students who took the 2011 California 8th grade STAR Social Science test. A review of the aggregate scores revealed: 27% of the students scored in the “Advanced” category, 23% of the students scored in the “Proficient” category, 24% of the students scored in the “Basic” category, and 25% of the students scored in the “Below Basic” or “Far Below Basic” categories. Although I have not reviewed similar test results for each state, I suspect that they are not much better. On the national level, the National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically evaluates students across the country in the subject of U.S. History. The scores for students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in 1994, 2001, 2006, and 2010 reveal that less than one-quarter of the students in all three grades performed at the proficient level consistently over time. Although the summary report for the 2010 test pointed out that student scores had improved in this subject, the improvement was meager, at best. It would seem that the combination of limited instructional time, numerous standards, and the manner in which U.S. history is taught all combine to take a toll on what children actually learn about the history of their country.
Any one of above listed issues would be of concern to a conservative-minded parent, but combined they should serve as a wake-up call! If you are a parent of a school-age child, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I expect that my child will learn about the people and events that played a prominent role in the founding of the United States? Has my child actually learned any of this information? Is this information being placed in the proper historical context, or is my child encouraged to evaluate it according to the practice of presentism?
- Will the school my child attends teach him or her about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other important writings related to the founding of our country? Can my child have an age-appropriate discussion with me about the content of these documents? Is my child aware of the three branches of the federal government, and can my child tell me what the Constitution defines as the purpose of and powers held by each branch?
- If my child does not learn about First Principles or the Founding Documents, how can he or she come to appreciate the importance of limited government? Who is ultimately is responsible for teaching conservative principles to my child?
- What kind of message is the school giving my child about the past, present, and future of our country? Do I believe it is important for my child to become a patriotic American who actively carries out his or her civic duties?
- Am I willing to take an active role in my child’s education about the history of our country, the Founding Documents, and conservative principles?
The Congressional debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011, as well as the 10th anniversary of September 11th, changed my life. Although I have always considered myself to be a patriotic American, those events awakened my interest in the Founding, and my desire to help restore the principles upon which this nation was founded. Discussions that I had with my children about these events brought about the startling revelation that while I had focused on their academic progress in the 3R’s, I was out of touch with that they learned, or had not learned, about the history and exceptional nature of their country. I decided to take action in order to help my own children and the children of other concerned Americans as well. I will be developing materials and locating resources so that other parents can assure their children will have a better understanding of the American Revolution, the Founding Documents, and the Founders themselves. I also plan to identify available materials, and create a few of my own, that will foster conservative values and patriotism in America’s young citizens.
I hope that you will join me on my quest to raise patriotic young conservatives. If you know of resources and tools which are currently available, please point me in the right direction. If you have suggestions about people, primary documents, significant events, patriotic practices, or conservative values that should be included in the materials which I develop, I’d love to hear them. If you are in need of a specific type of teaching tool that covers these topics, I would love to discuss that with you as well. Please send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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