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Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Commentary

Indivisible to invisible: Why the Pledge still stands as civics falls


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Today, sometime between the beginning of the parade and the fireworks finale, most Americans will display a collective pride in their nation’s history.

All the red, white and blue, the grand flying of flags, display a patriotism founded in national unity and remembrance of those who fought for freedom centuries ago.

Americans continue to profess their support for history and civics, but their public education establishment does not seem to share that same priority. With government requirements redirecting the focus of achievement goals exclusively toward math and reading, the importance of civics and American history in the classroom is in fast decline.

A general disregard for national heritage is trickling down through the system. Measurements by the U.S. Department of Education and private organizations have consistently found American students’ basic knowledge of U.S. history to be sorely lacking and negatively trending over time.

An important place to start, as many public school classrooms do, is with the Pledge of Allegiance. A matter of widespread debate, the Pledge continues to face legal battles in courts. Most recently, a May ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of the Pledge of Allegiance as a patriotic oath.

The Pledge, a poem written as part of a patriotic advertising campaign in 1892, quickly became a mandated, voluntary recitation in public schools, and is mandated in most, but not all, states.

But although most students recite the Pledge daily, their understanding of their own history and civic engagement fails.

The civic mission of schools is crucial to American public education, and yet little is done to uphold these statutes. Our public schools do a disservice to American students by failing to prioritize history and civics within the ever-broadening subject of social studies.

Until the middle of the 20th century, most American high schools offered three courses in civics and government, focusing on current events, civic engagement and democracy as a whole — topics that are now lumped together and are not part of school accountability.

Elementary education used to require a theme of civics in curricula, but no longer in most states.

Administered in 2010, the last national civics assessment showed that less than half of eighth-graders understood the purpose of the Bill of Rights, only 10 percent displayed age-appropriate knowledge of our government’s system of checks and balances, and two-thirds of students scored less than proficient.

Last year, the federal Department of Education canceled the American history and civics tests from the National Assessment on Educational Progress, in response to budget pressures. This had been our single best tool to measure how well our schools teach history and civics. Citizens may be surprised to find how nebulous the teaching of founding cornerstones such as the Constitution, U.S. history and civic awareness is in classrooms today.

Educators are often expected to teach a range of subjects to include U.S. history, world history, civics, economics, government and geography versus focusing on and fine-tuning the details of one. They often lack more than the very minimum of formal training in the history they are responsible for teaching:

Alabama’s teacher certification test, for example, combines geography, economics, civics and government, and history under the term “responsible citizenship,” diluting the details associated with key historical heritage.

U.S. History and World History combined make up only 20 percent of Virginia’s Praxis II Social Studies Content Knowledge Test.

Certification as a social studies teacher in New Jersey requires a minimum of only one course in American history, with the stipulation that related courses may be accepted in lieu of it.

Content is not being driven home to students simply because content-matter experts are absent.

As they leave schools and enter the workforce, students are translating a lack of civic awareness into a lack of active social involvement — including when they do (or don’t) enter the voting booth.

Lacking luster for some, teaching civics education and history need to be a national effort. If not, a daily rote reading of the Pledge of Allegiance recognizes nothing of true and longstanding value.

Ashley Bateman is adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

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