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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Parents Say Schools Should Imbue Patriotism, Teach English

Parents Say Schools Should Imbue Patriotism, Teach English

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Just in time for Thanksgiving, a survey of what parents want schools to teach about the United States reveals an appreciation for the American system of government, the personal freedoms afforded citizens, and a traditional view of the nation's history.

"A Lot To Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children To Learn About America," scheduled for release this week, found a new and "mature patriotism" among parents, most of whom want schools to convey national pride and an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. For that aim to be met, students with limited proficiency in English must be taught the language as quickly as possible, even at the expense of other subjects, a majority of respondents said.

"Today, neither the reflexive antagonism fashionable in some circles in the '60s and '70s nor the reflexive patriotism that presumably held sway in the '40s and '50s predominates," the report by Public Agenda says. "Instead, widespread--and ... heartfelt--thankfulness about the things that are good in this country is coupled with an abiding remembrance of past mistakes and present imperfections."

Little Cynicism

Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed agreed that the government sometimes lies to the public, and nearly two-thirds said that the United States is not living up to all the ideals that are important to them. Yet, nine in 10 believe this country is better than most others, the poll found, and most want schools to relay that feeling to students. Such attitudes were generally consistent across racial groups.

Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization in New York City, held focus groups in six cities to help draft the survey questions. The group then conducted telephone interviews with a random national sample of 800 parents of school-age children. Pollsters also oversampled minority parents, including groups of 200 each of foreign-born, African-American, and Hispanic citizens.

The survey was paid for through grants from an unusual alliance of Washington-based organizations--the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association, as well as an anonymous donor.

Although conducted in the same week as the release of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report detailing possible impeachable offenses by President Clinton, those responding to the survey revealed little cynicism or disappointment with the American political system.

Teach English Quickly

On the issue of bilingual education, the parents' views were "quite stunning," said Steve Farkas, Public Agenda's director of research and the primary author of the report.

"The parents that we spoke with said that speaking English is one of few requirements of what it means to be a good citizen," he said.

Some two-thirds of parents overall, and three-fourths of those who are foreign-born, said that the schools' first goal for immigrant children should be to teach them English as quickly as possible. The issue raised tensions in one focus group in San Jose, Calif., with parents often lining up according to their own experiences in learning the language, the report says.

James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, based in Washington, voiced skepticism about the results.

"Given the way the question is framed, the findings are no surprise," Mr. Lyons said. "Parents do want their children to learn English, but it isn't a fair question. The programs that do best in academic content also develop English skills in very rapid fashion."

Mr. Lyons pointed to the vote in California last June on Proposition 227, which aims virtually to end bilingual education in the state's public schools. Sixty-one percent of the voters approved the measure, which also happened to be rejected by about an equal percentage of Hispanic voters.

A Different Reflection?

Nearly three-fourths of the parents surveyed by Public Agenda agreed that schools should teach about diversity and a respect for other cultures, and most believed that schools were paying enough attention to those concerns. An equal percentage said they would be upset, however, if teachers spent most of their time teaching about different ethnic groups instead of traditional American history.

Parents' desires, however, "are not reflected in the policies of school districts," said Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. "Yet, public opinion says [civics] should have a significant place in the schools. So did Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and other Founding Fathers."

And they may not be reflected in the textbooks their children are reading either, said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the New York City-based American Textbook Council, which evaluates history and social studies textbooks.

"Parents are unapologetically interested in civic education and the schools' conveying the successes and the treasures of the nation," Mr. Sewall said. "Some history books take a very skeptical, even negative, view of the American past," he said. "There have been a number of textbooks in the new generation that take this revisionist view."

The parents' interests do not necessarily mean they have a deep knowledge of history themselves, nor do their interests compel them to keep track of what their children are learning in school. Parents are not "especially vigilant overseers of lessons schools teach about what it means to be an American,'' the report says.

Indeed, more than one-third of the parents interviewed were not sure if their children pledged allegiance to the flag in school each day.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 5

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