Celebrating Bill of Rights, Schools Tackle ‘National History Lesson’

By Debra Viadero — December 04, 1991 10 min read

By Debra Viadero

The new policy at West Springfield High School required students wearing shirts that offended others, or that promoted alcohol or drug use, to either turn them inside out or be provided with new ones.

The rule provoked lively debate at the school. Some students argued that their constitutional rights were being abridged. Others-- particularly students who, because of their appearance or ethnic origins, had been the butt of some of the slogans--expressed relief.

For some teachers, the controversy might have posed a dilemma: How do you teach students about the Bill of Rights in a setting that limits free-speech guarantees? For Mr. Percoco, however, it was “a teachable moment.”

“I always point out that the Bill of Rights is written in the present tense and that was intentional,” the social-studies teacher said recently. “The issues that public schools face today are tough with respect to the First Amendment.”

Whether they consider such controversies to be dilemmas or educational opportunities, teachers around the country may be bumping up against such tough issues more than usual this year as the nation marks the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The commemoration represents the culmination of a years-long celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The country, and its schools, began a broad array of bicentennial activities even before the 200th anniversary of the 1787 Constitutional Convention; the efforts reach an official conclusion on Dec. 15, the date on which adoption of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights was completed in 1791.

The ongoing bicentennial has provided an unprecedented “national history lesson,” in the words of former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and has spawned the development of more than 100 educational projects of national scope.

The federal Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, which Mr. Burger heads, has awarded grants totaling more than $30 million to such projects since 1985. Dozens more such efforts have been launched by other national organizations and by state and local groups.

Many of these programs share an important trait with the lessons favored by teachers such as Mr. Percoco: They are looking to take advantage of@r to create--the kinds of opportunities that make the Constitution “come alive” for students.

But, in a country where surveys and national tests suggest that students’ knowledge of how government works is limited and their desire to participate in it is even more so, the task is not easy.

Exports in the field say all of the efforts have raised the national consciousness on the importance of teaching about the Bill of Rights and about the Constitution as a whole.

“This is part of basic education, properly conceived,” said John J. Patrick, who directs the social- studies development center at Indiana University. “What we need to do now is keep the momentum going that’s been generated.”

Not ‘Learned Well’

Some form of instruction about the Bill of Rights traditionally has been part of the public-school curriculum. According to Mr. Patrick, most students encounter the Constitution, and its initial set of amendments, three or four times in their school careers-- once in the 5th grade, once in the 7th or 8th grade, and one or more times in high-school courses in U.S. history or government.

But, while the Bill of Rights “may be covered,” Mr. Patrick said, “it isn’t always learned well.”

A 1988 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggested that students have a “disjointed” understanding of the basic document on which the nation’s governance, and the individual rights and freedoms of its people, is based. While the students studied were generally aware of the rights of accused criminals and the rights of freedom of speech and religion, N.A.E.P. found, only 51 percent of high-school seniors tested knew that such rights are guaranteed in the Constitution.

Even more disturbing, a 1987 Hearst Corporation survey found that a majority of adult Americans-59 percent--did not even know what the Bill of Rights is.

That lack of knowledge raises concern among scholars.

“I suppose the collective wisdom of the ages comes to one conclusion: A republican and democratic government cannot possibly exist if you don’t have an informed and engaged citizenry,” said Herbert M. Atherton, the staff director and director of education for the commission on the bicentennial of the Constitution, which was created by the Congress in 1983.

‘Dull and Bland’

Part of the problem, experts say, may be that, while every beginning teacher may learn something about the Bill of Rights, few are prepared to teach about the subject in depth.

Moreover, according to Mr. Patrick of Indiana University, the textbooks that deal with the subject tend to be “dull and bland.”

Mabel McKinney-Browning, the staff director of the American Bar Association’s Special Committee for Youth Education and Citizenship, added: “If we think about having the documents in the textbook and having the history and development in the textbook, they’re probably adequate. But, if you look at the broader context, and that is the meaningful application in our lives today, I don’t think they are adequate.”

The situation may have improved somewhat with the arrival in the early 1980’s of efforts to mark the bicentennial of the Constitution. Mr. Patrick said those efforts have produced a “bonanza of relatively inexpensive and high-quality educational materials” on the subject.

Funds from the national bicentennial commission have supported such activities as the development of teaching posters, teacher-training institutes, school curricula, and re- source guides, as well as national student competitions on the subject.

Many of those projects were carried out by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. Students using the group’s “We the People ...” program, for example, a six- week unit for teaching about the Constitution, were found to significantly out preform students who used other approaches to the subject on standardized, multiple-choice tests of constitutional knowledge, an Educational Testing Service study found.

The organization more recently produced a similar curriculum, called “With Liberty and Justice for All ... ,” for teaching about the Bill of Rights. (For a listing of resources on the topic, see box below.)

Both of those programs culminate with special competitions in which students exhibit their knowledge of the subject matter in a mock Congressional hearing. The competitions are held at the Congressional- district, state, and national levels.

Some of the organizations taking part in the national education efforts have a stake in preserving awareness of constitutional rights.

The American Newspaper Publishers’ Association Foundation, for example, has produced curricular materials for schools and encouraged its members to carry information on the topic in their newspapers. Polls in recent years have found that American students, when asked to rank their constitutional rights, listed freedom of the press last.

“I’m not sure understanding the importance of a free press is always an easy concept for young people to grasp,” Betty Sullivan, the director of educational services for the publishers’ foundation, said.

Law-Related Education

Some of the projects on the Bill of Rights have been a natural out growth of a law-related-education movement that began in the 1960’s and has been fostered nationally by groups like the American Bar Association and the Center for Research and Development in Law-Related Education at Wake Forest University. Mr. Patrick said the movement is active in at least 42 states.

Exports say many of the new supplemental materials stress the kind of “active, hands-on learning’ not found in many textbooks. The materials employ mock trials, the use of legal cases in studying constitutional issues, and similar approaches.

“If there’s a controversy, I guess it is: Do you look at it from a historical perspective and talk about the founders and let it go?” said Keri Doggett, who oversees education projects for the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles. “Or do you have students relate some of the theories they’re learning to current situations?”

Teacher-written lesson plans compiled by Ms. Doggett’s group suggest having students hold a mock trial of the wolf in “The Three Little Pigs.” Following the criminal trial, the students also determine whether the pigs can sue the wolf for damages under the Seventh Amendment.

Ms. Doggett said some Los Angeles elementary-school teachers have also persuaded principals to walk into classrooms and pretend to take down from the walls student writings that are critical of the school. “When the teacher debriefs the class and asks, ‘How does it feel to have your work censored?’” she said.

By its very nature, the Bill of Rights is ripe for such teaching opportunities, said Marjorie Montgomery, an 8th-grade history teacher in Newton, Mass.

“Just say ‘locker search’ and you could teach for 12 hours,” she said. She said students in the politically liberal community where she teaches “find it amazing that anyone would search their lockers, or ask them to pass through metal detectors, or censor a speech.”

“You have to bring them a little reality,’' she said. She said national controversies, such as the Persian Gulf war and the hearings on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, also helped pique students’ interest in the subject.

But the controversial nature of some of these topics may also prevent teachers from having fuller discussions of the Bill of Rights, Ms. Montgomery and other educators said.

“There’s a perception among teachers elsewhere that administrators don’t want teachers teaching kids about their rights,” Ms. Montgomery said.

Similarly, Mr. Percoco of Virginia’s West Springfield High said he has met other teachers fearful of delving into issues of religion in discussing the First Amendment.

But, said Mr. Patrick of Indiana University, “If you’re not teaching about controversy, you’re not teaching about the Bill of Rights correctly.”

What Next?

There is some question, too, about whether the hundreds of new materials for teaching about the Bill of Rights are getting into the hands of the teachers who need them most.

The Center for Civic Education, for example, has provided limited numbers of its curricula flee to every Congressional district. Funds for other efforts have been more limited.

“We just haven’t built in the kind of marketing apparatus that speaks to this kind of widespread use,” said Ms. McKinney-Browning of the American Bar Association. Her group this month will release a report on recommendations for improving teaching about the Bill of Rights. The document is the result of a national symposium on the subject this fall.

A big question now is what will happen once the Bill of Rights celebration draws to a close. The federal bicentennial commission will go out of business on Dec. 31, marking the end of a major source of funding for constitutional-education efforts.

The Congress has passed a bill reauthorizing the Center for Civic Education’s two constitutional-education curriculum programs and its competition on the subject and placing them under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Education Department.

But some educators express concern that a new emphasis at the highest levels of the federal government on placing history at the core of the social studies will leave little room for educational approaches stressing the everyday relevance of the Bill of Rights in contemporary life.

Specifically, some critics point to the national education goals set last year by President Bush and the nation’s governors, which mention citizenship twice but do not specifically list it as a core subject.

Julia Hardin, the director of the Center for Research and Development in Law-Related Education, which advocates the exploration of constitutional issues in daily living, maintained that the new emphasis has already resulted in a decline in federal funds for such programs.

“We’ve done a lot to raise the general consciousness over the last five to six years,” she said. “But there’s also a tendency to sit back and say, ‘Now that we’ve developed all these materials, we can sit back and do something else.’”

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as Celebrating Bill of Rights, Schools Tackle ‘National History Lesson’