Schools to Tackle a New Mandate: Teaching About U.S. Constitution

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Schools across the nation will be on the same page next week—on the crinkled and sepia-toned parchment that records the basic liberties of U.S. citizens and the structure of the government.

See Also
Read the related commentary, “Black Armbands for Constitution Day”

Though the U.S. Constitution’s final signing on Sept. 17, 1787, has long been celebrated by some, Congress mandated for the first time that all public schools and colleges conduct educational programs about the document annually, on or around that date.

The measure, a pet project that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., tacked onto a federal spending bill last December, also requires all federal agencies to provide educational and training materials on the Constitution on the same date for all their employees.

Sen. Byrd has repeatedly warned that a decline in knowledge about the Constitution in government and the citizenry is having negative consequences for the nation. Even many members of Congress “do not come really with, in so many instances, a basic knowledge of the Constitution and, of course, with a love and reverence for it,” he said in a talk at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston last October.

Because Sept. 17 falls on a Saturday this year, the measure allows educators to schedule their programs either the week before or the week after; Sept. 16 seems to be the most widely chosen date.

Better Support

Some educators have bridled at Uncle Sam’s telling them what to include in the curriculum and when to teach it, while not providing any money to help cover the costs. But others say teaching about the Constitution is too important to quibble over.

Constitution Day Resources

Numerous resources are available to help schools turn Constitution Day into a learning exercise later this month. Among them:

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen G. Breyer talk with high school students about such topics as the meaning of federalism and the purpose behind the separation of powers among the branches of government. The session was recorded in June and is being broadcast online and via satellite on Sept. 16 for use by schools.

The National Archives and Records Administration has a collection of classroom activities and lesson plans, such as one in which students invent a game from simple materials to simulate how the members of the Constitutional Convention might have felt as they began to write the Constitution.

The National Constitution Center offers educators and students additional resources.

The Bill of Rights Institute offers free materials to schools to help teachers organize Constitution Day events, including lesson plans for high schools and middle schools and a biographical essay about James Madison, the document’s principal author.

The U.S. Department of Education presents Web links to free resources, including a searchable "Interactive Constitution" with passages relevant to 300 topics, a timeline of the Constitution's history, and notes that George Washington wrote on his copy.

Books on the Constitution abound for students, from histories to biographies of the document’s signers. For upper-elementary children, Constitution Translated for Kids, by Cathy Travis (Oakwood Publishers, 2002), presents a line-by-line translation of the document at the 5th grade reading level. For children ages 9-12, there is Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, by Jean Fritz (Paperstar Book).

The nation has days to honor labor, veterans, war dead, and Thanksgiving, so “why not Constitution Day?” said Peggy Altoff, the K-12 social studies supervisor in the 30,000-student Colorado Springs, Colo., district. “Without [the Constitution], we wouldn’t have the others.”

Ms. Altoff, who is president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the group has been concerned for some time about the quality of history and civics courses taught in public schools, and that those subjects are getting squeezed out by the testing emphasis on mathematics and language arts in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Silver Spring, Md.-based curriculum group appreciates Sen. Byrd’s efforts, said Al Frascella, its director of communications and government relations, adding that a much more structured plan would be needed to be effective.

“We agree with Sen. Byrd’s concerns that not enough kids are learning about the Constitution and U.S. history in general,” he said. However, “we could have pointed him to things he could do to really support civics education.”

For instance, the council has supported teaching academies and summer camps to train teachers to better teach about the Constitution and U.S. history in general. It would also like to see a section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam devoted to social studies and civics education.

History and civics are covered on NAEP on an irregular basis.

‘A Ton of Resources’

Schools in Colorado Springs will design their own programs to comply with the federal requirement, with some drawing ideas from a Web site,, that Ms. Altoff maintains for the Colorado social studies teachers’ organization.

“There’s a ton of resources,” Ms. Altoff said. “That, as usual, is not the problem; it is having people focus on the topic to meet the letter and the spirit of the law. I’m concerned about the spirit.”

In Missouri, the 28 schools in the 20,000-student Parkway district also are planning a range of activities for Sept. 16, said Liz Morrison, the district’s social studies coordinator.

Some schools may have everyone wear red, white, and blue, she said. And many will join in a national reading of the Constitution’s Preamble, organized by the nonprofit group Constitution Day Inc., with recitations by student leaders or choruses of students over school public-address systems.

She said Missouri’s U.S. senators provided the district with recordings of themselves discussing the Constitution, which will be played for students.

Jim Lake, a teacher of Modern Warfare and Challenges to Democracy classes at the 2,100-student Parkway South High School, is planning to lead his 11th and 12th graders in a discussion about why the Constitution has succeeded as a political document while its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, failed.

As for younger students in the Parkway district, Ms. Morrison said she plans to give a 45-minute program at one elementary school for 5th graders.

“We’ll take the Preamble, and break it down, asking, ‘We the People’—what does that look like today, and what did it look like when the Constitution was signed?” she said.

Raven Padgett, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said she recently sent members of the group an e-mail to ask about Constitution Day plans.

“Many of the principals I’ve queried are saying they’ve never heard of it,” she said. “Those that had, it was kind of short notice. There’s a little bit of an element of surprise here.”

Educators just catching on to the federal requirement might take some comfort in the fact that, as of last week, the U.S. Department of Education had not settled on its required employee program for the day. Jim Bradshaw, a department spokesman, advised a reporter to check back this week.

Vol. 25, Issue 02, Page 9

Published in Print: September 7, 2005, as Schools to Tackle a New Mandate: Teaching About U.S. Constitution
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