History and civics education got a boost under two measures passed by Congress in its lame-duck session last month. But while the bills drew praise for focusing attention on the importance of those subjects, critics say that they amount to a federal intrusion into curriculum, and fear that one of them promotes controversial views of the nation’s history and role in the world.
The first measure, the American History and Civics Education Act, could pump millions of dollars into the teaching of the subjects, by supporting summer academies for a few hundred teachers and students over four years.
The second was a last-minute clause added to the 3,000-page domestic-spending bill by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. It requires all schools receiving federal aid to teach students about the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17 each year. That day, Constitution Day, is the anniversary of the signing of the document in 1787.
At a time when the federal No Child Left Behind Act is being blamed for squeezing social studies subjects out of the curriculum as schools spend more time on tested subjects—reading, mathematics, and eventually science—some educators say the attention is welcome.
“I see these as small steps in the right direction,” said Jesus Garcia, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, in Silver Spring, Md. “They are a positive sign that people are certainly talking about the need for social studies, history, [and] civics education in the curriculum.”
But he acknowledged that the two measures may have a limited impact, given the small number of academy participants expected each year and the single-day focus on the Constitution.
Some conservative interest groups have been battling the history and civics act since it was introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., last year. They argue that the initiative promotes a controversial civics curriculum that does not stress U.S. sovereignty and that focuses on educating students to be global citizens.
“It is a radical curriculum with a veneer of patriotism,” said Julie M. Quist, the vice president of the Chaska, Minn.-based EdWatch, which opposes a federally controlled system of education.
But Alexia Poe, a spokeswoman for Sen. Alexander, said the legislation does not endorse, promote, or require the curriculum—written by the Center for Civics Education in Calabasas, Calif.—the groups oppose. In fact, the bill, which President Bush signed on Dec. 21, does not identify any specific content for the academies.
The program is modeled after the “governor’s schools” created by Mr. Alexander when he was the governor of Tennessee in the 1980s.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Some Fret as Congress Passes Measures on History, Civics Education