Biloxi (MS) Sun Herald
On this recent Independence Day weekend, Americans celebrated with picnics, parades, and fireworks, but do we reflect much on the great ideas behind the founding of the nation?
Do today’s children even know what the Fourth of July means in terms of individual rights and national unity? For their part, have immigrant children learned enough English to understand, even on a rudimentary level, the Declaration of Independence, the revolutionary document that is at the center of the national birthday celebration?
In many of our public schools, we urge students to “celebrate diversity” at every turn, while skimping on study of their common heritage as Americans.
The deficit in knowledge is plain and can be horrendous: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2006 Civics Test, only 26 percent of eighth graders could explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Fewer than half of fourth graders could correctly interpret Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery in his “house divided” speech.
Last month, the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity released a thought-provoking report about this knowledge deficit. “A nation founded with an idea starts anew with each generation and each new group of immigrant,” noted the report. “Knowing what America stands for is not a genetic inheritance. It must be learned, both by the next generation and by those who come to this country.”
The Declaration advanced the natural rights of mankind as the unifying ideal of government for the new nation. However, there is no guarantee fundamental principles will endure.
The report cites survey data showing that 80 percent of Americans believe that schools should focus on American citizenship, not ethnic identity. Some 70 percent of Latinos shared this view.
Unfortunately, the brand of multiculturalism widely espoused in academe, and in public schools around the nation, encourages component cultures, immigrant or otherwise, to retain separate identities and reject assimilation. The separatist attitude manifests itself in such ways as dual citizenship, multilingual ballots, and bilingual instruction as opposed to English immersion.
The stakes are higher for our country than they have ever been before. We face major challenges regarding the assimilation of new Americans into our nation’s culture and economy.
Research consistently demonstrates that proficiency in English is the most critical factor in such assimilation. Unfortunately, this is a major area where American public education has failed to make up ground.
In many states with the largest populations of English learners, schools continue to demonstrate chronically low levels of success at bringing those students up to basic levels of English proficiency. In California, Texas, and Illinois, the annual rate at which English learners get moved to English proficient status remains below 10 percent.
In other words, it takes an average of more than 10 years for schools to teach these children enough English so they will be able to fend for themselves in mainstream classrooms. So it should come as little surprise that the majority of 10th grade English learners in California began school in this country in kindergarten or first grade.
In fact, more than two-thirds of English learners in the United States aren’t immigrants at all, but second or third generation Americans.
These children continue to show their ability to thrive when they get the skills they need: Students who begin school as English learners, but who succeed in acquiring enough English to become proficient, are one of the highest-performing groups in American public education.
John Adams, our second President, foresaw that, “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.” As we advance into the 21st century, it has also become critical that they learn English so their assimilation can be a thorough one. In both of these vital areas, we must ask more of our schools if we intend that freedom to endure.
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