Proposed mandate to teach freedom stirs debate

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Public school students may be required to study American freedom in honor of Veteran’s Day if new legislation passes.
The bill would designate the week of Veteran’s Day, or Nov. 11, as “Celebrate Freedom Week,” and require social studies teachers to provide instruction  “concerning the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.”
Gladwin schools superintendent and Michigan Council for the Social Studies question the need for a legislative mandate.
The sponsor, Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, wants to provide children with a broader, deeper understanding of the reasoning behind the rights that veterans fought to guarantee, said his chief of staff, Jennifer Murray.
Murray said the bill would give school boards the option to designate an alternative week as Celebrate Freedom Week.
That would give boards flexibility in how they would implement the legislation.
But Gladwin Community Schools Superintendent Rick Seebeck said it wouldn’t give local boards enough control.
“Michigan schools are designed to be run by local boards of education, so let the local boards of education run the schools,” he said.
“I believe when the state came along with the standards and benchmarks in each of the core content areas that we teach, those were all great ideas and we need to have them,” he said.
“But rather than just telling us, here are the standards, go teach them, they pile on the mandates, and that’s when it starts to get out of control,” he said.
Seebeck said he doesn’t take issue with the senator’s motives or the intentions behind many mandates, but they often lead to adverse effects.
“You won’t find an educator out there who will tell you understanding the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement are bad things. We all believe that learning more about our country is good,” he said.
“But when the legislative body takes these good ideas and starts to mandate them with little or no understanding of how those mandates would actually impact the schools, they turn us into slaves of the bureaucracy,” he said.
Seebeck said that most requirements proposed in the Celebrate Freedom Week bill are already incorporated into the State Board of Education’s social studies curriculum standards.
“I can’t speak for any other schools, but I can tell you that here we celebrate freedom all the time. Our schools say the pledge in the morning. Our kids have lessons within their curriculum that talk about American history,” he said
“We talk about all of those things in our school every day.”
According to the state board and the Department of Education’s Michigan Curriculum Framework, students must be able to explain the meaning and origin of the ideas and the core democratic values of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and other foundational documents of the United States.
That’s required under the social studies civics standard.
Tom Webb, president of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies, said he believes in the concept of the legislation but — like Seebeck — is wary of the negative impact of requiring that American freedom be covered in a particular week.
“If you look at the Michigan social studies curriculum, there’s plenty of focus on our freedom,” he said.
“By prescribing a week of instruction, are you actually going to reduce the amount of time overall spent on that kind of a topic that can be integrated into almost any lesson we teach as social studies teachers?” he said.
A co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, said that instead of limiting the time spent addressing American freedoms, the legislation would complement state curriculum standards.
“This is something that really highlights American heritage in a way that is very compatible with what the standards and benchmarks are for Michigan. Individual teachers and administrators would have the ability to implement Celebrate Freedom Week thematically,” said Moolenaar, a former charter school administrator.
Other sponsors are Republican Sens. Howard Walker of Traverse City; Thomas Casperson of Escanaba; John Proos of St. Joseph; Phil Pavlov of St. Clair Township; Mike Nofs of Battle Creek; Judith Emmons of Sheridan and Michael Green of Mayville.
Webb suggests that legislators look beyond complementary legislation for the curriculum standards in Michigan if they believe there is a void.
“You can achieve the same ends by working toward making sure the social studies curriculum is being taught and that there’s some way of accounting for the fact that these things have been addressed in the classroom,” Webb said.
“If it’s in the curriculum, then it should be being taught. If it’s not being taught, let’s find out why and take steps to correct it,” he said.
The bill is pending in the Senate Education Committee.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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