American Heritage Education
American heritage education is a curriculum-reform initiative that supports the teaching of fundamentals that have made America a strong and prosperous nation. Especially since the 9/11 Tragedy, many U.S. education reformists have petitioned curriculum reform that would use facts about America's history to teach citizenship, democracy, and patriotism to the next generation. Some groups, such as the American Heritage Education Foundation, have packaged educational programs for K-12 teachers that include content related to historical events, symbols, documents and biographies. Critics of this approach favor a curriculum that focuses on the development of critical thinking that can prepare a citizenry to embrace democratic principles and enable them to evolve a democratic future. Both groups agree that the reformed curriculum should teach students what being an American means, but what the curriculum should be and how "American" is defined continues to be deliberated.
Keywords American Heritage Education; Alternative Education; Diversity; Heritage Education; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Public Education; Revisionist History; School Board; Separation of Church and State; Traditional History; We the People Grant
Heritage education, a curriculum-reform initiative that supports the teaching of fundamentals that have made America a strong and prosperous nation, is among many interest areas of education reform groups who are concerned with the status of public education. From the time that public education in the U.S. began in the mid-nineteenth century, primary authority over the education of children was assumed by local communities and administered by school boards of locally-elected individuals. Over time, local citizens shared the cost of schooling for their community's children, most children attended public schools, and most Americans felt a patriotic attachment to their schools. The early public schools were vital community institutions and reflected the mores of parents and churches. Along with the 3 R's-reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic-values (such as honesty, industry, patriotism and tolerance for differences) were also emphasized (Ravitch, 2000).
Under the public education model, education is provided for all children, is compulsory (until a certain age) and government has direction over the curriculum, certification of teachers and testing standards. Even though the focus of public education has been to prepare a citizenry that advances a unified collective, it has always been accepted that parents and families have ultimate decision-making rights and responsibilities for their children. From the earliest times, some families turned to home education, and other alternative education approaches, as substitutes for the learning environments provided in public schools. Motivations to choose alternatives have ranged from religious reasons (due to the separation of church and state) to general dissatisfaction with government control over curriculum and teaching methods.
As the United States has developed beyond an agrarian society, beyond an industrial society and into a society that is a major influence in the global collective, state and federal governments have contributed more tax support to educating the nation's next generation. Associated with greater financial support, state and federal governments also have assumed more power in defining the curriculum in order to maintain a competitive workforce for the global economy.
The No Child Left behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is federal legislation that currently directs U.S. public education. The act follows the idea that setting goals and having higher expectations for students will ensure that they will be successful and the country will be continually prosperous. Critics claim that NCLB promotes teaching aimed at increasing test scores. They also have concern that some subjects-such as art, history, and music-have become minimized (or eliminated) in the public school curriculum.
Gaining much national attention, especially since the 9/11 Tragedy, several education reformist groups have advocated a return to the education of America's factual and philosophical heritage to further constructive citizenship among the next generation. While there is debate amongst educators about how to best accomplish this, much focus by all groups is on reform of the social studies curriculum (Puaca, 2004).
New Heritage Programs
A September 2002 Rose Garden speech by President George Bush, unleashed funding support for curriculum reform and heritage education. Three initiatives were introduced to encourage History and Civic Engagement education into the public school curriculum.
The first initiative was the "We the People" grant, administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to provide federal funds to:
• Develop curricula;
• Hold training seminars for classroom teachers and university faculty;
• Sponsor a series of lectures where scholars present the tales of American history and the famous people involved; and
• Sign high school students up for essay contests that involve the knowledge of American history, laws, and ideals.
The second initiative, "Our Documents" implemented by the National Archives, would use the Internet to:
• Make available America's most important documents,
• Provide lesson plans, and
• Promote discussions about important moments in U.S. history.
Thirdly, a White House forum on American history was scheduled to discuss public school curriculum modifications that would promote national treasures and make them more relevant to the lives of students (President Introduces History & Civic Education Initiatives, 2002).
Some Disappointing Statistics
In a promotional speech to launch the NEH "We the People" Grant, Chairperson Bruce Cole (2002) asserted that the survival of participatory democracy requires an informed and educated citizenry. He contended that “polls, tests, and studies have shown that Americans do not know their history, cannot remember even the most significant events of the 20th century, and are in danger of having a view of the future obscured by ignorance of the past” (Cole, 2002, ¶ 3). In his speech, he cites a study of students that found
• Over a third were unable to identify the Constitution as establishing the division of governmental powers,
• Only 29% could identify the term Reconstruction,
• 40% could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century, and
• Over half could not state who fought in World War II.
In closing, Cole purports that citizens who don't know why their nation exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to maintain its strength (Cole, 2002, ¶ 6).
The American Heritage Education Foundation
An active national group that is focused on creating a curriculum to promote a unified citizenry is the American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF). The Texas-based organization collaborates nationally with school districts, government, businesses, churches, and non-profit and professional organizations to advance American heritage education. At the core of AHEF's belief is that Freedom, Unity, Progress, and Responsibility are cornerstones of the country's strength and can be objectively studied so that students will understand, appreciate, and carry on the republic "of the people, by the people, and for the people." The organization's premise is that students who understand the...
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