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In a recent column criticizing the Mansfield school district’s plans to introduce an Arabic program to its schools, state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, wondered why Arabic culture is a priority "at a time when our children do not spend any time in school learning our own U.S. Constitution."
We wondered whether Texas students spend no time studying the Constitution, as Flynn says in the opinion piece published Feb. 14 on the North Texas Navigator news website.
When we contacted the representative’s office, Flynn’s chief of staff, David Erinakes told us "there is no dedicated class on the U.S. Constitution as early as first grade, and (Flynn’s) implication is that he believes all Texas school children should have a class on the U.S. Constitution while they’re in school at least one time."
Erinakes said that while the Constitution is written into the state’s curriculum standards for the public schools, "there isn’t very much time spent on it." Erinakes said Flynn based this conclusion on conversations with teachers who have recently visited the representative’s office.
We turned next to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for social studies, curriculum standards outlining what students must be taught in Texas classrooms. In an online post of the standards now in place — an update takes effect in 2011-12 — we spotted about 35 references to teaching students about the constitution.
According to the standards, students are introduced to the U.S. Constitution in fifth grade when they must identify "the important ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution" and "examine fundamental rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights." Seventh graders should be able to "explain the influence of the U.S. Constitution on the Texas Constitution." Eighth graders are supposed to study "the creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution."
History and government comes under the heading of social studies until high school, when specific courses in those subjects are offered. In a course in U.S. history since the Reconstruction, students are expected to "identify and analyze methods on expanding the right to participate in the Democratic process, including... amendments to the U.S. Constitution." A "significant focus" of the state’s mandatory high school U.S. government class is on "the U.S. Constitution, its underlying principles and ideas and the form of government it created."
Next we looked at online versions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests annually administered to students from grades 3 to 11. Fifth- and eighth-graders must pass the reading and math tests, and 11th-grade students must pass all portions of test, which include social studies, to graduate.
Searching for "constitution" in the social-studies portion of the 2009 test for eighth-graders, we found four references, including one question asking students to identify how the 13th Amendment changed the Constitution (B. Abolished slavery).
We found five references to the Constitution in the tenth-grade test, including a question about what principle the Constitution’s establishment of the executive, legislative and judicial branches reflects.
And in 11th grade? Two references to the U.S. Constitution.
Debbie Ratcliffe, an education agency spokeswoman, told us that local educators determine how much time is spent on the Constitution, but she pointed out that each grade is required to observe Celebrate Freedom Week, which falls on the week of Constitution Day — Sept. 17. The standards going into effect in 2011-12 reflect the observance. According to the pending standards, third through eighth grade classes, for example, must include "appropriate instruction concerning the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution" during Celebrate Freedom Week, or during another full school week as determined by each school district’s board of trustees.
Andy Welch, a spokesman for the Austin school district, told us that Austin teachers teach what the state standards require.
Richie Escovedo, a Mansfield district spokesman, told us: "We definitely do teach the Constitution." He pointed us to the district’s curriculum specifying that students study the Constitution in fifth, seventh and 12th grade. Also, Escovedo noted, district third-graders study questions such as, "Why was a new Constitution needed after the American Revolution?" and "How does the Bill of Rights protect you, even as a child?"
When we told Flynn that we couldn’t find evidence to support his claim, Erinakes responded: "You are correct that it is in the standards, but as to the time spent it seems to be minimal at best... Relative to the amount of time spent on other subjects, ‘our children do not spend any time at all learning about the U.S. Constitution.’"
Flynn’s statement, though, was absolute. Lacking back-up information from his end or any other evidence that either schools are flouting the state’s curriculum standards or students aren’t being held to them, the statement more than fails. We smell smoke. Pants on Fire!
North Texas Navigator News, Rep. Dan Flynn speaks on the Mansfield ISD-Arabic class mandate, Feb. 14, 2011
Texas Education Agency, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies, accessed Feb. 16, 2011
Texas Education Agency, Released Tests — interactive online versions, updated Sept. 1, 2009
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, Feb. 16, 2011
Austin American-Statesman, A day devoted to the Constitution; schools satisfy new federal law with events both fun and studious, Sept. 17, 2005 (accessed via NexisLexis on Feb. 16, 2011)
Interview with David Erinakes, chief of staff for Rep. Dan Flynn, Feb. 16, 2011
E-mail interview with Debbie Ratcliffe, communications director, Texas Education Agency, Feb. 17, 2011
Interview with Andy Welch, communications specialist, Austin Independent School District, Feb. 18, 2011
E-mail interview with Richie Escovedo, director of media and communications, Feb. 18, 2011
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