Conjuring the image of Benjamin Franklin before the Legislature’s Education Committee on Monday, Elm Creek High School senior Audrey Worthing said it was important to keep in mind the inventor and statesman’s words at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
When Franklin was asked what kind of government the convention had created for the United States, he responded with caustic wit.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” he's reported as saying.
Speaking in support of a bill (LB1069) that would outline new civic education requirements for Nebraska school boards, Worthing said it was worth keeping in mind Franklin’s warning.
“The lack of basic civics knowledge and the focus in our schools needs to change if we are to keep the republic Benjamin Franklin and our country’s Founding Fathers created for us,” Worthing told the committee.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, would amend portions of state law that since 1949 have required school boards to appoint three-person Americanism committees charged with reviewing social studies curriculum and patriotic education in Nebraska schools.
According to Brasch, school boards across the state have become lax when it comes to those requirements, leading to “a crisis of identity in a postmodern world” in the youth of Nebraska and the nation.
“It is still a struggle to instill a love of country as dearly as those who founded it,” Brasch said. “It is every American’s responsibility to develop a sense of pride and self-sacrifice in our children as evident as those who laid down their lives for our country.”
The bill would also require school districts to administer to eighth-graders and 11th-graders the 100-question civics portion of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test, then report individual results to parents and aggregate results to the Nebraska Department of Education.
Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the state board supported LB1069’s goal of improving civics education in the state and the reporting mechanism included in it.
Administering the test to students until they gained command of the facts would set a good foundation for civics education in the state, he said, comparing it to taking a driver’s test in order to obtain a license.
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“It would be nice if by eighth grade there was a pretty good sense of what students know and are able to do so they can build on that experience by the time they hit high school,” Blomstedt said.
He said the test might also help motivate students to learn more about the country’s history and government, as well as get involved through community service and other opportunities.
“Kids are motivated by getting better and better,” he said. “This could be a unique opportunity in that light.”
Opponents of the bill included the Nebraska Association of School Boards and the Nebraska State Education Association, which cautioned using the naturalization test as the minimum standard for Nebraska schools.
Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks also called into question the limited scope of the test, pointing out it failed to mention the contributions of women and minority groups to U.S. history.
Jay Sears, a former Seward social studies teacher who spoke on NSEA’s behalf, said the test is not a reliable measurement of students’ civic knowledge.
“If we want students to become civically engaged and knowledgeable, schools must provide well-developed curriculum that engages students in learning and does not hinge on a culminating test,” Sears said. “Students will memorize the 100 questions and answers, take the test and ignore the learning and engaging piece of instruction.”
In a back and forth with Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, the committee chairman, Sears said civics education should be more than matching names and dates on a quiz.
“A test does not teach, a test assesses whether or not you know a fact,” Sears said.
“We didn’t necessarily assess all of the facts, because teaching dates and facts of history is really boring,” he continued.
“I enjoy it,” Groene interjected.