Parents Tell Schools: Teach American Values First

Published February 1, 1999

Although there is much debate among teachers and academics about whether the mostly white, mostly male, and mostly European heroes involved in stories of the nation’s founding can have meaning for students whose backgrounds and origins are different, for the parents of these students there is virtually no debate.

According to a new study by the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Public Agenda, parents firmly believe that schools should teach their children the traditional ideals and stories of what it means to be an American.

That view is overwhelmingly shared by parents from all demographic groups–white, black, or Hispanic; immigrant or native-born. While parents support teaching students about the experiences, traditions, and histories of ethnic and national groups other than their own, they object strongly to lessons or courses that demean the United States or encourage divisiveness and diminish a shared American identity.

The Public Agenda study, “A Lot To Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children To Learn About America,” also reveals that parents from all demographic groups believe that teaching immigrant students to speak English should be the schools’ top priority, not providing native-language instruction or so-called bilingual education. Two out of three parents (67 percent) say it is important for students to learn English as quickly as possible–even if it means falling behind in other subjects.

At a time when the openness of the American political system has revealed to the world the character flaws of the country’s scandal-plagued chief executive, the nation’s parents offer a refreshingly positive view of the New World. More than nine in ten foreign-born parents say the United States is a better country than most others–a view that is shared by white and Hispanic parents, and more than eight in ten African-American parents.

“If you are looking at politics, the U.S. is an evil empire because 90 percent of politicians are crooks, but if you can leave politics out of it, America is the best place in the world to live, there’s no question about it,” noted a white father in Texas.

An African-American father in Birmingham, Alabama, agreed. “With all the bad things, and all the things that history has brought not only for blacks, but for Mexicans and Jews, I still think this is the greatest place,” he said.

Parents in all demographic groups strongly identified the key elements of the American ideal as individual freedom and opportunity, combined with a commitment to tolerance and respect for others. Parents recognized that with opportunity also comes responsibility–for working hard and for being self-reliant. Three out of four parents (76 percent) say that an essential part of what makes America a special place is that people are expected to work and earn their living, not rely on the government.

“America’s parents convey a deep, yet realistic loyalty to the nation. Theirs is not a knee-jerk patriotism–they readily acknowledge America’s imperfections–but those born here, and those not, embrace with pride a common agenda they expect the public schools to teach about what it means to be an American,” said Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda.

By a 79 percent to 18 percent margin, parents of all demographic groups think that schools should teach children to be proud of being part of America and to learn the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rather than emphasizing ethnic differences.

“The best place for kids to learn to take pride in their ethnic or racial identity is at home,” say a large majority of parents (80 percent), while school “is where they should be learning about what it means to be an American.” For two-thirds of the parents, learning to be an American included having their children taught that “it is good to question the actions and policies of the U.S. government.”

The study, which is based on a national telephone survey of 801 parents of public school students conducted in September 1998, has a margin of error plus or minus 3 percent. The survey also involved six focus groups and interviews with 200 foreign-born, 203 Hispanic, and 198 African-American parents. The complete study may be ordered from Public Agenda, 6 East 39th Street, New York, NY 10016, phone 212/686-6610.

The study was sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and an anonymous donor.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.