Read what the Founding Fathers had to say: Roger Beckett Op. Ed

December 24, 2020

Policymakers can’t make up their minds about how standardized tests should be used to measure school and student performance. Congress is considering proposals to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, which expanded the role of standardized tests when it was passed 14 years ago. In Pennsylvania, one proposal before the General Assembly would eliminate Keystone Exams for some topics, including civics and government. A competing measure would move in the opposite direction by creating a commission to enhance standardized testing.

Pennsylvania was once a leader in the use of standardized testing, but now the state is second-guessing itself. A growing national opposition to common educational standards and the tendency of instructors to “teach to the test” has the Legislature unsure how to proceed as a small but growing number of parents opt out of the exams.

After more than a decade of increasingly expansive testing, American schools still rank 17th in literacy, 17th in math and 21st in science. Placing too much emphasis on these tests misses the deeper reforms we need to improve the education of future generations.

Consider American history. James Madison famously said, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently free,” but we’re no longer that people — at least when it comes to civics.

It’s not just that most students have never heard of Madison. The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that more than half of 12th-graders couldn’t even muster the basic facts needed to pass the U.S. history exam. American students perform worse in American history than in any other subject.

The chief culprits are colleges and universities for failing to prepare teachers adequately — especially to teach history and civics. Teachers rely too heavily on textbooks that give, at best, a boring account of the story of America and, at worst, a biased account of what makes America exceptional.

The best way to convey the importance of the Constitution and the unique way our government is constructed to protect our rights and liberties is to let the founding fathers speak for themselves. They were among the most eloquent men of their, or any, generation.

To explain the Constitution to a newly formed nation, Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay spoke directly to the public through a series of newspaper articles now collectively known as the Federalist Papers. Madison also left for us his remarkable record of the Constitutional Convention, which captured the give-and-take of a legislative body that proved compromise and political principle can truly coexist. These and other core documents can bring students a first-hand, unfiltered account of America’s founding — and the rationale and compromises that forged our political institutions.

Cutting the textbook tether can be difficult. To help teachers do so, there’s, a free website we created at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. It features more than 2,000 primary-source documents and online exhibits about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, along with webinars to assist teachers in putting it all together.

Better-prepared teachers can help students better understand what it means to be an American. That’s important, because if the next generation doesn’t understand the purpose of our revolution, the reasons for the separation of powers in our government or the role of the states in our federal system, that generation isn’t likely to notice when its liberties slowly slip away.

The best test in the world isn’t going to spark the interest and enthusiasm needed to encourage students to develop the deep understanding of civics they’ll need to become tomorrow’s city council members, judges and state legislators. Only the effective teaching of American history by teachers who have in-depth exposure to our founding fathers’ original sources can do that.

Roger L. Beckett is executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.

This post originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on April 9, 2015.