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SCHOOLS & LEARNING

Despite Lessons on King, Some Unaware of His Dream

Vincent Johnson, 6, reads his essay that he wrote for a Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest at Spauldings Library in Prince George's County. In many elementary schools, federal holidays serve as the only chance to discuss important figures in U.S. history, such as King.
Vincent Johnson, 6, reads his essay that he wrote for a Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest at Spauldings Library in Prince George's County. In many elementary schools, federal holidays serve as the only chance to discuss important figures in U.S. history, such as King. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

That's the good news.

Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

The findings indicate that years of efforts by primary and secondary schools to steep young people in the basics of the civil rights leader's life and activities have resulted in a mixed bag. Most college students know who he is -- even if they're not quite clear on what he worked to achieve.

Students and teachers say today's federal holiday marking King's birthday is the one that receives the most attention in schools, in part because the events surrounding the man it commemorates are the most recent.

"I think if there is one holiday on the calendar that is really reflective and thoughtful and has historical content, it is the King holiday," said Cynthia Mosteller, a history teacher at Deal Junior High School in the District. "It is a topic about which literally every student knows something."

How long students will continue to learn it, however, is open to question, students and educators say.

The recent survey of college students, conducted by the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy for the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute, suggests that schools are not doing as much as they could to go beyond a cursory history lesson. More than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities earned an average score of 53.2 percent in the survey.

Many of the 10 federal holidays have become little more than days off school or work, even if they are dedicated to significant Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Many people have no idea what Labor Day commemorates, educators say.

"Honestly, I never knew what Veterans Day was until last year," said Taneisha Rodney, 14, a ninth-grader at William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Northeast Washington.

In many schools across the country, teachers say social studies has taken a back seat under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which stresses math and reading. Squeezing history into the curriculum can be difficult, educators say, and taking time out of a scheduled lesson to use a federal holiday -- even King's -- as a teaching moment can be tough.

"It depends on the teacher and how much they want to deviate from what they are doing," said Adam Zemel, 17, a senior at Yorktown High School in Arlington.


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