A story last Saturday about a new religion curriculum for public schools misidentified the source of the 1983 educational report, "A Nation at Risk." That report was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (Published 11/9/90)
A group of national educators led by former education commissioner Ernest L. Boyer announced an ambitious program this week to train teachers to teach about religion, religious liberty and civic values in the public schools.
The First Liberty Institute, housed at George Mason University, will train social studies teachers from around the country in the use of a new curriculum designed for elementary, junior high and senior high school students.
The new lesson plans -- on topics ranging from Jewish settlers in 16th-century America to Moslem government workers today -- were tested last fall in 150 classrooms, including some in Anne Arundel County. Now revised, the lessons, called "Living With Our Deepest Differences," are beginning to be adopted in school districts around the country, according to Charles L. Haynes, the institute's new executive director.
The educators said Wednesday at a news conference that the curriculum is the first of its kind in the country. It was drafted with the help of the National School Boards Association, university education departments and faith communities including the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals. It also has the support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The brainchild of the privately funded Williamsburg Charter Foundation, the First Liberty Institute evolved out of a concern that an increasing number of American students are ignorant of the institutions and ideals upon which the country was founded, Haynes said. Schoolteachers feel unprepared to teach more about U.S. religious history and civics, Haynes added, even as an increasing number of school boards are telling them to do so in the name of multicultural education.
Boyer, author of the 1983 report on public schools, "A Nation at Risk," which stimulated many of the changes taking place in public education, said he believes the new program "moves us beyond the regulatory aspects of more homework and higher test scores to focus on . . . fundamental values -- freedom of religion, freedom of speech and respect for diversity -- upon which this nation was founded."
Religion, Boyer continued, is one of those "flashpoints" in American culture that, like sex education, teachers avoid. "The failure to include the study of religion in the school curriculum has reduced the quality of the education we are providing to our children," Boyer said in prepared remarks.
First Liberty Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization funded principally by private foundations, will run on a budget of about $200,000, according to institute officials, with two full-time teacher-trainers. One of those trainers, Haynes, has led a summer program for D.C. area teachers for four years at George Mason. It was his connection to the school's Department of Education that resulted in the university's providing office space.
Haynes, a former world religion professor who has taught hundreds of teachers locally and nationwide, said several states recently ordered their school districts to incorporate instruction on religion and religious pluralism in the classroom.
One state, California, already has placed the First Liberty materials on its approved curriculum list, he said. California teachers who used the material during last year's pilot program "were quite pleased," said Diane Brooks, manager of the history/social science unit for the California State Department of Education. "The staff development that went along with it was excellent. There were some questions raised at first -- was this doctrine or a more factual, historical approach? The evidence pointed to the latter."
Locally, Prince George's County as well as the Salisbury, Md., school district have shown an interest in using the curriculum, which begins at grade 5 with a discussion of the settlement of Jews in this country from 1492 to 1654. That section, like all others, ends with a parent participation exercise: Fifth-graders are asked to find out where their ancestors came from, whether their ancestors were part of a religious community and whether religious liberty played a role in their family's past.
........FOR SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
1. There should be laws against the practice of Satan worship.
2. Followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon should not be allowed to print a daily newspaper in Washington, D.C.
3. It should be against the law for preachers to use television shows to raise money.
4. If a group is named as a threat to democracy, do you think some of its public activities should be restricted?