HM - Jan. 2014 - McAlister


Legislating Curriculum

Nathan McAlister
History Teacher, Royal Valley Middle School
2010 Gilder-Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year
Treasurer, Kansas Council for History Education

The reformers of education are a diverse group.  From parents to teachers, professors at universities, to boards of education and legislators, it seems as though everyone has an opinion on how to “fix” education. Some wax nostalgic, advocating a return to the one-room schoolhouse system.  Some have called for privatization of schools with a free market-based system tied to competitive outcomes.  Still others believe if reforms are needed, they should come from within the existing system.  Many of these reformers and their reforms are aimed at the structure of education and have little to do with what is taught in the day-to-day world of the classroom.  These include structural aspects of schools, the school day, teacher compensation, classroom size, and the like.  Even the now-infamous No Child Left Behind legislation lacked specific curricular emphasis.  It was up to the individual states to design their own curricula to meet the ever-increasing testing objectives.  Seldom have reforms aimed at altering what is specifically taught in the classroom. 

There were of course exceptions.  Most notable was the Reagan-era report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”  According to the report, “…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  In part, this report led to the movement to create state curricular standards.  These individual state standards produced their own set of critics.  Often critics, from both the left and the right, took special aim at History curriculum.  Take, for example, the stories from around the nation concerning the inclusion or exclusion of groups such as women or minorities and individuals such as George Washington.   Did this mean that this material would not be taught?  Not necessarily, but the uproar was significant enough that many states took a second look at their standards to weigh how much “George Washington” or  “Women” were included in their history standards.  And so a pattern of give and take negotiations emerged during each subsequent history standards review or rewrite.  Experts would gather together, discuss, write, and edit new standards or existing standards.  These standards would then go before the appropriate departments of education for review and public hearings, further editing, and—after a thorough vetting by a diverse group of people—standards would be approved. 

This pattern took a decidedly different path in 2001.  That year the Texas State Legislature passed the aptly numbered House Bill 1776.  Under this legislation every public school student in Texas is required to recite specific language from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident; that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed....

The law also imposed a related requirement on the state’s public schools:

…Establish an appropriate curriculum that includes the meaning and importance of this statement in its eighteenth century context, including the relationship of its ideas to the American Revolution, the formulation of the American Constitution and subsequent American history, such as the basis of the abolitionist movement that resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation and the women's suffrage movement.

In 2007 the aforementioned legislation was amended to establish “Celebrate Freedom Week.”  This legislation represents a shift in the writing of history curriculum altogether different from that of the standards movement.   The core issue is the method by which this curricular change came about.  By passing legislation, rather than working through the traditional standards vetting processes, the rules and relationships among departments of education, schools, and teachers were fundamentally changed.  The substance of the original 2001 law and the subsequent 2007 amendment dictate not only what is to be taught, but also the specific timeframe during which it will be taught, the week of September 17.  Ironically, unlike traditional state standards, which are reviewed from time to time, laws such as this carry the weight of permanence.  The only way to change them is through further legislation.  In addition, this new legislative curriculum carries the force of law and all the accoutrements that come with it, including enforcement.  Imagine a time when a third grade teacher fails to cover or properly interpret all that is required during “Celebrate Freedom Week.”  Could that teacher be fined, suspended, or jailed? 

Make no mistake: the basic tenets of these laws are noble in their intent.  Nor is this the only legislation that has affected history curriculum.  In 2004, at the urging of the late Senator Robert Byrd, Congress passed legislation requiring every school that receives federal funds, to “…hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17.…” No one would argue that students in the United States should not learn about the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.  However, legislating specific aspects of what and when children are taught may lead to political battles on a scale not seen in some time.  Imagine the political battles if a legislator introduced a bill concerning the “true” cause of the Civil War.  What about a bill requiring all students to recite parts of the Declaration of Sentiments?  Additionally, as the political winds blow left or right, liberal or conservative, so too may the changes in curriculum.  Every election year may come with new laws governing a state’s history curriculum. 

But this is just Texas and the federal law is innocuous, correct?  This legislation—this  “Celebrate Freedom Week” legislation—has flown under the radar of many in the field of education history and history curriculum and for good reason.  This legislation only affects the students in Texas.  However, the impact of this legislation should not be underestimated.  With the passage of Celebrate Freedom Week, a cottage industry has emerged built around this legislation.  This industry includes a website, operated by Rick Green (who introduced the original Texas bill) where one can take Constitution classes, enroll in a patriot academy, or purchase a complete Constitution Alive curriculum.  However, the other focus of this website is the promotion of Celebrate Freedom Week legislation.  Within the pages of the website you can download readymade legislation for your state.  Simply fill in the appropriate state information, print, and introduce.  Many states have followed Texas’ lead in passing Celebrate Freedom Week legislation.  According to, Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma have all passed the legislation.  Kansas just passed the legislation July 1, 2013, while Michigan and Georgia are considering the legislation.  Each state may put its own touches on the legislation.  For example, Kansas has exempted high schools students and dropped the Declaration of Independence recitation from their Celebrate Freedom Week legislation:

…The State Board of Education is responsible for adopting rules and regulations to require history and government curriculum for grades kindergarten through eight that includes instruction on the meaning and context of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including their relationship to the nation’s diversity by way of immigration, major wars, and social movements in American history.  The State Board of Education, along with other volunteers, are required to promote “Celebrate Freedom Week.”

During Celebrate Freedom Week in Florida at least three hours of “appropriate instruction” are required in each social studies class. The education code clearly indicates what is expected:

“To emphasize the importance of this week, at the beginning of each school day or in homeroom, during the last full week of September, public school principals and teachers shall conduct an oral recitation by students of the following words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The wording of each individual piece of legislation may be different, but the heart of the legislative curricula remains the same.  Legislation such as this leaves many in a quandary.  Some professional historians see a bit of paradox with forcing teachers and students to “Celebrate Freedom” while allowing for little freedom in how that is accomplished.  History teachers have also struggled with legislating curriculum.  Many teachers outside the area of American history (i.e. world history and geography) are frustrated with the fact that they must drop what they are doing in September and teach “Celebrate Freedom Week.”  So where do we, as teachers and professional historians, fit into this conversation?  Is legislating curriculum a reform fad destined to die out over time?  Is this a political Pandora’s box that never should have been opened, that may frustrate history education for years to come?  The answers to these questions may be complicated, but they are worth seeking.