School-democracy snapshot

I've unofficially dubbed this "First Amendment Month."

A number of college campuses are facing the free-speech fallout from a controversial newspaper ad. The editorials continue to fly about a Colorado third-grader's science fair experiment that school officials pulled because it concluded that a group of children liked a pink-skinned doll better than a brown-skinned one. And parents filed suit in Wisconsin because their second-grader's religious Halloween cards were confiscated at school.

Beyond the anecdotes, a study released March 15 found that educators support the First Amendment in principle, but are hesitant to apply it in schools - that is, when they even know what freedoms it ensures: Three out of 4 public school teachers and administrators recalled freedom of speech, but fewer than 1 out of 4 could name the other four. Fewer than a third said students at public high schools should be allowed to report on controversial issues without authorities' approval.

In response to their own study, the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development unveiled a plan to help schools apply First Amendment principles.

This month has also offered up a snapshot of students' understanding of and involvement in democracy internationally. In its test of 14-year-olds' civic knowledge, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found the US ranked 6th out of 28 countries (Poland came in first). Not surprisingly, it found that schools which model democratic practices (by encouraging open discussion, for instance) most-effectively promote civic knowledge and engagement.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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