February is the month we celebrate Presidents Day, so let’s quiz. Is it:
- The day we celebrate Washington’s birthday
- The day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays
- The day we celebrate all U.S. Presidents birthdays
- All the above
You’re right if you chose all the above. The official federal holiday is for the nation’s first president and has been celebrated since the 1800s. Later, several states, but not the federal government, added a holiday for Lincoln’s birthday.
In 1974, almost all national holidays were moved to Monday to create three-day weekends for workers, and the holiday for Washington’s birthday was assigned to the third Monday of February. In the years since, Washington’s birthday continues as the official federal holiday, but the celebration gradually evolved to honor the birthdays of all U.S. presidents.
If all this is new to you, you’re not alone. Civic knowledge and participation rank low on surveys that measure citizenship. In Kansas about 40 to 45% of eligible voters failed to show up to the polls for general elections over the past decade. In the presidential election of 2016, only 61.4% of Americans cast their votes.
In 2019, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 41,000 Americans in all 50 states and Washington, DC. While 92% recognized that George Washington was the first president of the United States, 25% of survey-takers were unaware that freedom of speech was guaranteed under the First Amendment. We simply don’t use the knowledge of history, government and civics needed to be active and engaged citizens.
Education reformers recently have encouraged states to require students, to prior to graduation, to pass an examination based on the U. S. test given to immigrants applying for citizenship. The test is based on factual knowledge of history and government.
Concurrently, a national campaign by the American Federation of Teachers focuses, not on testing for facts, but on courses that increase civic skills like how to register to vote. At the time of this writing, neither the Kansas State Board of Education nor the Kansas Association of School Boards has made an official public statement on a statewide, pre-graduation civics test.
Currently 17 states require students to complete a civics test and nine states require passing a civics test for high school graduation. A bill introduced in Topeka this session, if passed, will mandate that Kansas students pass the U. S. citizenship test before graduation.
For the 2019-20 year, Kansas teachers are required to teach civics embedded in the curriculum of students in grades K-four. Civics classes or embedded instruction in the intermediate grades is determined by individual school districts. For high school students, study of world history, American history and government, including concepts of Kansas history and government, and the U.S. constitution, are required for graduation.
There are some facts that students just need to memorize, like our First Amendment rights and who was our first president. Students also need to learn skills for engaging civic life, like how to join a political campaign. Can the proposed test help? It’s something to think about while we’ll catch a few Presidents’ Day sales.
Sharon Hartin Iorio is Dean Emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.