- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

The study of religion is now widely included in public school curriculums, but still does not get the emphasis it deserves, according to a first-ever review of standards for teaching about religion in public schools.

"Despite religion's secure place in state and national standards … teaching about religion in U.S. public schools' social study programs is in fact limited," said the report. "It is questionable whether the topic is being pursued with much seriousness or depth."

The findings are based on a two-year review of national and state curriculum standards for social studies and history, as well as the treatment of religion in geography and economics courses.

The report, "Teaching About Religion," was issued Monday by the Council on Islamic Education (CIE) and the First Amendment Center, two academic groups.

It focused on the decade-old national "standards-based movement," which makes lists of what students must learn and be tested for across subjects and grades.

National groups have proposed "standards" and states borrow from them or draft their own.

Compared with the 1960s and 1970s, when religion was excised from curriculums to avoid perceived legal and sectarian conflict, the number of religion items now in standards is impressive, the report said.

Since the late 1980s, it noted, religious and educational groups have produced 18 guidelines for teaching about the history, beliefs, values and customs of world faiths.

But the obstacle, the report said, is to translate standards lists into effective teaching.

The report based its conclusions on a review of seven national standards and those in nearly all 50 states. The review was conducted by Susan L. Douglass of CIE and was analyzed with Charles C. Haynes of the Freedom Forum, which funded the project.

The study combed standards for terms such as "religion," "beliefs," "morals" and "tradition," as well as for mention of specific religions.

The initiative by the Islamic council reflects its concern that the Muslim faith, the second-largest in the world, gain exposure in American schools.

Echoing one report's finding, the American Muslim Council said: "With the exception of Christianity, historical developments in religious thought and institutions are often omitted" in U.S. schools.

The report found that most religious content mainly about holidays and customs is presented to students in grades 5 through 8.

The report said that teaching about religion is best accomplished in the "era" approach to history. This method, now used in 20 states, looks at events around the world in, for example, the Roman "era," the Middle Ages or the era of exploration.

In contrast, history taught by examining distinct civilizations is called a "traditional" approach that tends to focus on Judaism and Christianity more than Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. "Non-European history receives short shrift under the 'selected cultures' approach," the report said.

The report puts Virginia social studies in the traditional category, while Maryland is described as using a "geography" model to teach history, which is dominant in only about five states.

The geography model's major emphasis is the contemporary world, so the ancient world when religions were founded, split and developed gets less attention.

Religion is "quite prominently featured" in the National Standards for Civics and Government, the report said, but economic standards reduced life to "immutable laws of physics and mathematics" and ignored "religious beliefs in economic decisions."

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