Being an American is a Privilege, Say White, African American, Hispanic and Foreign-born Parents

Learning English is a Priority, Especially with Immigrant Parents


New York, NY -- At a time when rancor and cynicism appear to be dominating the national political scene, white, African American, Hispanic and foreign-born parents offer a more positive view of America, according to a study released today by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Agenda. More than nine in ten foreign-born parents, as well as white and Hispanic parents, and more than eight in ten African American parents, say the United States is a better country than most others. Strong majorities of all groups also think the U.S. is unique and stands for something special in the world. Highlights from A Lot To Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children To Learn About America are available at These surveys were fielded during the week Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was released.

America's parents convey a deep, yet realistic loyalty to the nation. Theirs is not a knee-jerk patriotism -- they readily acknowledge America's imperfections -- but those born here, and those not, embrace with pride a common agenda they expect the public schools to teach about what it means to be an American, said Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director of Public Agenda.

Freedom, But Wisely Used

America's parents treasure freedom -- more than half say it's the first thing that comes to mind when they think about the U.S. -- but they also believe that with freedom comes responsibility. For example, 88 percent of parents overall believe equal opportunity for people regardless of race, religion or sex is an absolutely essential component of the American ideal; but 76 percent also say what makes America special is the expectation that people will work and earn their living -- not rely on the government. Religious freedom is coupled with the obligation to respect religious diversity, with nearly nine in ten parents saying everyone must have the right to their individual beliefs, but only 36 percent saying that living in a society that is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs is an absolutely essential American ideal. Nine in ten parents, however, believe most Americans, including youngsters, take the freedoms we have for granted, and 89 percent think there's too much attention paid to what separates us and not enough to what we have in common.

English A.S.A.P.

America's parents fully reject the theory of bilingual education, believing schools' first priority with immigrant students should be to teach English. Two in three parents overall (67 percent), say it is more important for the public schools to teach English as quickly as possible to new immigrants, even if these students fall behind in other subjects. Foreign-born (75 percent) and Hispanic (66 percent) parents agree. And in focus groups, parents expressed bewilderment over why learning English should not be automatically expected. The schools should teach them in English. I know some will fall back a little bit, but in the long run, they'll catch up and reach their goals, said a Hispanic focus group participant from California.

Beyond English, What to Teach About America

Parents of all demographic groups embrace the use of traditional ideals and stories to teach children about what it means to be an American. By a 79 percent to 18 percent margin, parents think the bigger priority for the schools should be to teach kids to be proud of being part of this country and to learn the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, not to focus on instilling pride in their ethnic group's identity. But respect for diversity and tolerance are also critical for the public schools to teach: 85 percent of parents overall deem it absolutely essential to teach children to respect others who are from different backgrounds, and seven in ten (69 percent) want schools to teach the holidays and traditions of different cultures. Two-thirds of America's parents also say they are not afraid to have their children taught that it is good to question the actions and policies of the U.S. government.

Few of America's parents worry that our nation's schools are paying too much attention to diversity; rather, they are supporters of teaching students about the cultures and histories of others and feel too little emphasis was placed on this in the past. But, they draw the line over lessons that might foster factionalism and disunity, added Wadsworth.

Grants from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and an anonymous donor made A Lot To Be Thankful For possible. The study is based on a national telephone survey of 801 parents of public school students conducted in September of 1998 (margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent). Interviews were also conducted with 200 foreign-born, 203 Hispanic, and 198 African American parents. In addition, Public Agenda held six focus groups across the country, interviewed over a dozen experts in the field, and conducted a number of in-depth follow-up telephone interviews with parents who had participated in the survey. Copies of A Lot To Be Thankful For ($12.50 including shipping and handling) and complete questionnaire results ($42.50 including shipping and handling) may be obtained from Public Agenda.

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization working to help citizens better understand complex policy issues and to help the nation's leaders better understand the public's point of view. It was founded in 1975 by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Please note: Additional public opinion data from Public Agenda and other respected polling firms, as well as statistical data, sources and resources can be found in the immigration and education sections of Public Agenda Online (

Quotes From A Lot to Be Thankful For

It's nice to visit my mother's country [Mexico], but that's not my home; my home is here. When I get back here, I say, 'Thank God for America.'

-- Hispanic parent, San Jose, California

There are a lot of freedoms that we very often take for granted. We recently took a friend to the Statue of Liberty. He was an immigrant from China whose family is not allowed to leave, and he fell to his knees and kissed the ground. And it was the most moving thing I ever saw in my life because I realized the basic things we take for granted. My children were awed, just absolutely dumbstruck. And you know teenagers are hardly ever without something to say.

-- White parent, Secaucus, New Jersey

If I had to choose, I wouldn't live anywhere else in the world -- I'd live in America. With all the bad things, and all the things that history has brought not only for blacks, but for Mexicans and Jews, I still think this is the greatest place.

-- African American parent, Birmingham, Alabama

We were in Kuwait for fourteen years. No matter how many years you are there you don't get citizenship, you cannot buy a house, you cannot own a shop. But in this country, there is a lot of freedom.

-- Immigrant parent from Asia

I know we have a high level of poverty, but then we also have a lot of opportunities to leave that status. I think we are lucky.

-- Hispanic parent, San Jose, California

My first-grader is learning about the history of the United States. When he gets home he tells me about Abraham Lincoln and the flag, why it has stars. It is important to me that he learn this, definitely. I want him to learn the history of Mexico, too -- but that, I am going to teach him.

-- Hispanic parent, San Jose, California

Bilingual education means trying to teach kids who speak Spanish, English. English should be their first priority.

-- White parent, Florida

This is my home. This is where I live, this is where I work. I love this country with all my heart.

-- Immigrant parent from Colombia

This is something kids need to know -- there are so many different people these days. You cannot judge another person unless you know something about the world they live in. You run the risk of insulting people if you don't know what they're doing, their lifestyles, the way they think. We all have to live together.

-- White parent, Texas

Americans mind their own business. They let you live the way you want.

-- Immigrant parent from Asia

If you are looking at politics, the U.S. is an evil empire because 90 percent of politicians are crooks, but if you can leave politics out of it, America is the best place in the world to live, there's no question about it.

-- White parent, Texas

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