North Dakota High School Assignment: Tell Lawmakers To Raise Taxes


Should schools teach our kids what to think? Or how to think?

Over at Watchdog today I write about an assignment at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo which made students write to state lawmakers urging them to raise tobacco taxes.

The assignment was born of an American Lung Association presentation at a teacher conference in Mandan. As it assignment was applied in West Fargo, students were not given any viewpoints or facts that might run in opposition to raising tobacco taxes. Like maybe that tobacco tax increases often have the side effect of inspiring more tobacco bootlegging.

But the students weren’t even given the opportunity to make up their own minds about the issue.

“The project was about writing a persuasive letter in support of raising the tax,” West Fargo School District spokeswoman Heather Konschak told me when I asked if students could take a position opposing the tax increases.

But now, as I report at Watchdog, the letters aren’t being sent and the teachers responsible for the assignment are rethinking it.

“The idea for this project originated at the State SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) Conference in Mandan this summer,” she said. “One of the presenters was from the American Lung Association.  The teacher took the idea, involved upperclassmen, and ran with it.”

But after Watchdog’s inquiry it seems teachers aren’t running with it any longer.

“The teachers involved in the project decided not to send the letters to the lawmakers,” Konschak said via email. “Rather, they will use last week’s project as a collaborative learning activity with the focus being on writing a persuasive letter based on the information that was provided.” …

“This was the first time that Sheyenne HS has attempted a project of this nature,” Konschak wrote. “At the completion of the assignment last week, teachers debriefed the project and came up with a list of strengths, as well as areas of improvement, for doing a project like this in the future. One of the areas discussed was that students should have been allowed a greater opportunity to form their own opinions on this matter.  For future projects, it will be our instructional protocol to allow students to develop their own perspectives and views.”

I’m glad the teachers at West Fargo are considering letting students think for themselves.

I see very little value in assignments that force a position upon students. What are we teaching students by making them regurgitate rote talking points about tax policy in letters to policymakers?

Very little, I’d argue. It would be much more beneficial, I think, if students were presented with data and viewpoints on both sides of an issue and allowed to draw their own conclusions. That sort of exercise would be useful.

By the way, tobacco tax increases were defeated by the Legislature earlier this year.

House Bill 1421, introduced by Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, would have raised the per-pack tax on cigarettes by about 250 percent, from $0.44 per pack to $1.54. Senate Bill 2322, introduced by Senator Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, would have raised the per-pack tax on cigarettes to $2.00 per pack, a 354 percent increase.