THE BLOG
11/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Grading the Debate: As Smart as a 5th Grader?

I am sure that many of our country's 5th graders were assigned to watch the debates, since this is the year when they learn about the U.S. Constitution and the principles of democracy. In a sense, 5th grade is the foundation for our behavior as American citizens.

No matter what your party affiliation or where you live, as parents we make certain basic assumptions about what our children are learning and how that will affect them in the future. Both Senator Biden and Governor Palin, during the debate itself, stressed the importance of education.

So what did our future citizens learn from the vice presidential debate? What did they learn that directly applies to what they are learning -- right now, in 5th grade -- when they are studying the constitution and the fundamentals of English grammar, the building blocks of our educational system?

I wondered about that after the debate. I've been waiting for a teacher to speak out. No one did. My son finished 5th grade eight years ago, but I tracked down his teacher -- who is currently in her 27th year of teaching 5th grade.

I provided her with the transcript from the debate discussing the constitution. I did not ask her political affiliation, and I asked her to grade the answers, the same way she would grade one of her fifth graders. Here are her comments:

Governor Palin's sentence structure is poor and I did not correct all the examples. In fifth grade, we would talk about diction and enunciation (dropping all the g's on words (workin', thinkin', etc) and rarely do I hear a fifth grader at our school speak like that.

Ifill: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe, as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. (This sentence grammatically isn't correct. If you make that statement, you need to back it up with an example of how our founding fathers were flexible.) And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position (again, you would need to identify that position) and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah( slang!),so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there (where?), and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner (sentence structure....yikes!). It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.
Grade based on grammar and content: C-

IFILL: Vice President Cheney's interpretation of the vice presidency?

BIDEN: Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. The idea he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.
(The principle is correct but Article II defines the role of the Executive Branch.)
And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit. (Yes. This is correct) The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.
Grade based on grammar and content: A-


You might try asking your kids -- or their teachers -- what they think about the answers above, based on what is taught in 5th grade. They certainly would have noticed that the debate was an open book test, and Governor Palin repeatedly referred to her set of index cards with prepared answers.

So, based on the debate, what would a 5th grader think about what they are learning in school? They might believe that what we tell them is true: anyone in America can grow up to be president. They might also believe that getting to be president has little to do with what we are teaching them.

We tell them it's important to be educated, but what kind of message does this debate gives our nation's children? Personally, I believe a 5th grader is smart enough to figure it out.