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Rating our best presidents
Ronald Reagan or George Washington? Bill Clinton or Abraham Lincoln? A Stafford educator helps sort through the latest polls that rank America's presidents

  Lee Woolf's archive
  E-mail Lee Woolf
Date published: 3/9/2005


AMERICANS seem to enjoy playing "Who's No. 1?"--whether we're comparing college basketball teams, Hollywood movie stars or bowls of chili.

So, it's not surprising that the results from two recent polls asking people to rank our greatest presidents should strike a nerve.

A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of 1,008 adults ranked Ronald Reagan as No. 1, followed by Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Another poll of 800 adults, this one commissioned by Washington College in Chestertown, Md., rated Lincoln at No. 1, followed by Reagan, FDR, JFK and Clinton.

The most curious thing is that neither poll ranked George Washington among our top five chief executives. Washington--a native son, so to speak, since he spent much of his youth at Ferry Farm in present-day Stafford--tied for sixth in one poll and ranked seventh in the other (behind George W. Bush).

Those results have prompted some to question whether schools are doing enough these days to ensure that future generations will appreciate Washington as more than a face on the dollar bill.

"I think it's a leap to conclude from these polls that schools are somehow failing to educate students about history," said Agnes Dunn, the instructional coordinator for social studies and history for Stafford County Public Schools. "I'd like to know more about the polling sample."

Dunn suggested that if the polls had questioned students rather than adults, some Founding Fathers may have ranked higher.

"The adults seemed to pick recent presidents with whom they were more familiar," Dunn said. "But I think it is difficult to rate any president during his lifetime. It's just too hard to put a president into a historical context while they're still contemporary."

As for George Washington, Dunn said he is part of the county curriculum--and the Standards of Learning tests--for all Stafford students in kindergarten through the fifth grade.

"He probably would show up again during civics classes for seventh-graders," she said. "And he surely would be a part of U.S. history for 11th-graders."

For the record, 18 of 24 Stafford schools achieved an 80 percent or higher pass rate on the history portion of the SOLs for 2003-04. The countywide pass rate on the high school U.S. history exam was 91 percent.

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