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Work begins on Our Courts civics education project backed by Justice O'Connor
Work begins on Our Courts, civics education project
backed by Justice O’Connor
Arizona Supreme Court
Chief Justice Ruth McGregor
A civics education project being developed by the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at Arizona State University already differs from existing programs in that it has the support of a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice.
"I don't think there's any way to exaggerate how important this is to Justice O'Connor," said Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, who on June 17 greeted a group of 13 middle- and high-school teachers from the around the country who gathered to begin work on Our Courts. "It has not only her commitment, it also has her heart.
"There are other programs," McGregor said, "But what they don't have behind them is Justice O'Connor, and as you will discover when working on this, that makes a huge difference. And because of its importance to her, we want it to succeed."
Our Courts is a unique collaboration to teach middle school students about the judiciary and other parts of government, using a web-based learning environment. Other partners in the project, which is chaired by Justice O'Connor, are the ASU Applied Learning Technologies Institute and the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
"Our court is very concerned about the lack of civic education our students are receiving," McGregor said. "It's painfully obvious how little they do understand."
Mari Koerner, Dean of the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, said the unusual partnership is a good example of social embeddedness, a component of the New American University, a vision inspired by ASU President Michael Crow.
"We, as teachers, have a moral imperative to have these public discussions about what our obligations are to this country," Koerner said. "We must help children understand their responsibility to be active citizens."
Our Courts’ genesis is rooted in a conference chaired by Justice O’Connor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, which was held in September 2006 at Georgetown University Law Center. The conference brought together leading judges, lawyers, government officials and representatives from business and media to discuss the increasing threat to judicial independence. Conference attendees agreed one of the root causes of the judiciary’s present difficulties is the lack of effective civics training in schools.
“Knowledge of our Constitution and the role of our courts is not handed down in the gene pool,” Justice O’Connor said. “Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen’s role.”
In an interview last month with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, Justice O’Connor expressed concerns about increasing attacks on state and federal judges. The nation’s survival is dependent on its citizens’ knowledge of its government, she said.
“If I can be part of the creation of a teaching tool to help teach the younger generation about the court system, I will feel I have made a very helpful contribution,” she said.
Studies by the Carnegie Corporation and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, among others, indicate that middle- and high-school students in the United States, by and large, don’t receive the educational foundation necessary to empower them to be responsible citizens. Although the constitutions of 40 states mention the importance of civics literacy and 13 provide that civics education is a central purpose of public education, civics education has lost ground to other subjects. Today, civics training usually consists of a one-semester course, rather than the three classes that were part of the usual school curriculum in the 1960s.
According to a recent national survey by the National Constitution Center, more American teenagers could name three of the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. More knew the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” than the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and which city has the zip code “90210” than the city in which the U.S. Constitution was written. Nine of 10 could name the star of “Titanic,” compared to the seven in 10 who knew the name of the vice president of the United States.
“We will focus on the judicial branch of government, addressing the role of the judiciary in our system of separation of powers with checks and balances,” said Charles Calleros, a professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and a member of the Our Courts curriculum development committee. “Our hope is to educate a generation of school children about the value of an independent judiciary.”
Meryl J. Chertoff, director of the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary, said civics education is crucial in creating informed, involved citizens.
“Young people tend to be disengaged from the political process,” Chertoff said. “By teaching civics in a manner that emphasizes participation, we hope we are going to get students in the game, so that they understand that voting and involvement matter in terms of creating good outcomes for this country.”
Participants in Our Courts, including (left to right) Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, Abby Dupke, a teacher at Dobson High in Mesa, Charles Calleros, professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and Lisa Adams, a teacher at Corona del Sol High in Tempe, gathered at ASU this week to begin work on the civics education project.
Lisa Adams, a government teacher at Corona del Sol High in Tempe who will help develop the curriculum, said a focus on reading and math skills has pushed civics education onto the back burner, and as a result, students seem disinterested.
“They don’t come in with much information, and they think it’s going to be boring,” said Adams, the school’s assistant coach for We the People, an instructional program that enhances students’ understanding of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. “We have to get kids re-engaged and thinking, `I can make a difference. I do need to know this’.”
Once the Our Courts curriculum is produced by ASU’s technology team, it will be piloted at schools around the country, and then be made available to all schools within two years. Being web-based, the program will be both teacher- and student-friendly, Adams believes.
“Sometimes I think we’re still trying to teach in a pre-“Sesame Street” format, and a lot of these kids grew up with “Sesame Street,” with video gadgets and computers, and other things that come in little sound bites,” she said. “This is going to be something teachers will be able to use without feeling like, `This is something else I’ve got to get into’.”
Elizabeth Hinde, an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at ASU’s West campus, said Our Courts will be based on states’ education standards, and it will be integrated for use with other subjects such as language arts. Professional development will be offered to teachers who may not be as comfortable with technology, Hinde said.
“Teachers are overburdened, so we want to make this as teacher friendly as possible,” she said. “Teachers do realize the importance of civics education, even though they are incredibly pressured with other things.”
Hinde said Our Courts will supplement other civics education programs, among them, We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution and Project Citizen, both offered by the California-based Center for Civic Education. Robert Leming, the center’s director, agreed that an independent judiciary is vital.
“One of the things that distinguish a democratic society from other kinds of government is the independent judiciary,” said Leming, who will address the Our Courts team next week. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, you had all these newly formed or reformed nations that understood that need because the judiciary under Soviet times was not independent, not a check on the other branches of government.
“Obviously, this is a hot topic in this country because in some states the state Supreme Courts are elected and in some they are not. And if they are elected, how independent are they?”