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April 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 7


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Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is betting that interactive digital media will help preserve American democracy.

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Democracies sustain robust health through debate and by adjusting policies as a result of insights gained in the process. By all accounts, then, the United States should be very healthy, because we debate almost everything. Can and should we
  • Demand that every citizen carry health insurance?
  • Provide schooling for children of illegal immigrants?
  • Teach evolution, creationism, or intelligent design?
  • Invade personal privacy to protect national security?
With multiple sides claiming constitutional fidelity, however, debate in the United States is more divisive than ever, and constructive debates and adjustments have stalled.
Correlation is not causation, but it is interesting to note that our obsessive focus on math and reading on standardized tests over the past two decades, at the expense of a similar focus on civics and science performance, coincides with the deepening decline of civic awareness and civil discourse. In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, only one in four students performed at the proficient level—the level appropriate for healthy participation as a citizen of the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). (For examples of the different levels of content mastery in civics, see "Basic, Proficient, Advanced" on p. 52.) To make matters worse, according to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (2011a), "barely a third of our fellow citizens can name the three branches of government, and an equal number cannot name even one. Less than 20 percent of 8th graders know why the Declaration of Independence was written."
Increased illiteracy in science has troubling implications all its own, but illiteracy in civics is arguably an arteriosclerosis of our democratic circulatory system, effectively blocking understanding and progress, bringing us closer to a civic stroke.

The Bill of Rights and Other Foggy Notions

Let's take one example—the Bill of Rights, those first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that protect individual liberties and property, limit government's judicial power, and reserve some powers just for the states. On the 2010 NAEP assessment, fewer than one-half of 8th graders knew its purpose. I think we would all agree that an accurate understanding of the Bill of Rights—what it does and doesn't declare—is important for successful participation in both local and national government.
It's also crucial in our everyday lives. In such common acts as remaining respectful and expecting respect when stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation, practicing whatever religion we wish, and being allowed to publish dissenting opinions in public debates, we see the value of knowing our Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights declares that everyone is subject to the same laws and policies, regardless of race; religion; or political, social, or economic status. Historically, the uneducated—those who are least aware of their rights or how to defend them—have had their rights denied most often.
Effective education has helped alleviate, but not eradicate, these injustices. As the American Civil Liberties Union (2002) put it, "even in a democracy, individuals have rights that no majority should be able to take away." Does this knowledge affect everyday living? Vividly. The recent Occupy Wall Street movement is just one example.
Or consider former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta's (2008) account of the forcible relocation of his family from California to Wyoming's Heart Mountain internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry in 1942. His description provides ample justification for attending to declining civic education in the United States. He wrote,
Civic-minded citizens are not simply born; they must be taught and nurtured. America's public schools have a special obligation in that regard, for more than any other institution they are charged with creating an informed and an engaged citizenry … Too many of our fellow citizens do not know how our political system works, nor do they possess the skills and the motivation necessary to hold government accountable or to prevent injustice.
The students we educators serve today will interpret tax codes, set consumer policies, lead technology innovations, vote for congressional leaders, argue cases in our courtrooms, and navigate increasingly complex moral issues in society—or they won't. Without knowledge and the tools for constructive civic participation, individuals often resort to uninformed, ill-considered acts of "me first," the antithesis of the American ethic. This exacerbates worsening social, economic, and education gaps, limiting what we can achieve as a country. This has a real effect on business, technology, civil rights, medical care, retirement, raising children, owning a home, and even what we put on the dinner table each night.

Justice O'Connor Responds

Fully aware of the current state of civics education as well as the ramifications of civic education done poorly, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has put considerable intellect and energy into raising awareness and changing our course. In her response to the disappointing 2010 NAEP results in civics, she argued,
These students will inherit our democracy, and we must empower them to preserve it. Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool. The habits of citizenship must be learned, and our public schools were founded to educate students for democratic participation. The problem is that we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal. (2011b)
The justices met in 2007 with other judicial leaders and business leaders to form a constructive response to the lack of civic understanding and involvement, including how to create a more accurate view of law and government in the United States. They decided that the best way to address this issue was through education.

iCivics Is Born

Knowing how to persuade others by logic, seeking consensus, understanding and creating constructive dissent—such critical-thinking skills are vital to successful citizenship. But how and where can students learn them?
Justice O'Connor has provided a solution. In 2009, she launched iCivics, a nonprofit organization that maintains an interactive website dedicated to teaching students about laws, U.S. government, individual rights, courts, politics, and other elements of civil society (see "iCivics: Play and Learn"). Justice O'Connor has gathered some talented individuals to join her in this effort, including James Paul Gee, educational games and technology researcher; Lee H. Hamilton, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Meryl Chertoff, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law; and Walter Isaacson, writer and biographer and current president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute.
iCivics.org provides resources for both students and teachers. Students enjoy interactive games, webquests, and competitions. (Much of the content on the site was designed by former teachers.) In this immersive civics experience, students debate and decide court cases on topics relevant to their lives, move virtually through approval processes for passing laws, and post their own real-life stories of their civic participation. Students have their own accounts, which means that their history and learning accumulate as they play.
Teachers also benefit from civics-related resources, which are free of charge. The teacher section of the website features a wealth of curriculum units and detailed lesson plans.
There's direct connection to the real world, too: In the Impact Projects section of the website, students donate points they earn during gaming to a real community project they find valuable. Current projects highlight Greening Forward, a grassroots nonprofit environmental organization; Masters, an after-school math program in which 4th and 5th graders complete math projects with high school volunteers; and Kids Protecting Kids, a program that provides child abuse awareness and education to middle school students. Every three months, iCivics donates $1,000 to the winning project.

I Can't Wear What?

The content on the iCivics site, however, is more than just engaging—it's substantive. Take, for example, the persuasive-writing unit, which includes seven detailed lesson plans. The lessons help set the context for the discussion, provide resources such as PowerPoint presentations and videos for students to watch, suggest supplementary readings, and offer meaningful activities for students to complete. As they navigate their way through these resources, students learn that "there's a difference between 'arguing' and making an argument in support of a position, and that making an argument is a learned skill that doesn't depend on how you feel about an issue".
In the scenario provided in the unit, students follow a student, Ben Brewer, who violates the dress code by wearing his favorite band T-shirt to school. To figure out which laws apply, students read a summary of the 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, in which five students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. On the basis of the evidence that students learn to gather and present coherently, they argue before the Supreme Court for and against Ben's right to wear the shirt.
They wrestle with difficult questions: Is a band T-shirt actually "speech"? If so, does that kind of cultural speech have as much right to protection under the First Amendment as political speech does? What's the balance between free speech and disruption? In what way might a T-shirt be disruptive? Students can listen in as pairs of judges argue for and against various points.
The lesson plans offer helpful tools, such as "Yabbut Rabbit," who teaches students how to acknowledge the truth of an argument ("yeah") while presenting counterarguments ("but"). Students work their way through an outlining process, learn how to structure sentences that minimize or emphasize specific information, and become adept at differentiating between complex and not-so-complex arguments.
In other scenarios, students analyze personal and political rights in light of social responsibilities; run their own law firms and take on interesting cases; and, as president of the United States, create the federal budget. They investigate international pollution issues, explore children's rights in the United States and around the world, and create a sovereign state and its government. They explore the philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and look at elements of modern democracy, such as consent of the governed, representative democracy, rule of law, individual rights, and checks and balances. They learn judicial terms and roles and analyze real court cases, including one that involved a dispute between the maker of the James Bond films and Honda Corporation and one in which a girl was strip-searched. They also study the influences of famous court cases, such as Marbury v. Madison (1803), which recognized the authority of courts to declare statutes unconstitutional; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed state-sponsored racial segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal"; and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.

A Moral Imperative

Education writer Doug Reeves has pointed out that for educators and the public to change their beliefs and behaviors, there must be a moral imperative to do so. Do we see lack of proficiency in civics as a potential threat to democracy? If so, do we have the moral imperative to do something about it?
The U.S. Constitution doesn't stipulate the right to a free, high-quality education. That means we need to give education—including civic education—vigilant attention, never losing sight of its impact on our lives. What ill-formed decisions will be made, what affronts to basic liberties and humanity will be allowed if basic civics knowledge and involvement continue to decline? Alternatively, what great things might our society achieve if rededicated to civic knowledge and participation?
There's something more here, too. O'Connor (2011b) reminds us that a good civic education "is the best antidote for cynicism to help people understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves and that they can make a difference." Individuals without perspective, connection, and self-efficacy lose themselves in the perpetual machinations of an indifferent society. We lose not only that educated citizenry that everyone declares so fundamental to democracy, but also purpose and community. In such a state, we grow complacent, and corruption spreads.
Here's hoping that "We the People" thrives in the decades ahead. No longer merely a bold experiment of upstart colonies, America's 236-year-old constitutional democracy has a life of its own, but it needs oxygen. With efforts like Justice O'Connor's iCivics program, civic education can breathe a little easier as it helps the next generation become a powerful steward of our democracy.

Basic, Proficient, Advanced

Basic, Proficient, Advanced 

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in civics lists the following skills as representative of three different levels of performance. Students should be able to


  • Recognize taxes as the main source of government funding (grade 4).

  • Identify a right protected by the First Amendment (grade 8).

  • Interpret a political cartoon (grade 12).


  • Identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution (grade 4).

  • Recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court (grade 8).

  • Define the term "melting pot" and argue whether it applies to the United States (grade 12).


  • Explain two ways countries can deal with shared problems (grade 4).

  • Name two actions citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law (grade 8).

  • Compare the citizenship requirements of the United States with those of other countries (grade 12).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2010 (Executive summary). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2010/2011466.asp 

iCivics: Play and Learn

iCivics: Play and Learn 

iCivics teaches core civics content through games, free lesson plans, and a variety of interactive modules. Here's what it offers:

  • 16 Games: In Branches of Power, kids get to control all three branches of government; in Win the White House, they manage their own presidential campaign; in People's Pie, they control the federal budget; in Crisis of Nations, they take the helm of their own country and collaborate with others to solve international problems. iCivics games are playable in one class period and provide a detailed printable report at the end for grading purposes. Students can play the games on individual computers, or the teacher can display the game on a single computer with the help of an interactive whiteboard or projector.

  • 11 Webquests: Webquests cover such topics as civic heroism, county basics, the court system, making laws, being president, and the three branches of U.S. government. Webquests include video clips, simulations, selected readings, and questions with links to web resources that help students see how the topic relates to the real world. Students can complete a webquest on individual computers, or the teacher can display it on a single computer with the help of an interactive whiteboard or projector.

  • 50+ Lesson Plans: Each lesson plan includes a lesson description; a lesson objective; what the teacher needs to do to prepare for the lesson (such as preview the PowerPoint presentation provided or print out specific materials); and detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to conduct the lesson from beginning to end.

  • 12 Curriculum Units: Units cover such topics as foundations of government, the U.S. Constitution, budgeting, politics and public policy, and state and local government.

  • Impact Projects: These are interesting community service projects that students are doing around the United States. iCivics gamers can spend points they have won on their favorite project. Every three months, iCivics donates $1,000 to the winning project.



American Civil Liberties Union. (2002). The Bill of Rights: A brief history. Retrieved from www.aclu.org/racial-justice_prisoners-rights_drug-law-reform_immigrants-rights/bill-rights-brief-history

Mineta, N. Y. (2008, September 16). Opinion: Civic education is lacking. Mercury News. Retrieved from the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools at www.civicmissionofschools.org/site/documents/Mineta

National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). The nation's report card: Civics 2010 (Executive summary). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2010/2011466.asp

O'Connor, S. D. (2011a, September 16). Closing America's civic education deficit. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from http://articles.philly.com/2011-09-16/news/30183343_1_civic-education-civic-mission-national-constitution-center

O'Connor, S. D. (2011b). Statement on the nation's report card: NAEP 2010 civics. Retrieved from the National Assessment Governing Board at www.nagb.org/civics/statement-oconnor.pdf

Author's note: Much of the substance of this article was drawn from a personal interview I conducted with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 15, 2011.

Rick Wormeli, one of the first National Board–certified teachers in America, brings innovation, energy, validity, and high standards to both his presentations and his instructional practice, which includes 38 years of teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and of coaching teachers and principals.

Wormeli's work has been reported in numerous media, including ABC's Good Morning America, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris MatthewsNational Geographic and Good Housekeeping magazines, What Matters Most: Teaching for the 21st Century, and The Washington Post. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. His classroom practice is one of the showcases for ASCD's best-selling series, "At Work in the Differentiated Classroom."

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