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Justice O’Connor leads civic education

August 02, 2007

ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, the College of Teacher Education and Leadership and the Applied Learning Technologies Institute at ASU, along with Georgetown University Law Center, are collaborating on a Web-based learning environment designed to teach middle school students about the judiciary and other parts of government.

The civics education project, called “Our Courts,” is chaired by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It also involves the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center.

“Knowledge of our Constitution and the role of our courts is not handed down in the gene pool,” O’Connor says. “Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen’s role.”

Our Courts’ genesis is rooted in a conference chaired by O’Connor and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, which was held last September at the 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.

In an interview last month with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, 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 says.

“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,” O’Connor says.

The fundamental nature of the program’s curriculum is the brainchild of O’Connor, who has access to the finest legal minds in the country, including Ruth V. McGregor, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, and law professors from ASU and Georgetown. O’Connor also recruited ASU’s Applied Learning Technologies Institute, which will help develop the instrument to deliver the curriculum.

Professors Nancy Haas and Elizabeth Hinde of ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership will co-chair the curriculum development committee, along with Charles Calleros of the College of Law. Together, the development team will work with teachers from across the country who will write the curriculum’s content. Haas and Hinde will assist in such areas as assessment and curricular integration. They also will ensure that the program’s content aligns with state standards.

Hinde, an assistant professor of Elementary Education at ASU’s West campus, says 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 adds.

“Teachers are overburdened, so we want to make this as teacher-friendly as possible,” she says. “Teachers do realize the importance of civics education, even though they are incredibly pressured with other things.”

Hinde says 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 with Hinde that an independent judiciary is vital.

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,” says Charles Calleros, a professor at the 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, says civics education is crucial in creating informed, involved citizens.

“Young people tend to be disengaged from the political process,” Chertoff says. “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.”

Lisa Adams, a government teacher at Corona del Sol High in Tempe who will help develop the curriculum, says 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,” says 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 curriculum development committee, it will be piloted at schools across the country, then be made available to all schools within two years. The Web-based program is designed to be teacher- and student-friendly, Adams says.

“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 says. “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.’ ”

“One of the things that distinguish a democratic society from other kinds of government is the independent judiciary,” adds 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?”

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052

Kelly Grysho,
(602) 543-5209