Getting Students in the Game for 21st-Century Civics


Our nation’s public schools were founded for civic purposes — to help create citizens who had the knowledge, skills and virtues to sustain and strengthen democracy within an ever-more diverse population.

Although schools remain perennially responsible for addressing the multicultural character of American citizenry, over the past half-century their civic purposes have been progressively sidelined. In the 1960s, the typical U.S. student was offered courses in government, democracy and civics. She or he learned about citizenship in a democracy and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. Today, formal civics has all but vanished from the curriculum in favor of courses that transmit a body of facts about the U.S. government and its history.

Not unsurprisingly, we are failing to impart to today’s students the information and skills they need to be responsible citizens. Only a little more than a third of Americans can name the three branches of government. Two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on the Fox television show “American Idol,” but fewer than one in 10 can identify the chief justice of the United States. In 2002, only a quarter of 15- to 25-year-olds reported regular attentiveness to politics and political affairs.

Signs of Interest
The news is not all bad. The 2004 presidential election attracted 9 percent more voters ages 18-29 than the 2000 election. A recent survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and the Pew Charitable Trusts indicates the 2008 election is shaping up to be another groundbreaking election year for young people participating in campaigns and at the polls. Young people are becoming increasingly interested in participating in our government and political process, and our schools remain the best place to supply the next generation with the tools they need for informed civic engagement and leadership.

By civics, I mean imparting to students knowledge of the Constitution’s distribution of power and responsibility among the three branches of the federal government and between the national and state governments. A thorough civic education creates citizens who have a grasp of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy, an understanding and awareness of public and community issues and the ability to think critically and enter into dialogue on those issues with others who have different perspectives. An unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind and similar state standards is that schools have given shorter shrift to these essential citizenship skills.

To impart these crucial skills, our schools need to increase the amount of time spent teaching civics, update the civics curricula and tailor teaching methods to match the learning styles of today’s students. It might be difficult for teachers to find more class time, which has become a precious commodity in our current education system. Therefore, the immediate focus should be on updating the curricula and methods so that, in the small amount of time that can be devoted to civics education, students gain the core citizenship skills they will need.

A traditional civics curriculum is based on textbooks, worksheets and vocabulary that the 21st-century student may not find relevant. I believe we should revise our approach and empower students by showing they are indeed critical to the success of our government. One new method, which I wholeheartedly support, is to engage students by using the mediums they are most familiar with — by getting them “in the game,” literally.

Online Scenarios
In partnership with Georgetown University Law Center and Arizona State University, I have brought together experts in law, history, education and technology to create a free, online, interactive civics curriculum for middle school students called Our Courts. In creating this program, we considered the ways students today learn, the practical needs of teachers and schools and what is missing from basic civics understanding. For example, the first module, a prototype of which will be available in early 2009, will focus on the First Amendment. Students will engage with a fun, fictional courtroom scenario, which will resonate with their real-life concerns and experiences, from the perspective of litigants, attorneys and judges. This scenario will teach students real law related to freedom of expression in schools as it is balanced with the importance of avoiding disruption in education environments. They also will be introduced to legal reasoning, critical thinking, judicial review and the role of courts and judges.

The curriculum will exceed national and state standards and will be tailored to support both gifted and struggling students with the development of their literacy skills. We hope the game garners immediate buy-in from the students by showing how civics can affect their daily lives.

Our Courts and other curricular developments will not immediately bridge the gap between our young people and the political process. Re-engaging young people in our democracy will take creativity, time, patience and hard work. Yet education is the only way we can protect our treasured institutions.

I hope the Our Courts curriculum makes this task a little easier for schools and educators so together we can help our young people effectively contribute to the American democracy of the 21st century.

Sandra Day O’Connor is a retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. E-mail: