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Nation-building at home: Civics 101

How to run a country - a.k.a. nation-building - is the bottom line of the US high school civics revival.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2009

It's their day in court: High school and middle school students visit the Gus Solomon Federal Courthouse in Portland, Ore. The Classroom Law Project, part of a national revival of civics education, takes students to observe real court cases.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Portland, Ore.

Six sophomores at Grant High School sit, shoulders slumping slightly, before two lawyers. The room fills with nervous expectation. Here, the Constitution is a competitive sport, and students need to dazzle: They will have six minutes to explain to these local lawyers the context, and every important detail, of an 1819 Supreme Court case – McCulloch vs. Maryland, a landmark case in which Chief Justice John Marshall expanded the power of the court with the stroke of his pen. They need to be smart, but also to be witty to tie this old history to current affairs and to showcase teamwork. It's a lot to carry on one's shoulders – hence, perhaps, the slumping.

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These are early rounds of after-school practice for "We the People," a national curriculum and competition implemented in Oregon by the Classroom Law Project, a civics education initiative. Grant has held the state title for the past seven years.

"I figure it's my responsibility to understand how American government works. Not enough other people are willing to do that, and someone has got to be responsible," says Patrick Streckert. "It's like being the designated driver for a country."

Tonight, Patrick and his classmates explain the constitutional principles behind the case. It's a great history lesson and a good primer in the philosophy of politics; it even looks like a little bit of fun. But is a debate on the ins and outs of a centuries-old Supreme Court decision really that relevant to contemporary issues?

The answer, the students insist, is "more than you'd guess." Case in point?

"Healthcare," says Ednan Louie, a bit incredulously. "Some people think healthcare should be something the states regulate, but Obama says he wants a national healthcare plan."

With a competition that will ask them to "testify" about the ins and outs of the nation's founding documents and legal precedents – before a mock congressional hearing panel made up predominantly of professional lawyers – and an advanced class in government to get them ready, these students are getting an extreme dose of civics education. It's an area of study that teaches students how the American political system works. Once a ubiquitous if unloved staple in the American classroom, civics tapered off 40 years ago.

These days are prime for a much-needed comeback, observers say.

"Today, at the most, 20 percent of our students get a moderate civic education, and fewer than that get an outstanding one," says Charles Quigley executive director of the Center for Civics Education, in Calabasas, Calif. "The vast majority of American kids are graduating high school basically ignorant of their own political system and how to participate confidently and responsibly in it."

The numbers are, indeed, dismal. Only 5 percent of graduating high school seniors could explain the US political system's checks on presidential power, and only two thirds had at least a basic understanding of the system and its functions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2006 "Nation's Report Card" on civics. The center also found that students in higher income schools and schools with high parental involvement exhibit a greater mastery of government studies. Meanwhile, the Civic Education Research Group at Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., found that college-bound and white students get more – and better – civic education opportunities than their minority counterparts.

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