Back to basics by getting back to civics education

The No Child Left Behind Act has crowded out civics learning in America's schools. It's more than memorizing the names of all the presidents, as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor shows with her "iCivics" computer game. I tried it, and learned something.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at her Medal of Freedom ceremony with President Obama in August 2009. The former justice is pushing a return to civics education through a computer game meant for middle school students.

I played a free computer game at the office today. It’s called “Supreme Decision,” and it simulates decision making as a Supreme Court justice. The case tests free speech rights, and features a boy forbidden by school rules from wearing a T-shirt depicting a certain music band. I got one segment wrong and had to do it over. So much for being an experienced journalist in Washington.

It was a learning and entertaining exercise, which is what it's supposed to be. The game can be found at and is part of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s web-based project to push civics education in the United States.

In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America this week, Justice O’Connor said that about half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school. She attributed this to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB), explaining that the focus on reading and math crowded out civic education.

The nation is in trouble when 2 of 3 Americans can name a judge on the TV singing competition, “American Idol,” but only 1 in 7 can name the chief justice of the highest court in the land. Barely a third can even name the three branches of government, let alone how they fit together.

If people don’t understand how government works or why their participation in it is vital, they can’t expect to get good government or control its impact on their lives. Healthy democracies depend on healthy civic participation. One senses that greater civics awareness might also ratchet down the escalating uncivilized political rhetoric in the country.

Thankfully, the civics dearth is drawing attention. The Florida state legislature this month passed a bill requiring students starting middle school to take a semester-long civics class, with 8th graders passing a statewide standardized civics test to enter high school. In Washington, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, George Miller, a Democrat from California, wants NCLB to include history, science, civics, and government standards.

Justice O’Connor says her free, web-based game for middle schoolers (including teaching tools for their instructors) is both fun and educational. A student can simulate making laws, sitting on the bench, and running the country.

I can attest to the fun and learning. In the way that adults often get something from reading the “kids page” in the local paper, I learned something ­in the T-shirt case – for instance, that cultural speech (wearing a T-shirt showing a musical preference) doesn’t enjoy as much protection under the law as political speech. I also had fun listening to and judging for myself the arguments for and against the ban.

Which says something about a civics revival in the schools. It must go beyond the dry lessons of yesteryear’s teaching methods, and involve students in the lessons themselves. At Grant High School in Portland, Or., for instance, students argue cases in the “We the People” competitive program.

Student Patrick Streckert has it right when he says it’s his responsibility to figure out how American government works, especially since so many people aren't doing that. “It’s like being the designated driver for a country.”

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