Civic education: How your bar can get involved today

Volume 35 Number 1

By

Stephen N. Zack, president of the American Bar Association, called on members of the National Conference of Bar Presidents—a group he called “the heart and soul” of the association—to rally around the cause of civic education in schools across the country.

Zack, who emigrated from Communist Cuba as a youth and thus learned firsthand the importance of an informed, engaged democracy, has appointed the new ABA Commission on Civics Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Co-chaired by Paulette Brown of Madison, N.J., and Marna Tucker of Washington, D.C., the Commission aims to develop an eight-hour course for young people of ages 13 through 19, to be conducted at sites throughout the country starting President’s Day weekend 2011; to create a National Civics Test to scientifically survey the American public’s understanding of the Constitution and our system of government under law; and to advance ABA policy to call on policymakers at all levels of government to ensure that all students receive high-quality education in civics topics such as law, government, and history.

The Florida Bar successfully lobbied that state’s Legislature to make sure civic education is part of the school curriculum there, Zack noted; the Commission will seek bar leaders’ assistance with similar advocacy efforts. Another way for bars to get involved in the work of the Commission, Zack said, is to help sponsor the student civics and law academies, along with law schools, courts, and young lawyer affiliates.

On hand to tell NCBP members about ongoing, successful efforts in civic education, and to encourage bar leaders to get involved, were: Cheryl Cook-Kallio, a history teacher and We the People team coach from Fremont, Calif.; Hon. Marjorie Rendell, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and first lady of Pennsylvania; Mabel McKinney-Browning, director of the ABA Division for Public Education; and Michael N. Ungar, president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. Andrew Susko, past president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and member of the NCBP Executive Council, moderated the discussion.

While much of the information focused on lawyer-in-the-schools programs, the panelists also stressed the need to advocate, as The Florida Bar did, for civic education to be included in the state-mandated curriculum so all students receive this vital information, regardless of whether a bar association or other group has connected with their school.

Remind legislators that a good citizen is also a good voter, Cook-Kallio recommended, and if you can’t gain traction, seek guidance from bar leaders in other states, who may have been more successful.

 

Where we’re starting from

Zack cited some recent, sobering studies that indicate that more Americans can name the judges on “American Idol” than on the U.S. Supreme Court, and that many Americans believe that the three branches of government are Democrat, Republican, and Independent. How did we get here? After all, many of us recall hours spent on civic education during our own public school days.

Schools have changed a great deal in the past decade or two, the panelists noted. For one thing, No Child Left Behind and its attendant focus on passage rates in standardized tests in reading and math have weakened the role of civics in the curriculum, both Rendell and McKinney-Browning believe. Factor in the budget crisis in almost every state, and it’s easy to see why civic education is widely thought to be getting short shrift.

Rendell noticed the effects of this gap when she presided over a naturalization ceremony on July 3 at Independence Hall. She was struck by the efforts the new citizens had made to become part of our country, their factual understanding of our system of government and citizens’ rights and obligations, and the depth of their emotion regarding what makes the United States different and special. In this way, she said, these naturalized citizens have some real advantages over those who were born here and may lack this fundamental understanding.

The stakes are high, she said. Our system is one in which “tyranny and oppression cannot succeed because power is balanced,” she noted, but this loses its strength when a significant portion of the population does not know the fundamental rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship.

What’s needed, said Cook-Kallio, is a comprehensive approach in which civic education is “not an add-on” but is incorporated beginning in kindergarten by teaching such things as the importance of rules and the fact that police officers are there to help. As students get older, she said, it’s important that they develop a real connection with what citizenship means. It’s not enough, she said, that they be able to list the three branches of government. “If students don’t know how to access those branches, it doesn’t mean anything,” she explained.

The panelists agreed with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has said that civic education does not simply occur naturally without some type of action. “If you don’t teach someone how to be a good citizen, it won’t happen,” said Cook-Kallio. Another retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, David Souter, is also involved with efforts to support civic education.

Added McKinney-Browning, “You have to keep doing this over and over and over again with every generation.”

Many bars are already involved with Law Day activities in their areas, and that’s a great start, Rendell noted, but it’s “only the tip of the iceberg.” There’s a real opportunity, she believes, for bar associations to get involved with the schools more intensively throughout the year. Education in matters such as civics often carries more weight, she noted, when delivered by “outsiders who don’t have to be there”—and those dedicated outsiders could very well be lawyers and judges.

 

Case study: Cleveland

Many bars have successful programs in which lawyers and judges go into the schools; Ungar was on hand to discuss one of them: the Cleveland bar’s 3 Rs Program. 3 Rs, which stands for “rights, responsibilities, and realities,” is funded by the related bar foundation and conducted by the bar in partnership with the public schools in Cleveland and East Cleveland.

The program, now in its fifth year, has lawyers and judges go into 10th grade social studies classes one day a month throughout the school year. On average, there are more than 500 volunteers participating; in 2010, they visited 132 classes in 18 high schools, reaching more than 4,000 students. The cost of the program is about $56,000 a year, which covers items such as curriculum materials, awards, and staffing.

The schools work with a curriculum committee at the bar, which Ungar noted includes several lawyers who are former teachers. The program has buy-in from the superintendents, principals, teachers, and even the security guards, he said, adding that it’s important to seek such support at all levels.

One goal of the program is to help students understand what their lives will be like once they complete high school and assume their role as adult citizens. It’s not an easy life, he noted: Nearly a third of Cleveland residents live in poverty, and the schools’ overall graduation rate is just over 53 percent.

One statewide requirement for graduation in Ohio is passing a standardized test that assesses five subject areas, including social studies. Ungar said that the 3Rs Program does “teach to the test” (often frowned upon by education advocates) to some extent, in hopes of boosting Cleveland students’ passage rate.

The results have been impressive, he noted: In 2006, before the 3Rs Program started, the passage rate for Cleveland students in the social studies portion of the test was 22.9 percent. That has steadily increased over the years, and in 2009, the passage rate in social studies for Cleveland was 54.2 percent.

But test results don’t give the full picture and are not the program’s sole focus, he stressed: Volunteers can look students in the eye and know they’ve made a deep connection and quite possibly enriched students’ lives. For that reason, Ungar said, “There’s a buzz in our bar association,” and the program has become a “real rallying point” for the bar.

When participating in the program, he noted, “You wake up that Friday morning, and you are jazzed.”

The 3Rs Program is but one example; Rendell and Susko touched on another called Advancing Civics Education, a successful Philadelphia Bar Association program in which teams of lawyers and judges visit 9th grade classrooms. Rendell and others are currently working with the public schools in Pittsburgh through the school system’s existing “9th Grade Nation,” a high school transition program that includes civics as one component.

There are many other such programs across the country, some initiated by bar associations and others in which another group oversees the program and bar members participate. One of McKinney-Browning’s goals this year is to survey state and local bar associations regarding what’s already being done and to gather all the various programs and curricula in one spot online.

 

Getting started

If your bar doesn’t currently have a program like this, and you’d like to start one, what should be your first step? Talk to other bars about their programs and see if there are ideas you might borrow. The ABA Division for Public Education offers resources for judges and lawyers at www.abanet.org/publiced/ljhome.html. Included there, among other tools, are tips for volunteers, and materials to conduct programs on various law- and civics-related topics.

Another resource is www.icivics.org. This project came about as one of Justice O’Connor’s responses to what she sees as a dire need for more civic education for young people. The project, for which one of the sponsors is the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, includes online games and, in the teachers’ area, detailed lesson plans that lawyer volunteers could use, too.

A couple of panelists mentioned the Center for Civic Education (www.civiced.org). We the People and Project Citizen are two of this organization’s programs in which several bars participate, and the center offers other support and training for educators and volunteers.

If you want to start your own program or augment existing borrowed materials with your own touches, Rendell said, “Don’t be daunted by the money.” Even in this economy, she noted, there are many philanthropic and civics-minded organizations that would likely be happy to help fund such a feel-good project.

The kind of welcome you get from the schools might depend in part on the state you live in, Rendell noted; most, but not all, states have official language that indicates that the public schools play a civic role as one of their important functions. Logically enough, she added, studies have shown that states that have this type of expectation are generally a more positive climate for civic education.

What if you encounter a school system that isn’t receptive to the need to help shape good citizens? They might come around, Susko advised, if you mention that studies indicate that school bullying and disciplinary incidents generally go down, and test scores go up, when civics is taught in school.

And bullying has been shown to lead to crime as a youth or young adult, Susko noted. For example, he said, a bipartisan group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, made up of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general, and crime survivors, recently cited a study that showed that among children who were identified as bullies at some point between 6th and 9th grade, nearly 60 percent of them had been convicted of a crime by age 24. By that same age, 40 percent had been convicted of three crimes.

If you want to read more research about civic education, perhaps to prepare for a talk with a legislator or school official, McKinney-Browning said the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (www.civicyouth.org) is “developing a strong research base” in this area.

Panelists advised attendees not to get discouraged if they are rebuffed at first. If the superintendent says no, Cook-Kallio said, find an ally elsewhere within the system, or reframe your approach and ask again. It can help, she added, to know the general flow of the school year. Don’t call a teacher in the spring with the intention of beginning visits that same school year, she explained; it’s much better to call in the fall so the teacher can see where your visit might fit into his or her plans for the year.

Don’t think you have to have a complicated program in place before you approach the school leaders, Rendell said; your curriculum need not be “huge” in order to be successful.

Agreed Cook-Kallio, “The most important thing is to do something. Teachers like me would love to have you in the classroom.”

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