Jennifer M. Grieco Addresses the Importance of Educating Youth Regarding Civics

by in News

This article originally appeared on the Oakland County Bar Association website

Bringing Civics Back
By Jennifer M. Grieco

In August, I had the privilege of attending the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP) annual meeting on behalf of the OCBA. The meeting featured a videotaped message from retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor seeking the assistance of local bar associations in educating America’s youth regarding civics. According to Justice O’Connor, recent studies have concluded that young adults routinely graduate from American schools without a basic understanding of the three branches of government or the rule of law, severely affecting their participation and/or faith in our system of government. Alarmingly, in the last nationwide civics assessment, more than two-thirds of the students tested scored below proficiency.(1) In fact, not even one-third of eighth graders surveyed could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence and less than 20 percent of high school students could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy!(2) Even more appalling, according to a recent study by the National Constitution Center, more American teenagers could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.(3)

While many of us were drawn to the law because of our interest in civics/social studies, “civics education has been in steady decline over the past generation, as high-stakes testing and an emphasis on literacy and math dominate school reforms.”(4) Teachers are under enormous pressure to educate based on what is found in the MEAP or other standardized testing (that allegedly gauges a teacher’s performance and efficacy). Consequently, young adults no longer understand our government and political system, and as a result are not informed participants or voters.(5) The need to refocus on civics education has become a priority and passion for Justice O’Connor, who has stated, “[K]nowledge of our Constitution and the role of our courts is not handed down in the gene pool. Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen’s role.”(6) While she certainly advocates for reform at the federal and state levels,(7) Justice O’Connor believes strongly in the ability of lawyers to make a difference.

By way of example, in 2006 the Cleveland Metro Bar Association embarked upon a community outreach program with high school students, assisting teachers with a real-world curriculum focused on the Constitution. Teams of volunteers visited their assigned 10th grade social studies classes throughout the school year to improve the understanding of, and respect for, the rule of law and the Constitution. They also provided career counseling to encourage student interest in the legal profession.(8) At the annual meeting, the president of the Cleveland Metro Bar Association was pleased to report that this program had contributed to improved passage rates on the social studies portion of the Ohio Graduation Test. Obviously this program, supported by the local bar association, is making a difference not only in the test results but in the future of the students and their community to the extent that Cleveland schools are graduating more engaged and responsible citizens.

Coincidentally, on my return flight, I sat next to a teacher from the Henry Ford Academy. She concurred with Justice O’Connor’s sentiments, specifically noting that a lawyer can make a difference in a student’s understanding and interest in government. Based on her experience, students retain more knowledge when subjects like history and civics are brought to life and taught with the assistance of individuals other than their everyday teacher. Accordingly, we cannot underestimate the impact that we as attorneys can have on students and our community as a whole by simply donating a few hours of our time to civics education.

I am pleased to report that the OCBA is stepping up to answer this call to service. Daniel D. Quick, past chair of the Circuit Court and Continuing Legal Education committees as well as an Oakland County Bar Foundation Trustee, with the assistance of our executive director, Lisa Stadig Elliot, has created a pilot civics program in partnership with Oakland Schools that is geared toward elementary students. The program fits within both the State of Michigan Social Studies Content Expectation and the Michigan Citizen Collaborative Curriculum and includes a mock trial using familiar “SpongeBob SquarePants” characters. The mock trial provides active roles for up to 40 students including the ability to craft questions for witnesses, present opening/closing statements, and utilize fun/colorful exhibits as well as a humorous script designed to maximize student involvement.

In addition, as part of the program, teachers will lead in-class discussions regarding the judicial system and community participation on a jury. The program also provides the opportunity for teachers and their students to attend a mock trial at either a district or circuit court, presided over by a sitting judge and with participation of our members.

The first part of this pilot program took place on October 28, 2010, with the OCBA providing training for teachers and administrators to utilize mock trials in their classrooms to teach the common core standards required of elementary students, as well as educating teachers about the role of our court system by comparing state and federal judicial systems and civil and criminal trials. From this initial training the OCBA has already received a number of requests from teachers wishing to participate in the mock trial program. While the OCBA will be able to implement this pilot program in up to five classrooms this year, the intention is to expand the program through our Public Service and/or Law Related Education committees. Of course, our ability to roll out this program to more classrooms and students, and to expand our civics outreach,(9) depends on the number of member volunteers. If such a program is of interest and you are willing to donate a few hours of your time to help provide civics education in our community, please send either Lisa Stadig Elliot or me an e-mail at lstadig@ocba.org or jgrieco@neumananderson.com.

Thank you for your consideration, and thank you to Dan and Lisa for all of your efforts with such an important initiative.

1    Hamilton, Lee H. and O’Connor, Sandra Day, Christian Science Monitor, “A Democracy Without Civics,” September 17, 2008. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor served on the U.S. Supreme Court for 24 years and Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana served as a congressman for 34 years. They are co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, dedicated to restoring the civic mission of America’s schools.
2    Hamilton, Lee H. and O’Connor, Sandra Day, Christian Science Monitor, “A Democracy Without Civics,” September 17, 2008.
3    Grysho, Kelly & Magruder, Janie, ASU News, “Justice O’Connor Leads Civics Education,” August 2, 2007.
4    Hamilton, Lee H. and O’Connor, Sandra Day, Christian Science Monitor, “A Democracy Without Civics,” September 17, 2008. In Michigan, high school students are required to earn four credits in mathematics, four credits in English, three credits in science, two credits in a language other than English, one credit in physical education, and one credit in visual and performing arts but only one-half credit in civics.
5    Hamilton, Lee H. and O’Connor, Sandra Day, Christian Science Monitor, “A Democracy Without Civics,” September 17, 2008.
6    Grysho, Kelly & Magruder, Janie, ASU News, “Justice O’Connor Leads Civics Education,” August 2, 2007.
7    In fact, at the request of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter following the 2009 ABA Annual Meeting, current ABA president Stephen N. Zack has met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to urge that civic education be seen as a national priority. Zack, Stephen, ABA Journal, “Better Civic Education Will Inform Our Children and Inspire Them to Participate,” December 1, 2010.
8    A number of local bar associations utilize civics education programs to complement their goals of increasing diversity in the profession by increasing the pipeline of minorities. In fact, African-American and Hispanic students as well as low-income students score significantly lower on civics assessments than their white counterparts or middle- and upper-income students.
9    In that civics education is also a priority of the ABA and current president Stephen N. Zack, the ABA Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools is organizing civics academies for students ages 13 to 19, and is asking bar associations to sponsor such academies in our communities and schools.