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Teacher: Students Know More About US Constitution Than I Do


Civics and citizenship education is practiced around the world with at least one common goal: educators in each country want young people to understand their country's political system.

But an international survey in 2009 reported that civics education does not always have the goal of encouraging students to take an active part in their communities. The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study is sponsored by an independent group, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

The study also found that, internationally, students had the highest levels of trust for schools, but the lowest levels of trust for political parties. A large majority of students planned to vote in national elections. Fewer planned to be more politically active as adults by joining a political party or running for office.

According to the IEA survey, an important result of increased knowledge about government was that students with this knowledge do not accept authoritarian government. They do not accept corruption or breaking the law, either.

In the United States, active participation in civic life is one of the main goals of civic education. The Center for Civic Education, based in California, is one of the nonprofit organizations helping teachers and students meet that goal.

The Center works with a network of 50 state programs to promote teaching and learning about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. It also shows students how they can take an active role in their government.

Using a textbook and e-book series calledWe the People: The Citizen & the Constitution,” high school students all over the country learn about the U.S. government. Then, highly motivated students compete with students at other schools in simulated congressional hearings.

During the hearings groups of students talk as experts on the Constitution. Real-life lawyers and judges volunteer to act as congressional committees in the competition. The judges ask questions about the Constitution and its history. They give the group a score on how well the students answer.

Near the end of the school year, the best group in each state is invited to Washington, D.C. for a final competition. This spring, the 28th Annual We the People National Finals were held in the same hearing rooms that members of Congress use to debate national issues.

Students know more than their teacher

Teacher Robert Peck, from Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia, brought his class to the "We the People" competition. His goal is to let students discover how to be better citizens. Mr. Peck says his students learn a great deal as they prepare for the hearings.

"The important thing about the program is that the students have to exceed what I know. I couldn’t do the testimony that they’re doing. You have to put the resources in front of them and get them excited about finding it out for themselves."

Applying knowledge to current events

In the hearings, the students make connections between the U.S. Constitution and recent history.

After the hearing, judges have time to comment. Judge Marcia Holland praises the students.

"I liked your conversations in response to my question about snap elections … and the fact that you disagreed and the fact that there was a more nuanced second part of the answer."

Debates on the U.S. Constitution

In another hearing room, students from Vestavia Hills High School in Alabama competed.

Law Professor Henry L. Chambers, Jr., of the University of Richmond School of Law, asks a question about famous debates in American history. Vestavia Hills student Sophia Warner gives the team's answer.

"Thus we assert, the ratification debates are not one of, but the greatest and most probing debates in American history, because they paved the way for all future political discourse."

Later, Sue Leeson, Senior Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, gives her comments.

"I was just looking at Federalist 84. Publius is just attacking the most intemperate partisans of the bill of rights, that's kind of like, 'in your face' in the time. So these were not dispassionate debates… this was a debate in some sense among the elites."

The Vestavia Hills High School team earned the award for fifth place nationally.

Citizenship test

In a recent story, "Will Citizenship Test Make Better Citizens," we told about efforts to require U.S. high school students to pass a citizenship test. Teacher Robert Peck said simply giving students the test is not enough.

"I wish we did more for civics education in this country. I think that we ignore it. If there’s one kind of education the government should support, it would be civics education - it only makes sense - so I hope that they find a way to do that in the future. I don't think a test necessarily is what we need; a citizenship test hardly shows that you're an active citizen. It's getting out and getting involved. It’s up to us, the teachers, it's up to the schools, it's up to the curriculum to try to get the kids excited about it, a test isn't what’s required, it’s the excitement."

Greg Akerman is a student in Mr. Peck's class. He says experiencing the American dream is more important than just answering test questions.

"My parents are immigrants. We came to this country with very little. And now we have the opportunity to fulfill the American dream. No one asked us any questions in the beginning. And that’s how it should be. You should be able to experience the American dream, and not have to prove through a recitation of facts or certain documents, that you are American because that’s not what it’s about."

Improving civics education through teacher education

"We the People" is one of several programs to encourage civic learning in the United States. Another is CIRCLE, the Center for Information on Civic Learning & Engagement. CIRCLE has studied trends in youth voting and on how civics is taught in the U.S. Based on a 2013 survey of government and civics teachers, CIRCLE recommends giving more resources and professional development to these teachers.

Robert Peck agrees. He says the teacher education the Center for Civic Education provides is an important benefit of the “We the People” program.

" Our professional development as teacher is really important -- it allows us to get excited about our curriculum again. Take advantage of what's out there. This program is available to everybody. It’s supported across the country. To me, ‘We the People’ is the one that gets people excited about civics."

Georgetown University professor Diana Owen studied the students of teachers who receivedWe the Peopleprofessional development. A report on the research published in May 2015 shows that students in those classes have significantly greater knowledge than students in other civics classes of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, political parties and elections, and the relation between race and politics.

The students in Robert Peck's class from Douglas S. Freeman High School took home an award that proves that knowledge. They placed third in the nation.

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

simulated - adj. made to look, feel, or behave like something : not real

hearing - n. a meeting or session at which evidence and arguments about a crime or complaint are presented to a person or group who will have to decide on what action should be taken

exceed - v. to be better than (something)

testimony - n. something that someone says, especially in a court of law, while formally promising to tell the truth

recite - v. to read (something) out loud or say (something) from memory, usually for an audience

professional development - n. training given to workers in a specific profession

Now it’s your turn. How do students in your country learn about your government? Write to us in the comments section.

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