Justice Sonia Sotomayor Aims to Expand Scope of Civics Education Efforts

By Mark Walsh — September 22, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking as the keynoter at a forum on civics education Thursday, stressed the importance of engaging young people of various backgrounds on the topic.

“For me, civic education is the key to inspiring kids to want to become and stay involved in making a difference,” Sotomayor told the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit, a daylong event that drew scores of students, educators, policymakers, and others to the Newseum here.

The event was co-sponsored by iCivics, the nonprofit group founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, which develops popular civics education games for classroom use such as “Do I Have a Right?”

“I could think of no better legacy” that O’Connor has left than her work on civics education, Sotomayor said. “She’s done so many other things, she’s affected so many other areas of the law in such positive ways. But the one that will live the longest is her work on the iCivics organization.”

O’Connor, 87, lives in Arizona now and was not present at the forum.

Sotomayor joined the board of iCivics in 2015. On Thursday, she said she has been leading an effort to make the organization’s games accessible to English-language learners and to students with reading disabilities.

“When you know that at least a third of students in public schools are students struggling with learning English, you understand the importance of this initiative,” the justice said.

Louise Dubé, the executive director of Cambridge, Mass.-based iCivics, said there would soon be a Spanish-language version of “Do I Have a Right?”, a game that requires players to determine whether a client has a constitutional right for certain actions.

Moderator Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN asked Sotomayor about news literacy, another theme of the forum.

Sotomayor said that when she was growing up in the Bronx, her parents rarely watched TV news but were avid newspaper readers. Her father read El Diario La Prensa, a Spanish-language paper, while her mother regularly read the tabloid Daily News and New York Post.

“Television is soundbites, and soundbites have the danger of cutting off important discussions that require in-depth consideration of issues,” she said.

21st Century Civics

Organizers of the forum issued a briefing paper sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation that cites a consensus in the field of civic learning about six proven practices.

These include courses on civics, government, law and related topics; classroom deliberation of current controversial issues; service learning; student-led voluntary associations; student voices in schools; and simulations of adult civic roles, such as Model UN and mock trials. The paper says innovation is needed in the field.

“What is not in doubt is that civics must be different in the 21st century,” it says, including preparing students for “a world of social media instead of printed local newspapers” and engaging them “to navigate a polarized society.”

And the report highlighted two states that have put legislative action behind civics education in recent years. In 2010, Florida adopted the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act, which mandates a middle school civics course and a high-stakes test on the subject. Seventy percent of 7th-graders passed the test in 2017, up from 61 percent when it was introduced in 2014.

The paper also spotlights Illinois, which in August passed a measure that will require high school students to complete a semester-long civics course in the future.

The forum’s panel discussions featured a wide range of participants. Zac Schroepfer, a student at Georgetown University, recalled when O’Connor visited his Tallahassee, Fla., middle school when he was in 7th grade. “That really educated me about the opportunities I can take part in” to improve public life, he said.

Among several retired politicians who participated in the event, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was the most blunt. He said that many civics education programs are aimed at high school students, which is “way too late” to be effective.

“For all you people making funding decisions” about civics programs, he said, “aim young.”

Sotomayor was asked by one questioner, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District of Columbia, how young people should respond to the toxic political climate, what the student called “these heated times.”

“Listen before you talk,” Sotomayor replied. “That’s what a lot of people don’t do in these heated times.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.