Federal

For Students, Hearing Room Is Where the Action Is

By Alyson Klein — May 09, 2008 4 min read
37civics515

The hearing room on the fifth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building was packed with spectators last week who had flown across the country to hear witnesses testify on the constitutional implications of affirmative action programs.

But the lineup wasn’t composed of the usual types of people who testify before Congress. Instead, it was made up of high school students who were being scored on their “testimony” by a panel of expert judges, playing the role of lawmakers, as part of a national civics education competition.

During one hearing, in response to a judge’s question about how minority rights are ensured under the U.S. Constitution, Heidi Rickes, a senior at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt., argued that, “A majority of the populace does support school prayer, so that in that case, the courts have stepped in and protected the rights of the minority” to be free from government establishment of religion under the First Amendment.

The May 5 session was one in a series of mock congressional hearings that serve as the culminating activity in a social studies program called “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.” The program, administered by the Center for Civic Education, is based in Calabasas, Calif.

The “We the People” curriculum calls for students to think critically about the document that forms the basis for the U.S. government, including its history, principles, and modern applications. Students who take part in the program tend to be more likely to vote in elections than their peers and to more closely follow current events, according to surveys conducted by the civic education group. Many of the students who participated in the national competition this year have volunteered on one of the 2008 presidential campaigns.

“Some of them come to me [already] aware and involved, and you know they’re going to be heading to law school,” said Amy Maddox, a social studies teacher at Vestavia Hills High School in Vestavia, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, who has taught the “We the People” curriculum for six years. But others “come in curious; they haven’t really defined themselves politically,” she said. “This is really the first class where they get to provide answers to these questions.”

“We the People,” along with its sister program, Project Citizen, which encourages students to address problems in their communities, received nearly $15 million from the Department of Education in fiscal 2008. “We the People” offers 11,000 classroom sets of textbooks to school districts nationwide. The center has designed curriculum materials for the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and it offers professional development to about 600 to 700 teachers nationwide each year.

National Competition

Some schools simply use the curriculum and textbooks, which are also available for elementary and middle school students, to supplement other social studies course materials. Others may hold the simulated hearings in class, but don’t compete.

Other schools enter district-level and statewide competitions, seeking to qualify for the nationals. This year, each state sent a team to the Washington competition, which began with two days of early-round hearings at a Virginia hotel. The top 10 schools got to use the hearing rooms in Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill for their final day of competition.

The students play the part of hearing witnesses, and like any executive-branch official or association president testifying before a congressional committee, they must begin with an opening statement. After their testimony, the competition’s judging panel, typically made up of lawyers, university professors, and others with expertise in constitutional law, asks questions to get a sense of the depth of the students’ knowledge.

While some of the hearings centered around the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, others focused on the legal implications of current issues, such as the place of affirmative action in American society.

Students from Grant High School, in Portland, Ore., argued that affirmative action based on race has a valid role. They pointed to data showing that few minority students take part in Advanced Placement classes at their school. The judges lauded them for relating the issue to their lives.

The program has challenged students to rethink some of their political views, said Matthew Richmond, a senior at Grant High, who now finds himself becoming more conservative, after growing up in what he described as liberal city. And, though he never read the newspaper before, he’s started to pick up The New York Times every day.

“I’m not planning on going into politics,” he said, “But I will stay involved.”

And some students were enthusiastic about aspects of citizenship many consider a chore.

“I can’t wait for jury duty,” said Gwen Pastel, a senior at Vermont’s Essex High.

Funding in Doubt

Although every school in the country is invited to become involved in the competition, Robert Leming, the program’s director, acknowledged that participation from urban and rural schools isn’t as high as the Center for Civic Education would like.

That’s partly due to lack of resources. While the center covers the cost of airfare and provides a small stipend for each student, schools must raise about $900 per student to pay for ground transportation, hotels, and meals.

As for the federal contribution, securing congressional financing at this year’s levels is under threat. The center received $31.9 million in federal funding for fiscal 2008. President Bush has slated the funding for elimination in his budget proposal for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. Budget documents called the program’s contribution to Education Department’s mission “marginal.”

But Gayle Thieman, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md., called the “We the People” materials “enormously valuable” and said “programs like these cannot be cut.”

Events

School & District Management Live Event EdWeek Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

President and CEO
Alexandria, Virginia
National Association of State Boards of Education
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.

Read Next

Federal Senate Confirms Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary
The former Connecticut education commissioner got his start as an elementary school teacher and was a principal and school administrator.
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona was confirmed by the Senate to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. The former Connecticut education commissioner has worked as a teacher, principal, and district administrator.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP
Federal Congress Again Tries to Pass Eagles Act, Focused on School Shootings After Parkland
A group of bipartisan Congressional lawmakers is once again trying to get a law passed aimed at preventing school violence.
Devoun Cetoute & Carli Teproff, Miami Herald
2 min read
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal Some Districts Extend Paid Leave Policies as They Hope for Passage of Biden Relief Plan
With federal provisions having expired, some school employees have had to dip into their own banks of leave for COVID-19 purposes.
5 min read
Linda Davila-Macal, a seventh grade reading teacher at BL Garza Middle School in Edinburg, Texas, works from her virtual classroom at her home on Aug. 31, 2020.
A teacher leads a virtual classroom from her home.
Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP