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Retired Justice’s Focus Now on Civic Education Project

By Mark Walsh — April 04, 2008 2 min read
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“If we look at the adult population, whatever civics education people got in the past didn’t seem to stick.” Sandra Day O'Connor Retired Justice U.S. Supreme Court

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says that federal mandates are squeezing some subjects out of the curriculum, and she is working on a project that has a goal of restoring one of them: civics education.

“One of the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act is that our schools have less time to focus on other subjects,” Justice O’Connor told several thousand attendees here at the annual convention of the National School Boards Association.

Justice O’Connor, who turned 78 in March, stepped down from the high court in January 2006 after more than 24 years of service. She told participants about the many projects she has been working on in “retirement,” such as pushing for higher pay for judges, advocating the elimination of elected state judiciaries, and helping former Soviet republics establish their judicial systems.

“I will make it my primary focus now to work on civics education in America,” she said. “We have some work to do.”

She cited surveys showing that fewer than one-third of American adults can name the three branches of the federal government, and she lamented that most know the judging panel on “American Idol,” but fewer than one in 10 can name U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

“If we look at the adult population, whatever civics education people got in the past didn’t seem to stick,” Justice O’Connor said.

In her March 29 speech, she told the NSBA members about the Our Courts project, a civics education initiative being developed by the Sandra Day O’Connor college of law and the college of teacher education and leadership at Arizona State University in Tempe, along with the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the Judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

The Web site for the project, www.ourcourts.org, says it is developing online, problem-based civics learning tools for the digital generation. Teachers, content specialists, and technology experts met for two major sessions last year to begin developing a database of lessons that will include text, video, audio, and flash animation, the site says.

The Web-based curriculum will be available free to students and teachers, and it should be ready by next fall, Justice O’Connor said.

She said she is encouraged that the 2008 presidential campaign appears to be inspiring teenagers and young adults to become engaged in politics. But the schools still need to do more, she added.

“It is absolutely essential that we make sure civics is not squeezed out of our classrooms,” Justice O’Connor said. “To me, it shocks my conscience that students would find civics dry or boring. It is about who we are as citizens.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Principals’ Group Updates Standards for Leadership

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