What’s the purpose of our Bill of Rights? Most eighth-graders have no idea

April 29, 2016 0 Comments

Originally published Friday, April 25, 2016 on Seattle Times, Posted by

What’s the purpose of our Bill of Rights? Most eighth-graders have no idea

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To show kids why their voices matter, Seattle will amp up voter-education lessons for all grade levels.

Fewer than half of American eighth-graders know why we have a Bill of Rights. Only one in 10 understand the concept of checks and balances between branches of government. Most surprisingly, 75 percent of high school seniors cannot name any of the powers granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution.

All of those results come from national exams, and they are ringing alarms across the country – from government offices to school hallways. So this month, Seattle approved plans to bolster civics education, starting in May.

Washington already requires — and tests students on — one week of civics instruction most every year between the fourth and 12th grades (with the exception of sixth, ninth and 10th). But that bare-bones minimum struck history teacher Web Hutchins as sorely lacking. Since 2011, he has been lobbying the Seattle School Board to adopt his Civics for All curriculum.

“We are disgusted with the lack of attention to teaching kids how to be citizens in a democracy,” he said about the team of educators and government officials — including former OSPI superintendent Judith Billings — who joined the effort. “Especially for kids in low-income schools. They turn 18, and they graduate, and they don’t vote! It’s institutionalized disenfranchisement. My hope is that this is going to change that.”

To beef up civics instruction and bring it out of history books into present-day life, Seattle teachers from all grade levels will meet next month at the King County Elections Office to begin designing new lessons.

High school seniors already take U.S. Government, but younger students need a better understanding of representative democracy and “why their voices are critical,”  as Kathleen Vasquez, the district’s manager for literacy and social studies, put it.

“Frankly, we haven’t done a good job supporting our teachers with resources to do this,” she said. “Lots of the materials teachers have are obsolete.”

The new lessons, including voter pamphlets translated into kid-friendly language, will be used in mock elections to be held this fall in any Seattle school willing to participate. Vasquez said the curriculum will likely expand to include media literacy in coming years.

“That can be tricky. Even with something as innocuous as a clean water bill, you have to be sure to present both sides,” she said. “This is s new territory for us. But we want to take it on because it’s critical that kids start to evaluate what they see.”

In devoting more energy to voter education, Seattle will be joining some high-end company.Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who calls widespread ignorance about American government a “crisis,” created the nonprofit icivics.org  to teach students about the Constitution, state and local government and persuasive writing through interactive role-playing.

In one exercise, students manage their own presidential campaign. In another, called “Argument Wars,” they re-enact actual court cases. Let the games begin.

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