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Courting Kids — An Interview with Sandra Day O’Connor

How can we revive civics education? Not with another boring textbook, says Sandra Day O’Connor.

By Mary Ellen Flannery and Karen Zauber

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may no longer be writing opinions, but she certainly still has them. For one, she thinks far too many Americans know far too little about how their own government works.

Fortunately, O’Connor can do more than opine these days—she also can act on her judgments—which leads to her latest project, a new Web site called icivics (formerly called Our Courts), aimed at teaching middle school students about the workings of the court and the Constitution. The site includes detailed lesson plans for teachers, as well as four computer games that students can play independently. The most recent addition to the site, “Argument Wars,” asks students to argue historical Supreme Court cases, like Brown vs. Board of Education.

NEA Today: The other day, we saw something—I don’t know if it’s true—that more Americans can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.

Justice O’Connor: Oh that’s true!

NEA Today: That’s horrible!

Justice O’Connor: There’s no question about that. I’ve got some amazing statistics.

NEA Today: What do those statistics say about education in America and what kind of implications do they have for American democracy?

Justice O’Connor: I think we have a problem on our hands. To survive as a nation with any semblance of decent government, you have to have citizens who understand the system and are willing to contribute to the betterment of our society.

When the framers of the Constitution established the three branches of government and our system for selecting members of Congress, the President, and Vice President, they assumed that citizens would have some understanding of the system…. If we don’t educate succeeding generations about how the system works and how they have to be part of it to make it work, the system breaks down.

NEA Today: Where did our schools fail in their responsibility to educate young people about government?

Justice O’Connor: For a good many years, I think public schools, by and large, were conscientious and tried to teach civics and government. We have some very boring textbooks on the subject. Certainly most of them weren’t written to keep you awake. Nonetheless we persisted….

[But] in recent years, Congress and our then-President proposed federal money be given to school districts based on test scores in math and science, on the theory that schools doing a good job in those areas should be rewarded with some funding. The unintended result was that many schools stopped teaching civics and government. About half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school graduation.

NEA Today: What do you see as the solutions?

Justice O’Connor: When I retired from the court, there were two things that I really thought I should try. One was to encourage those states that elect their judges to go to some kind of appointive system … not contested races involving campaign funding. When I was in the legislature in Arizona, I supported and was able to get adopted such a system. It has made an enormous difference.

The other thing that seemed equally important was to do a better job educating young people. That’s why I got some support, financial and otherwise, to develop a Web site called The goal was to teach middle school students about the role of the courts and judges.

NEA Today: Why middle school students?

Justice O’Connor: That’s the time—sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—when the lightbulb first turns on in the brain that enables them to understand the principles of our Constitution and government. They become curious and open to learning about it, and they’re not troubled by the issues often affecting kids in high school or later years.

NEA Today: And why video games?

Justice O’Connor: We know from statistics that young people spend about 40 hours a week in front of some kind of screen, whether it’s a computer or a television. That’s more time than they spend at school, more time than they spend with their parents—and I wanted to use some of that time.

I wanted to provide some games on the Web site that have the effect of being fun to play, but also teaching along the way. And I think we’ve succeeded.

It is absolutely getting top-notch ratings. And I can see why—because it’s fun! You can’t help but learn.

NEA Today: What is it that you’d like schools and teachers to know about Our Courts?

Justice O’Connor: This is a resource that doesn’t take up a lot of teaching time and is very teacher friendly. Wherever it might fit [into a lesson], just tuck it in.

It’s going to have very beneficial results for students. They’re going to know what judges do, and the role of the court in our system of government; they’ll understand that it’s one of the basic protections of our system. It ought to make them proud of our country—make them better citizens!

NEA Today: What about your own civics education? Did you learn it at home or in a specific classroom?

Justice O’Connor: I remember in grade school actually, when I was in El Paso, Texas, I had a teacher of civics and government named Mrs. Feuille, who was just wonderful. I loved learning about it. She made it good. A teacher can do that, you know.

NEA Today: Did you ever consider becoming a teacher?

Justice O’Connor: When I was a girl, I wanted to be a cattle rancher!

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