Right smack in the middle of judging our local We the People competition I was informed that the man who inspired me to become a teacher had died. Everyone can name at least one great teacher in their education, and for me that was Gary Ovoian, my high school history teacher for four courses. Unfortunately, we can also all name at least one bad teacher. Mine was another social studies teacher, Mr. Ski Club Adviser (I can't recall his name). The teaching styles of these two men could not have been more different; Ski Club guy had us memorize facts, while Mr. Ovoian asked us to analyze and evaluate. I think that my love of asking "why" and "what if" was framed by Gary, and I believe it is why so many teachers and students find the We the People curriculum so addictive.
You might ask, why does the method matter? If it's learned and assessed, isn't that enough? The answer is an emphatic "no." When we think of language and math skills, we clearly want those skills to become lifelong abilities or literacies; the same logic is true for civic skills. Clearly the health and longevity of our nation is just as dependent on understanding our system of separated powers as it is on understanding a dependent clause or quadratic equation. This is why the format of instruction and assessment is so important. This can be demonstrated by an examination of the results of a 2007 study of 1,500 high school students conducted by RMC Research. The study included a group of We the People students (822) and a group of students (735) receiving traditional curriculum. The model used was a pre- and post-test of civic knowledge, skills and dispositions. The We the People students scored 30 percent higher than the traditional students. This proves that these students know about our system of government by the end of their high school term. But does that knowledge carry into the behaviors of a good citizen? The answer is yes. A 2009 study of the election of 2008 demonstrates that while average young voters turned out at a rate of 52 percent, We the People alumni voted at a 95 percent rate. The median age of the We the People alumni was 28, with 76 percent reporting that they had never missed an election. It is the We the People experience, unlike any other, that achieves this high level of civic engagement.
In this day and age of standardized tests and rote memorization, the authentic assessment of the simulated congressional hearing used by We the People stands out. For example, consider the difference in these methods of assessing the 17th Amendment:
* Which amendment called for the direct election of senators?
* In what way is the 17th Amendment consistent with the original vision of the framers? Is it fair to say that the Senate was designed as an anti-democratic institution?
Clearly the first example is a kind of civic Trivial Pursuit, while the second calls for a great deal of background knowledge and analysis. When students explore this answer in depth, a clear assessment of their knowledge has taken place. This is exactly what took place here in Kern County, for the 25th consecutive year, last Saturday at Golden Valley High School. More than 300 students, representing 12 schools, met for an entire day to discuss issues such as the philosophical foundations of our system, its structural flaws and strengths, civil rights, and the responsibility of citizens. Fifty community volunteers gave up their day to help coordinate and judge this event. These judges watched as students addressed issues as diverse as the purpose of the property requirement for voting, the constitutional validity of the pardon power and the state/federal tension over immigration. Many veteran judges commented that the level of expertise by students this young is a good sign for our future. Thanks to the unwavering support of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, the continued commitment of the Kern High School District, and the dedication of many teachers, administrators and parents, we can once again say that we have the most active, actuated and authentic civic education event right here in Kern County. It makes me proud -- and I know Mr. Ovoian is proud, too.
Terri Richmond of Bakersfield is a social studies teacher at Golden Valley High School.