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Chukwuma Isebor, an 18-year-old high school student whose father immigrated to the United States from Nigeria for college, says that prior to his senior year he was cynical and distrustful “of the government and the way it treated lower-income citizens and minorities.” Yet, there he was in December, arguing with two classmates before a panel of three judges that the patriotic spirit of the nation’s founders could be revived and the quality of American democracy improved if citizens participated more actively.
Chukwuma, Joseline Barajas, and Chyna Winchester are seniors at the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy campus on 12th Street Southeast in Washington, DC, 11 blocks east of the Capitol. They offered up their thoughts on citizenship and democracy as they participated in the annual “We the People” competition at their school. The nationwide competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, tests students’ knowledge of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in a congressional hearing-style format. Teams research an opening statement that responds to questions on one of the competition’s six themes and then answer queries from a panel of judges. The goal of the competition is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution as the foundation of democracy in the United States.
The three students and their classmates had spent several weeks preparing for the competition during American Government class, which all Chávez students are required to take and pass to graduate. The previous day, they had practiced their statements and answered questions posed to them by their teacher, Ayo Magwood, an economist who formerly worked as a researcher at the World Bank. She had urged all of them to include more specific illustrations and examples from contemporary politics, policies, and US Supreme Court cases. “Look for cases where executive power was checked or where federal power was checked,” she told one group. “Don’t worry about the Articles of Confederation,” she told another group. “Get to the Constitution and current examples.”
When it was their turn to present their argument, Chukwuma, Joseline, and Chyna settled quickly and nervously into their seats at the front of the crowded classroom. The judges were a consultant with Deloitte, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and an enthusiastic former member of the US Coast Guard. The students were to discuss whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that American democracy could be improved through the renewal of political institutions and citizen activism.
Joseline, a bright and outgoing student who takes care of her chronically ill mother and three younger siblings, was the first to speak. She said her team agreed that engaged citizenship and “a healthy skepticism of power can help keep our democracy strong because it can lead to people participating more and acting upon things they would like changed.” At the beginning of the school year, Joseline had thought the government class would be boring. But much to her surprise, it turned out to be her favorite-so much so that she began sharing the civic knowledge she was learning with her mother, who was preparing to take her American citizenship test. Her mother also got hooked on the class and eagerly looked forward to her daughter’s reports.
Next was Chukwuma, whose main interest when he came to Chávez was basketball. In his statement, he cited the work of Meira Levinson, a Harvard political philosopher whose latest book, No Citizen Left Behind (Harvard University Press, 2012), examines the gap in civic engagement and empowerment between low-income minority students and their more affluent peers. It is a problem he and his classmates, who are all African American or Hispanic, relate to, Chukwuma told the judges. Last fall, he was among a group of Chávez students who fanned out into the Capitol Hill neighborhood to register voters and found deep apathy.
He credited Magwood with broadening his views of the government and his ability to affect it. She “has shown me that, instead of just being mad at the government, and not participating in it, I can actually have a voice and do something about my placement and treatment in this country,” he wrote in an email later. “I feel now that with hard work and diligence that you can move up in this country and improve the lives of yourself, others, and future generations. Though it may be harder for me because I am an African-American male, I still feel that I can accomplish great things and lead others to do the same.”
Chukwuma said he plans to major in American and African American history when he goes to college. “I have always been intrigued by the way this country was founded, and how, in its history, leaders have tried to claim that they are upholding [American] values when, in actuality, they’re not,” his email continued. “Also, though, I like the way that this country allows people to protest their grievances and . . . express themselves without prosecution.”
The third student to offer her views was Chyna, a quiet, thoughtful young woman who plans to major in performing arts at a community college in Western Maryland. She pointed to Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of how people can make a difference. “He protested nonviolently and questioned the government . . . and argued that things needed to be changed,” she told the judges.
In answering questions from the judges, Joseline, Chukwuma, and Chyna discussed the Electoral College, super PACs, and the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case and their effects on voting. Other classes participating in the competition were having similar conversations throughout the battered former furniture warehouse that now houses Chávez’s Capitol Hill campus. Students reflected on the importance of the Supreme Court’s Marbury v. Madison decision establishing the concepts of judicial review and separation of powers between the courts and the executive branch, the influence of natural law philosophers on the founders, Second Amendment rights, the tension between liberty and security inherent in the Patriot Act, and federalism. In a classroom down the hall, a deep-voiced, serious senior named Tokumbo Adedeinde asserted that federalism and the balance of power between the central government and the states “was the greatest contribution of the Constitution to government.”
“They were celebrating their knowledge of the Constitution and American government.”
After all of the groups finished their presentations, and while the judges huddled privately to pick the winners, Krista Fantin, a former Teach for America fellow who teaches the Advanced Placement US Government class at Chávez, reconvened her students to celebrate their efforts. Soon, the students were packed together in an excited scrum in the center of the room with Fantin in the middle, hugging, jumping, shouting, and dancing. “As a class together, we all did a good job,” one student exulted. They were not celebrating a football or basketball championship.
Results from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam showed that, on that score, there is not a lot to celebrate at many other schools. Only one in five eighth graders and only one in four 12th graders could demonstrate proficiency in their knowledge and understanding of the Constitution, the presidency, Congress, the courts, and how laws are made. Over one-third of 12th graders did not possess even a rudimentary understanding of topics such as how the Constitution reflects the “purposes, values and principles of American democracy.”
When the numbers are broken down by race and income level, they are even worse. Of white eighth graders in the United States, 29 percent are proficient, compared to only 9 percent of black students and 11 percent of Hispanic students. The disparities among 12th graders by race and ethnicity are nearly the same as they are by income level.
A lack of knowledge translates into lower rates of voting. A study by Richard J. Coley and Andrew Sum for the Educational Testing Service concluded that “the nation’s less-educated, lower-income and young adults have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves from the voting process.” Unsurprisingly, those groups reported paying hardly any attention to public affairs. This lack of awareness and participation “should be viewed as a fault line in the bedrock of the nation’s democracy that must be addressed,” the authors wrote. Civic apathy “may lead to the ultimate death of democracy, or the moral and social decline of the state.” Chávez aims to teach its students to reverse these trends.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Chávez faculty and students come from author interviews or observations between August 2012 and January 2013.
2. National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, Civics 2010, Grades 4, 8, and 12, http://nationsreportcard.gov/civics_2010.
3. Richard J. Coley and Andrew Sum, “Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States,” ETS, 2012, 17, www.ets.org/s/research/19386/rsc/pdf/18719_fault_lines_report.pdf.
4. Ibid., 30.
5. Ibid., 4.
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