Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she is astounded by the lack of civics knowledge among residents of the United States.
She spoke Thursday to a packed room of students at the Oklahoma City University School of Law about her new website initiative, iCivics.org. OCU has partnered with the national organization in hosting teacher training to help bring the civics learning website into local classrooms.
O'Connor said half of the states no longer require civics or government classes in high schools and only three require the courses in middle school.
Less than a third of young people and adults in the nation can answer most of the questions on the test required of new citizens, she said.
“Barely a third of Americans can answer what the three branches of government are,” O'Connor said. “Imagine. I mean that's really pathetic. And they can tell you the judges on ‘American Idol' but can't name one Supreme Court justice.”
Federal law blamed
O'Connor blames No Child Left Behind legislation for focusing too heavily on science, math and reading education and not funding history or civics teaching in public schools.
To brainstorm a solution, O'Connor said she sought help from several of her colleagues on the
“By that time their gray matter up here is fully developed,” O'Connor said. “That's all they're ever going to get. The hormones that they get in high school haven't fully kicked in. You've got those three years, and they're eager to learn.”
The iCivics website has about 40 games, she said, and participants can communicate with each other and compete to win money for chosen causes.
What state officials say on civics classes
Damon Gardenhire, communications director for state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, said the website is obviously impressive and something the state should take a close look at.
Kelly Curtright, director for social studies for the state Education Department, said Oklahoma already is ahead of other states in civics and government education. The state this year received a B+ from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which evaluates state standards for U.S. history in kindergarten through 12th grade. The average grade for states this year was a D, according to the institute's website.
Cindy Koss, an assistant superintendent with the Education Department, said as part of Achieving Classroom Excellence standards, Oklahoma high schoolers take one unit of U.S. history and one-half to one unit of U.S. government, along with a half unit of Oklahoma history. They also must take an end-of-instruction test in U.S. history.
Koss said history also will be emphasized as part of the state's new Common Core Curriculum standards, adopted last year and being rolled out through 2014 in state schools.
Curtright said history also is emphasized at the fifth- and eighth-grade levels.
‘Words of encouragement'
O'Connor spent much of her time Thursday telling stories from her life and her time as the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court.
When asked whether she ever aspired to be a Supreme Court justice, she answered, “Oh no. There's no use sitting around there thinking ‘Gee, I'd like to be on the Supreme Court someday.'”
In fact, she said she felt inadequate when President Ronald Reagan asked to nominate her for the court.
“It's fine to be the first, but I didn't want to be the last woman,” she said.
O'Connor charged the students with learning to “read fast and write well ... and it doesn't hurt to learn how to speak in public.”
Hard work is another must to succeed, she said.
OCU undergraduate student Dario Elizondo, 22, said he found O'Connor insightful and energetic.
“She gave several specific instructions that as a prospective law student I will use,” Elizondo said. “I will take from her the words of encouragement to continue working hard.”