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Arming our students with knowledge

By Nancy Salvato
web posted December 19, 2005

When I was in Junior High School, I remember my mother complaining to me that the athletes at school received all the attention but if you were smart the only public accolades were having your name listed in a paragraph of very small print letting the community know you received Honor Roll or that you were a National Merit Scholar. She thought the priorities of our school system were all wrong.

Apparently she wasn't alone in her beliefs back then because I recently had the opportunity to read an article, "The Adolescent Society" in the winter 2006 edition of Education Next, in which James Coleman ("The Coleman Report") essentially said the same thing. Interestingly he wrote his piece in 1961, a year before I was born and about 15 years before my mother made her personal observations in our kitchen during a conversation in which she was referring to my brother's unheralded academic accomplishments.

It was Coleman's suggestion that in order to generate social pressure to excel academically, there needs to be intellectual games; group competitions to change the norms and values to encourage academics. Well, its 2005 and I can honestly say there is at least one program doing this, and I might add, doing this very well.

I recently had the opportunity to judge at the Illinois Hearings for the Center for Civic Education's "We the People: the Citizen and the Constitution" which took place on the campus of McDonalds Corporation's Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Teams from 6 area high schools competed against each other for the opportunity to represent our state at Nationals. I must say that I was extremely impressed by the apparent time and effort put in by each group of students in preparation for the unit questions which they would have to answer with a prepared statement and for the follow up questions they would have to answer, without referring to notes or discussing their answers with teammates.

I listened to the various statements put together by 6 sets of students, explaining our system of federalism and what differentiated it from other forms of government. They then answered questions posed by us judges about such things as how federalism enters into NCLB and Hurricane Katrina. In their statements and answers were references to historical cases illustrating precedent for the more current situations we're facing today, as well as pertinent quotes from the founders and framers of our country.

I was so very proud of each student because from what I could tell, they had put hours and hours into learning about the federal system of government in such depth that they made it look easy to have an informed discussion about what was happening in our country today. I could only imagine how nervous they had to be drawing on that reserve of knowledge to pull out the most compelling facts to convince us of the correctness of their opinions and illustrate that they were brilliant enough to earn the coveted spot at Nationals.

Although only one team, Maine South High School, won the Illinois competition, all the students were truly prepared to take on the responsibilities of citizenship and leadership which the framers believed are necessary to maintain the rights and privileges guaranteed under our Constitutional form of government.

As for Maine South High School, their team will represent Illinois at the We the People: National Finals, a three day academic competition in Washington, D.C. April 29-May 1, 2006. More than 1200 students will demonstrate their knowledge of constitutional principles and their relevance to contemporary issues in a simulated congressional hearing before panels of judges composed of constitutional scholars, lawyers, journalists, and government leaders from across the nation. The ten finalists with the highest scores, based on the first two days of hearings, will compete for the title of national winner on the final day in congressional hearing rooms on Capitol Hill."

I left the hearings with hope for our future; hope in the knowledge that future generations understand the importance of arming themselves with the information necessary to take care of this country which we inherited from our forebears so long ago.

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2005

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