Making a Difference

By Levenstein, Richard H. | Judicature, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference


Levenstein, Richard H., Judicature


The United States is suffering from a significant and widespread adult civics education deficit. This civics education deficit has resulted in a large scale lack of knowledge on the part of the adult population of the country in the areas of civics and government, and perhaps most importantly, with respect to the existence of, purpose for, and workings of the judicial branch of government.

In many states, civics and government education was a significant subject taught extensively in middle schools, and again, at a higher level in high schools. Unfortunately, in recent years, schools have deemphasized the teaching of civics and government in middle school, and because many states focus on standardized testing as the benchmark for the quality of their institutions, and the basis upon which their schools are rated, teaching the subjects of those standardized tests has been emphasized to the detriment of non-tested subjects. Civics and government has not been a subject upon which the standardized tests have been given, and therefore the teaching of those subjects in high school has been deemphasized or eliminated.

In December of 2005, the Florida Bar commissioned a Harris Interactive Poll of Florida adults to test the knowledge of Florida's adult population of their government and how it operates. Some of the results of that poll are as follows:

* The majority of Florida adults were only aware of some of the basic structures of government.

* Less than 6 in 10 adult Floridians could correctly identify the three branches of government - 18% incorrectly said "local, state, and federal;" 16% incorrectly said "Republican, Democrat, and Independent."

* While a majority said that checks and balances and separation of powers are important principles for democracy, few could accurately define either term.

* More than half of adult Floridians could not define the term "separation of powers."

* More than a third of adult Floridians could not define the term "checks and balances."

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since the poll in 2005. In 2009, the National Center for State Courts conducted a national poll, which revealed that only 21% of adults polled could correctly name all three branches of government and 40% of the adults polled could not name any branches of government. These results reveal a shocking lack of foundational knowledge on the part of the adult population in this most important subject area of how their government works, what their government is, and why that government is important to them.

During the time since the results of the Florida Bar's Harris Interactive Poll were received in 2005, efforts have begun to be made to address and reduce the adult civics education gap and deficit in the United States. Most notably, the states of Colorado and Florida have initiated exemplary programs to help accomplish that goal.

In Colorado, the "Our Courts" project, is geared more to presentations by judges than by lawyers. "Our Courts" has developed seven interactive presentations, including Spanish-language presentations for two of them, for judges to present at civic groups, community colleges and community centers, and virtually any gathering of adults, for strictly educational purposes. To date "Our Courts" has given more than 330 presentations to more than 10,000 audience members.

The Florida Bar's Judicial Independence Committee in response to the Harris Poll, created the "Benchmarks: Adult Civics Education Program" to enable and encourage attorneys and judges to make presentations to similar adult gatherings including homeowners and condominium associations, and adult educational classes at religious institutions.

The goal of the program was to create interactive, online activities that are self-contained and can be downloaded by a judge or attorney for use in presentations. The Florida Bar's "Benchmarks: Adult Civics Education Program" can be found at the Florida Bar's website, at floridabar. …

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