Innovative AJS Curriculum Helps High School Seniors Understand the Justice System

Article excerpt

Primary and secondary schools provide pivotal education experiences and content to students through civics classes that prepare children to be responsible citizens. On a positive note, students in the United States generally have performed well on national civics exams. About two-thirds performed at or above the "basic" level on civics tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which also is known as the Nation's Report Card.1 When these civics tests are reviewed further, however, it is obvious that students did not perform as well on tests concerning judicial topics.

Specifically, 12th graders are challenged to understand issues concerning the Supreme Court and the structure of the federal judiciary. For example, 70 percent do not know that the Supreme Court has the power to find a law unconstitutional and overturn it, and 75 percent failed to understand the systems of checks and balances to prevent absolute power by any one branch of government. Only 10 percent of high school seniors understood the meaning behind Justitia, the Roman figure of justice represented by a statue of a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales.2

A new approach

To answer the call for improved curricula for 12th grade civics classes, the High School Unit of Study on the Judicial Branch project was conceived by the American Judicature Society (AJS). The project sought to increase public understanding of the justice system through a new curriculum for high school seniors concerning the rule of law, principles of the justice system, and the administration of justice.

This project was pilot tested in social studies classes at three geographically and socio-economically diverse schools-a rural high school in Arizona, an urban high school in Massachusetts, and a suburban high school in New York State. A carefully selected teacher at each school agreed to teach two classes, one that included the new curriculum (i.e., the experimental group) and the other that covered the conventional curriculum (i.e., the control group). The project sought to determine through comparison of the two groups and among the three high schools whether the program was capable of being scaled up to national application and adaptable to any school district.

The Unit of Study on the Judicial Branch is a two-lesson unit. The first lesson concerning the Supreme Court requires students to research and role-play current U. S. Supreme Court justices, their clerks, and opposing attorneys. Teachers were provided with class notes, a day planner, student rubrics to measure completion of learning activities and role-playing tasks, instructions for teaching the experimental unit, and handouts. The case involved hypothetical amicus curiae briefs, writs of certiorari, and opinions (both majority and dissenting) from a real case for use as overheads.

The second lesson concerns court procedures. It is a simulation game about a murder that requires students to role-play witnesses, a judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys, detectives, CSI team members, jurors, a court clerk, and other justice-system actors, as well as a journalist and a photographer. As with the Supreme Court lesson, detailed teacher notes, a day planner, student rubrics, handouts, and links to resources were provided.

Evaluation activities for each of the three schools included pre- and post-tests for all students in the experimental and control sections of the classes, focus groups with selected students in both sections of the classes, an evaluation for the teachers, a structured interview with the teachers, and observation of the classes by the evaluator. The activities were focused on evaluation questions that included the following:

* Did the program affect students' knowledge regarding the rule of law, principles of the justice system, and the administration of justice?

* Did the program engage and maintain student interest?

* Was the curriculum usable by teachers? …