Civic Literacy and Kids’ Constitutional Rights

The Des Moines Register published an editorial a few days ago about school suspensions rates (HT Chris Liebig). I found that I was actually more interested in the sidebar item, titled Kids Have the Right to Remain Silent:

The editorial board asked Des Moines attorney Mike Bandstra about the rights of students accused of misconduct in schools. What should parents do, for example, when an alleged offense results in a request to bring a child to the principal, the school police officer or the local police station for questioning?
The short answer: “Never let a child be interviewed or interrogated by a ‘state actor’ (teacher, school resource officer or police officer) without legal representation when the interview has to do with potential criminal wrongdoing of the child. The child maintains the same Fourth and Fifth amendment privileges as any adult.”

I think this sidebar raises a number of interesting issues, but the one that prompted this post is the notion that children as young as age five (perhaps younger, I suppose, if you include public preschool programs) are largely on their own to assert their constitutional rights during the school day. So I wondered whether and how the Iowa Core Civic Literacy addresses constitutional rights.

From the introduction:

Political science is the study of power and authority through the examination of political processes, governmental institutions, and human behavior in a civil society. In this context the study of civics is understood to include the form and function of government. Civic literacy encompasses civics but also addresses the individual’s social and political participation.

I don’t expect much at the K-2 level, but consider this strand of essential concepts and/or skills for Grades 3-5:

Understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action

  • Understand what it means to be a citizen.
  • Understand why civic responsibility is important and know examples of civic responsibility.
  • Understand that Congress passes laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand how people can participate in their government.
  • Understand what political leaders do and why leadership is necessary in a democracy.
  • Understand opportunities for leadership and public service in the student’s own classroom, school, community, state, and the nation.
  • Understand the importance of voluntarism as a characteristic of American society.

Apparently it isn’t an essential concept and/or skill to understand why constitutional rights are important and to know examples of constitutional rights, although surely there are at least a few that elementary students could understand.

Consider also this strand of essential concepts and/or skills for Grades 3-5:

Understand the purpose and function of each of the three branches of government established by the Constitution

  • Understand that the legislative branch passes laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand that the executive branch carries out and enforces laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand that the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, makes decisions concerning the law that aim to protect individual rights.

I hope the wrongness of this doesn’t require any further comment, because I’m not quite sure what to say here.

The essential concepts and/or skills don’t really get much better for older students. For Grades 6-8 constitutional rights are lumped together with other rights, responsibilities, or values, obscuring their importance:

  • Understand rights, roles and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.
  • Understand issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
  • Understand values such as individual rights, the common good, self government, justice, equality, diversity, openness and free inquiry, truth, patriotism are fundamental to American public life.
  • Understand constitutions protect individual rights and promote the common good (under a strand about understanding various political systems throughout the world).

The essential concepts and/or skills identified for Grades 9-12 are much the same, and in no place in the document can I find the words “Bill of Rights.”

I am decidedly underwhelmed by the Iowa Core Civic Literacy standards with regard to coverage of constitutional rights. I know that schools can go beyond these standards, and I, for one, sure hope they are because it isn’t at all clear that these standards will otherwise prepare students to understand and assert their constitutional rights–in or out of school.


One thought on “Civic Literacy and Kids’ Constitutional Rights

  1. Mary Murphy

    At least some of the Bill of Rights are covered in junior high American studies in ICCSD and may be covered in similar classes in the local high schools. I doubt many students understand they have a right not to incriminate themselves in a school setting, and I can easily believe a number of students would confess to misconduct without understanding the consequences. I believe that mention of the Bill of Rights is made in the Reading Standards for Informational Text for the older students. When accusations of misconduct are made in school, low income students probably suffer the most since middle and upper middle class parents often know to get knowledgeable advice or seek representation. Certainly, there would be exceptions.

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