BY JILANNE DOOM
Robert Leming, the National Director of the We the People (WTP) program, sat down with me at the Indiana/Ohio/Kentucky institute last week to discuss the JMLP and the importance of good civic education curriculum and professional development. Prior to his 18 years at the Center for Civic Education, he was the WTP Indiana state coordinator, as well as a teacher and professor. He holds advanced degrees from Indiana University.
Q: Can you give me an overview of the JMLP and it’s involvement with WTP?
RL: The James Madison Legacy Project (JMLP) is a grant from the Department of Education – a SEED grant – and it is to involve students who are high-needs. A high percentage of free lunch and/or Title I schools. So across the country for three years, we’ll have three cohorts of 675 teachers in each cohort, which is huge I think. The hope is that through professional development of those teachers, each cohort gets 52 hours of content and pedagogy that they will learn how to implement the WTP program in the classroom, conducting hearings in the classroom, and eventually getting involved with the state programs for the WTP program.
Q: What are the underpinnings of this study, looking specifically at the Indiana pilot study? What were the findings there and what are you hoping to find here?
RL: Two years ago, Diana Owen of Georgetown and I – she’s a professor of political science – we conducted a study in Indiana mainly because I had a lot of contacts with Indiana teachers. So we involved about 20 teachers in 10 schools and we picked WTP teachers and paired them with their counterparts that were mainly history teachers but who did not teach WTP. They were also counterparts in that they were similar in how many years of experience in teaching and educational background, so we could factor that out. Then we pretested the students and teachers in the fall, went through the first semester, and post-tested them in December or January to find out if there was any differences between students who had WTP teachers and those who had “traditional” teachers.
The results came in quite clearly that students who were involved in the WTP program scored higher on content knowledge questions than students who were not taught by WTP teachers. In fact, students who were not in the WTP program but were taught by WTP teachers in the spring did better than the students who didn’t have teachers involved in the program.
So that study enables us then to support our grant proposal with the SEED grants because it said we’ve got research to suggest that this program has an impact on students. I think it’s one of the reasons why we were able to secure this particular grant and include Diana Owen on this huge study that we’re doing now with the three cohorts. Again, it’s 675 teachers in each cohort and thousands of students involved. It’s massive. And I think the results will show that when teachers have good professional development, it matters in terms of what their students want to do in the classroom. I like to say – well, I don’t like it – but I do, I say that kids are victims of what their teachers don’t know. Therefore, the more that we can teach them about this content, about government and civics, that their experience with their students is going to be so much more – that they’re going to learn so much more in the classroom.
Q: What do you see as the most beneficial aspects of the WTP program for students and teachers?
RL: There are a couple of things. First, I’m obviously biased, but I think the textbook is fantastic. If you look at it closely, it’s questions. It’s not statements. It’s, what are the philosophical foundations? We’re not telling them that; they’re discovering that. Also I think the genius of the program is two-fold. One is there are essay questions that have been written on each unit, three of them, at each level – the congressional/district level, the state level, and the national level – and those questions drive the students for research purposes and learning.
Then they’re also the basis for the simulated congressional hearing, which is really just a form of performance-based assessment. So students who are involved in the program throughout the entire semester will then in the end conduct these hearings to demonstrate their knowledge of the content. And to do that they have to work in teams together, they have to write, and they have to speak. Look, I like testing, multiple-choice is fine, but I think this way of testing in addition to that demonstrates what they know. The good news is that sometimes parents see this, other teachers see this, the superintendent and principals might see what the kids are doing, and it clearly shows that they know more than most adults about government and the constitution. You can’t not see that if you go to a congressional hearing.
What’s nice also is that the curriculum is leveled – level one, level two, level three – so it’s not just the senior year. It’s also for middle school kids and for elementary. And we think that if you live in a democratic republic that citizens who have power need to be knowledgeable. Therefore, a comprehensive program that goes K-12 or at least upper elementary through twelfth grade is vital to making our democratic republic work and sustain itself.
Q: Can you talk more about the importance of projects like the JMLP that specifically target high-needs students? Why is this an important group to focus on with civics?
RL: In one sense, it’s about power - intellectual power that can be used. Unfortunately in this country, kids who come from high-needs neighborhoods or areas seem to be or feel powerless. And there is every indication that they are. Therefore, a way out of that – look, this is not an answer to poverty. But it is an answer to people who seem powerless in giving them more power. When they get that, they have a better understanding of who and where they go for answers to problems in the community, if in fact that is what they need. Not that government is the answer to everything, but when it’s there, we all need to understand who’s responsible. And if you’re going to criticize the government, going to demonstrate against it, you’re doing it from a level of understanding – there is a First Amendment, I have a right to assemble, I have a right to free speech, and I have a responsibility to tell my government they’re wrong. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and Reverend Shuttlesworth didn’t just send kids out into the streets with no knowledge. They taught them civic education as a precursor to withstanding the dogs and the hoses. They went out there on a mission that this was part of their responsibility under the Constitution. That applies today. If you have problems with how government’s working or the police force or whatever, having an understanding of the Constitution is going to give you a much more powerful way of dealing with that problem.
Q: You’ve said you love teaching in a classroom, but you’ve chosen to be in this position with WTP for a very long time. To get a better sense of you, what is it about WTP that connects so much with you?
RL: I guess I’m a product of my age in terms of the 60s and 70s, and I watched as President Nixon waved goodbye to America. Now was that a terrible time in American history, or was that a great time in American history? Thinking about the most powerful person in the world, in terms of government, waving goodbye and not pulling out the army to keep his power. The transition happened and we kept going. Living through the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, though I was a young child, it suggested that there’s something about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, when I went to Indiana University in the mid-70s, you were more likely to hear the words Karl Marx than James Madison. I think there was a rejection of the Constitution, like it wasn’t working during the 60s and 70s with all the riots. At universities it seemed like there was a real push towards alternative forms of government – Socialism or even as far as Communism as being okay – and I think what happened was when the bicentennial period came around, there was a new wave of let’s reexamine the Constitution. That’s when I got involved with it professionally. As I learned about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I realized the genius of the founding period in that it opened up an opportunity for more people to be free and have opportunities than any other period in American history, or even world history.
Not that this government is perfect, though. Madison said that we’re looking for the least imperfect form of government, and I love that. He understood that humans are flawed. That if you have a system of government and you put people in it, be careful. We know we have to have a government because, as he said in Federalist 51, men aren’t angels – by the way neither are women – but I if you put them into power, be careful. Then you end of with the disbursement of power as much as you can, and that reflects to today. We sometimes are frustrated with Congress and gridlock and we use those terms, when in fact it’s checks and balances going on. The founders instructed to be careful what legislation you passed. Make the Senate check the House. Because they’re human beings and they can make mistakes, they’re not perfect. And I think sometimes today people think that government should be perfect, or that they have all the answers, looking toward government to solve all the problems when that is a fallacy. My opinion is that government is necessary, but we need to limit their power by disbursing it out. Then we as citizens, our biggest role is watchdogs on our government through elections. Sometimes, there’s discussion about term limits on Congress. Well, there already are term limits; you vote them out if you don’t like them. And we don’t exercise that power. Therefore, I think civic education, especially with disenfranchised youth can give them the power to understand that they too can have a role in government and to check it to make sure it’s working for them.
Q: Last question – talking about this here at the IN/KY/OH Institute, what are the goals and expectations for the different professional development institutes happening this summer around the country?
RL: There’s a similar skeleton, if I may. And that is, what is needed is content. Teachers will tell you that what they need is more content. Many come out of college not knowing a lot about how to teacher government because a lot of them are social studies teachers who have had responsibilities to learn a lot of different content areas. So this is a way for them to get some specific content on government and the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with leading scholars in American on these subjects. And we tie them to the units of our textbook.
It’s not just the content, which is vitally important, though. It’s how do you take these big ideas and get them in the heads of young people. Well that’s where the pedagogy comes in and that’s the professionalism of teachers; they’re experts at not necessarily the content, but then taking the big ideas and translating them into high school, middle school, and elementary kids’ minds. That’s a skill.
Then a third component of the institute is the congressional hearing. We believe it is so important for kids to demonstrate what they’ve learned, and so we have the teachers do the same thing. The best way to learn about the hearing is to actually do it. So while the teachers are here for four days, they’re getting content, the pedagogy, and then practicing these congressional hearings just like they’re going to do with their students in the fall. They’ll conduct those at the end of the institute. They’ll be nervous, they’ll be scared, but when it’s all done, they’re going to be so excited about what they’ve learned and been able to demonstrate in front of judges who are asking them tough questions on what they’ve learned in the last few days. So it’s a beautiful thing.