Friday, July 08, 2005

If You Teach It, Will They Come?: Why Plans to Teach About the Jury System Won't Work

In recent years, a huge number of organizations have created programs designed to teach kids about the jury system. The American Bar Association's American Jury Initiative has such a program. The American Board of Trial Advocates spent $400,000 designing a program, titled Justice by the People, intended for use in middle schools. The Federal judges have a program, called Courts to Classes, complete with a teaching guide and handout. The Texas Young Lawyer's Association has a program, entitled We the Jury.. The American Jury Institute is developing a PowerPoint presentation for use in classrooms. The National Center for State Courts has a long list of similar programs on their web site.

The limited success of these programs was dramatically underscored in an article in the May Texas Bar Journal. Recently appointed U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel and two lawyers visited an honors class and spent an hour talking about the jury system, after which the judge remarked the class was "now ahead of 95 percent of the population in knowledge of the jury system." With so many programs being developed, so much good material available, why are 95% of students not receiving an education on the branch of government they are most likely to personally participate in?

The answer is obvious: the jury system is not mentioned in the standardized achievement tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind act. As Bob Berkowitz, an educator with over thirty years of experience, notes "Teachers are narrowing their curriculum to teach to the test. School administrators are becoming score obsessed." In this narrower curriculum, there just isn't much time to teach extraneous stuff.

This leads to two ineluctable conclusions: first, current efforts to get high school and middle school students educated as to the importance and functioning of the jury system are doomed to have only spotty and temporary successes, because every classroom hour spent on the jury is "wasted," so far as achieving higher standardized test results is concerned.

And secondly, the only way to ensure that American students generally have a functional understanding of the jury is to include a module on the jury system in the standardized test questions on American history and government.

This second point presents perhaps a worthier use of some of the energies that have gone into developing jury-studies programs that are redundant, and will not be widely used anyway. If American students do not understand the history, role, and purpose of the jury system, they will not, as adults, be inspired to preserve, participate in, or respect the decisions of, that institution - the cornerstone of American legal culture. Surely, we are all failing if that isn't made part of the test.


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