civics, government, America, civic literacy
Rick Bowmer/AP
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Students Know “American Idol” Better Than America, Says Sandra Day O'Connor

March 05, 2009 12:30 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor partly blames No Child Left Behind for Americans’ lack of civic knowledge, and her new site promotes an active role in democracy.

Polls Find Americans Know Shockingly Little About Government, Civics

O’Connor told “Good Morning America” that more Americans can name a judge on “American Idol” than can name the three branches of government. Those numbers are surprising, but according to a recent test by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program, they are accurate. The poll also found that nearly 40 percent of respondents falsely believe that the president has the power to declare war.

The ICI’s poll also found that those who had held an elected office scored lower on average than the general public, and that most of those who held college degrees didn’t receive what would have been a “passing” score on the test.

In a 2006 poll by FindLaw, it was found that 57 percent of Americans couldn’t name any of the then-current U.S. Supreme Court justices, and that the number of people who could name eight or more of the justices statistically rounded to zero.

O’Connor is launching a site, Our Courts: 21st Century Civics, which is aimed at improving the civics education of middle school students.

Opinion & Analysis: Why do American’s know so little about government?

In an interview with, O’Connor stated that No Child Left Behind has “effectively squeezed out civics education.” O’Connor points to public education as the long term solution to keeping our judicial system intact, but looks to the Internet to engage students to learn about government on their own.

The ICI poll points to passive mediums as the problem; more time spent watching television (even news) and movies, and talking on the telephone meant lower levels of civic knowledge for respondents.

Key Players: Sandra Day O’Connor; No Child Left Behind

Sandra Day O’Connor was born in 1930 in Texas. She majored in economics at Stanford University and then completed law school in only two years. After law school O’Connor served as a deputy county attorney in California, as Arizona state senator and later the majority leader. Later O’Connor began her career as a judge, and in 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman justice in the Supreme Court. She retired in 2006.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was signed into law on Jan. 8, 2002. It was intended to reform the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965. It has four main principles: stronger accountability for schools, flexibility in spending federal funds, choices for parents of disadvantaged students, and proven teaching methods. NCLB has a focus on improving reading and math skills and ensuring that children across the country meet standard achievement levels.

Reference: U.S. government teaching resources

For additional resources about the U.S. Government and the judicial system, please visit the findingDulcinea U.S. Government Guide and the findingDulcinea Supreme Court Guide.

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