Sandra Day O'Connor Weighs In on Immigration, the Supreme Court and Civics Ed

Sandra Day O'Connor: Students don't know enough about American government.

ByABC News via GMA logo
May 26, 2010, 6:10 PM

May 27, 2010 — -- Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat down for an interview with "Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, May 26, 2010. The following transcript of their interview has been edited for clarity.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Justice O'Connor, thank you so much for doing this.


STEPHANOPOULOS: I was watching you out there. You are a national teacher.

O'CONNOR: Well, most mothers are, don't you think? (LAUGHTER) We have a few teachers -- little kids to teach as we go along, don't we?

STEPHANOPOULOS: And I was stunned when I first heard this. And ... I imagine you were as well. Two thirds of Americans can name a judge on "American Idol." Fewer than one in 10 can name a chief justice of the Supreme Court.

O'CONNOR: Oh, I know it. And the statistics are worse. The Annenberg Foundation takes statistics and barely one third of Americans can name the three branches of government, much less say what they do. How do you like that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's unbelievable. But --

O'CONNOR: It's scary.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're doing something about that now.

O'CONNOR: I am trying as hard as I can to do something about that. Half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school. Half.


O'CONNOR: Well, it's partly the unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind.

STEPHANOPOULOS: 'Cause they put so much emphasis on math and science?

O'CONNOR: Now, let's go back to that. Well, American high school grads were tested along with equivalent youngsters in 20 nations. And we came in almost at the bottom of the list in capacity to do math and science. And because of that, the then-President and the then-Congress thought it would help they put federal money in a pot and schools could earn a chunk of the money if they got good test scores from their students on math, science and reading. So that was the thing that was set up, that's No Child Left Behind. And I think it worked well.

O'CONNOR: The No Child Left Behind Program was an incentive to the schools to get their kids up to snuff on math and science and reading. But they were not getting money for American history or civics, or anything else. And the result was a number of schools stopped teaching -- or giving scores on -- civics and government and history.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no incentive?

O'CONNOR: None. And so, as a result, many of the schools just stopped teaching them. They could [fall] by the wayside. And that's what's happened. And it's a sad state of affairs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're trying to create a new way --


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- for kids to learn?

O'CONNOR: A new way. A new way through games on the website that the young people will find so entertaining that they'll play it and learn. Now here's the reason: We know also from the Annenberg polls that youngsters in middle school level -- sixth, seventh, eighth grade -- spend, on the average, 40 hours a week in front of a screen, whether it's TV or--

STEPHANOPOULOS: And they'd be more if you let them.

O'CONNOR: -- video. Maybe more, but that's a lot. It's more than they spend in school, it's more than they spend with parents. It's a huge amount of time. Now, if we can capture just part of that time, a little bit of it, to get 'em in front of a computer screen to play these games, they're going to learn. And they don't even know they're learning. I mean, they're fun. The games are great.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I love that game, "Do I Have a Right?"

O'CONNOR: I know. They're fabulous. And we've had tests done. And the students go up 20 percent in their knowledge by playing those games. It's just incredible.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if you reach them where they live, they really do absorb the information.

O'CONNOR: Right. And if you make it fun, and they love video games. That's what they often use their the computers for, is to play games. So we've tracked that and made these games fun. And the kids come back with great, "Oh, this is cool." "This is neat." "It's ... fun."

STEPHANOPOULOS: So why isn't it in every classroom?

O'CONNOR: Well, you have to ... talk about a bureaucracy in government, it's the way schools are organized in every state. What they tend to do is have separate school districts, hundreds of them, in every state. You have your school board, and your school superintendent, and it's just a big bureaucracy. There's no one person or entity you can go to in any state who can say, "Here, use this."