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Constitutional Showdown! This Weekend in D.C., America’s Top Civics Students Go Head-to-Head

By David Griffith | April 21, 2016

Photo: Lincoln High School’s Constitution Team / Credit: Andie Petkus, Classroom Law Project
As every Portland native knows, for the past quarter century, the city’s leading public high schools, Lincoln and Grant, have been fierce rivals. Yet the more traditional athletic and academic contests between the two schools are but a flickering candle compared to the raging bonfire that is the local edition of We the People. For the uninitiated, that’s the national competition sponsored by the Center for Civic Education that promotes “civic competence and responsibility” in teenagers by boosting their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
In recent years, Lincoln vs. Grant has become high school civics’ answer to Ali vs. Frazier. Between them, the two schools have won the last four national We the People competitions, as well as every state competition Oregon has held since the program began in 1987. But why?
Though sometimes likened to Mock Trial or Debate, We the People most resembles a series of Congressional hearings, in which students play the role of expert witnesses. A single team can have anywhere from 15 to 36 participants, who are divided into six units, each of which focuses on a different period of constitutional history. Before each competition, each unit is given three multi-part questions for which it must prepare four-minute responses. During the competition, units deliver their prepared remarks and are quizzed by a panel of three judges during 6-11 minutes of unscripted follow-up.
(More from The 74: Rethinking civics education for the class of 2016)
Judges score units based on their depth of knowledge, responsiveness, and teamwork. A team’s overall score is the sum of its unit scores. Here’s video of last year’s national champions discussing the arguments advanced by both the federalists and anti-federalists during the Constitution’s ratification:

 

For the average We the People team, preparing for the local district competition probably involves a few hasty email exchanges between students, and (perhaps) a couple rehearsals with whatever overburdened teacher is serving as the team’s coach.

But the Lincoln and Grant teams aren’t average.

Contrary to its reputation as a haven for slackers, by most measures Portland is actually one of the most civically engaged cities in the country. (In their 2003 book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein devoted an entire chapter to Portland’s civic institutions.)

Accordingly, both the Lincoln and Grant teams are fortresses of social capital, each garrisoned by anywhere from 10 to 12 volunteer coaches (many of them current or former lawyers). This means that each of the teams’ six units has two coaches focused on their development, rather than a sixth of a coach.

As you might expect, this level of commitment from adults is both a cause and consequence of the extraordinary commitment demonstrated by students, which far surpass those required by a varsity sports team. For example, because We the People rules forbid students from participating in more than one season (meaning every year brings 100 percent turnover for every team) both Lincoln and Grant begin their recruitment efforts in the spring before ramping up their activities over the summer, so as to get a running start on the next year’s competition. By the start of the school year, all Lincoln team members are expected to have read the entire “We the People” textbook independently, and their subsequent classwork assumes that they have.

During the year, readings for both programs consist mostly of primary sources, including the Federalist papers, famous Supreme Court opinions, and essays by political theorists such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Furthermore, in addition to meeting three days a week during regular school hours, the Lincoln team also meets for three hours every Tuesday night (from 6-9pm) and (unofficially) on most weekends and vacations days, including Winter Break. (The Grant team requires a similar time commitment.)

By the national competition, every student on the Lincoln team is expected to have committed the subject and major provisions of every article, section, and amendment of the Constitution to memory, so that they can access them as necessary during the competition. According to Lincoln’s coaches, every kid on the team ultimately achieves this goal. And students on both teams routinely cite specific clauses in the Constitution during follow-up questions, in addition to the relevant case law.

Here’s video of the Lincoln team, the 2016 Oregon state champions, as they debated the constitutionality and morality of the death penalty earlier this year:

Overall, there are more similarities than differences between the two programs. Unsurprisingly, both tend to attract students from the upper end of the achievement and ability distributions, though because of its location on the east side of Portland Grant’s teams are probably more socioeconomically and racially diverse. Grant’s teams are also composed entirely of seniors who enroll in the school’s AP Government class, while Lincoln’s are open to all non-freshmen, and often dominated by precocious sophomores. Still, according to both schools’ coaches, neither program screens by ability or has any sort of GPA requirement.

Finally, in perhaps the clearest sign that there’s something a bit “off” about those Portland folks, although the kids and parents on both teams are overwhelmingly liberal, both coaching squads are decidedly bipartisan, and students are taught to argue both sides of every issue (almost as though both are worth considering).

Sky-high expectations are key to the success of both programs, as is the power of competition. (After all, it’s simply impossible to imagine bands of teenagers – or adults, for that matter – devoting their weekends to memorizing the Articles of Confederation out of a sense of civic duty.) Using interscholastic competitions to motivate students is an idea that dates back to James Coleman. And it’s one that may be gaining fresh adherents in the twenty-first century, as modern technology renders the physical distance between classrooms increasingly meaningless. Given the degree to which education reform in the U.S. has stalled in the high school grades, it seems like we should be doing a whole lot more of this sort of thing.

Still, though competition is obviously a critical feature of the Lincoln-Grant rivalry, too much talk of winning threatens to obscure the real story. That is ultimately about civic pride and the sense of personal and collective responsibility that comes from inheriting a noble public tradition – one that is both a rebuttal to the specious argument that we expect too much of kids, and a rebuke to the cynical hyper-partisanship of recent years. As one long-time coach put it, “the real secret is that the kids do well because they work incredibly hard, and they work incredibly hard because we tap into their deepest aspirations.”

This year, there’s also a new wrinkle in the plot. Because Oregon received one of the five rotating wildcard spots that We the People gives to state runners-up, for the first time ever, both Lincoln and Grant earned the right to travel to Washington, D.C. to compete for the national title. And this weekend, both teams will arrive in DC to do just that, along with twenty-plus coaches, dozens of pocket constitutions, at least one indefatigable principal, and over a hundred hopelessly invested parents.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Update, April 26: After three days of competition, the final results from this year's We the People competition are in. Lincoln High School and Grant High School took first place, and third place, respectively (making it five national championships in a row for Oregon). 

Find more information on We The People, follow @CivicEducationDavid Griffith is a Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a member of the 2001 Lincoln High School We the People team.

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