JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s always been the case that the political science taught in textbooks can be a far cry from politics as practiced in the real world.
But given how different and unusual this year’s presidential election has been, it’s presented a particular challenge in some school settings, trying to square the civics book with the 2016 campaign as it’s unfolded.
Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week visits a high school in Maryland just two hours from the White House, where teachers are trying to help students understand this out-of-the-ordinary election.
It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.
BRUCE FOX, North East High School: Good morning.
STUDENTS: Good morning.
BRUCE FOX: Good morning. We’re going to start with a warmup here today. Number one, what are the three constitutional requirements to be president?
LISA STARK: Bruce Fox’s 12th grade A.P. government class has been following this presidential election as the field has winnowed down and the rhetoric has heated up.
BRUCE FOX: And this year, you can easily make the argument that it’s like that on steroids.
LISA STARK: Is it ever.
DONALD TRUMP, (R), Presumptive Presidential Nominee: She’s a world-class liar. Just look at her pathetic e-mail server statements or her phony landing.
HILLARY CLINTON, (D), Presumptive Presidential Nominee: Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different. They are dangerously incoherent.
LISA STARK: From television to Twitter, it’s been an unruly campaign.
DONALD TRUMP: Crooked Hillary Clinton. We can’t let it happen.
LISA STARK: To help students cut through the noise, Bruce Fox is trying out his own ballot.
BRUCE FOX: We are going to look at scandals, lies and incivility in the 2016 presidential election. You are going to categorize each incident and rate it.
I think that this year presents extra challenges because the political parties traditionally have had a platform that was predictable and well-known, and, this year, things are a little bit more all over the place.
LISA STARK: Students are examining controversial issues involving Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
BRUCE FOX: The main thing is, I would you like to categorize this, is this a lie, is this is a scandal, what is it, and then finally rate it.
I wanted students to be thinking about, well, some of these things that we’re hearing about, maybe they don’t matter that much, and others are more important. Not — just because something’s in the news doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big deal, or it should really influence any kind of decisions when it comes to voting.
STUDENT: The speeches, Hayden loves this one. Clinton gave three speeches at Goldman Sachs for $225,000 each. Clinton has refused to release the content of her speeches.
STUDENT: Think that’s a scandal, too?
SEAN LYNCH, North East High School: It’s a lie.
STUDENT: A lie? OK?
SEAN LYNCH: Yes, because she won’t, like, admit to, like, what’s going on.
I follow a lot of them on Twitter. I don’t feel like it’s a good source of information, but it is where a lot of candidates can slip up. Like Donald Trump, for instance, he does say a lot of not-so-smart things on Twitter that you wouldn’t think someone running for president would say.
All right, Trump and women.
STUDENT: Here we go.
SEAN LYNCH: Trump has often offended many women by retweeting an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz.
BRUCE FOX: If a student is getting a tweet with some shocking thing, their thought process shouldn’t be, oh, man, that person is a jerk and that’s horrible. It should be more than that. It should be, is this accurate?
Do you think she should release the speeches?
SEAN LYNCH: Definitely. If she wants people to stop saying that she’s being fake about it, she should release them.
LISA STARK: Civics education is an age-old subject, one of the founding principles of America’s public schools. Maryland is the only state to require a U.S. government exam to graduate, although virtually all states require some civics education.
In 10 other states, students will need to take the U.S. citizenship test.
JESSICA SPROUT, North East High School: That freedom of expression is guaranteed by our First Amendment, which says?
STUDENT: You can have whatever religion you want, or you don’t have to have a religion at all.
JESSICA SPROUT: OK.
LISA STARK: Jessica Sprout teaches U.S. government to ninth-graders, a topic she says has an impact far beyond the classroom.
JESSICA SPROUT: You have got to know how the government works to be an informed citizen and to be successful. That’s the only way a democracy works, is if people are involved.
LISA STARK: In recent years, there have been high-profile attempts to strengthen the civics curriculum, including by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, over concerns the subject is getting short shrift.
SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR, Former Supreme Court Justice: I wanted to teach young people in America how they can be part of the governmental structure and help decide what problems to tackle and how to solve them.
LISA STARK: A Tufts University study found young adults who recalled having strong civics classes were more likely to vote, and certainly this year, interest in the election is high.
JESSICA SPROUT: I was teaching in the last election cycle, and I honestly don’t remember many discussions at all from kids. This time around, even the freshmen have an opinion.
LISA STARK: Bruce Fox wants his students — many will be first-time voters — to be thoughtful about their opinions. He’s hoping today’s lesson encourages them to think about what it means to be presidential. How much do character and judgment count?
BRUCE FOX: Why don’t we start with each group? And you will share what your big takeaway here was.
STUDENT: Donald Trump is just full of lies and Hillary Clinton just has secrets. Neither of them are actually fit.
BRUCE FOX: OK. If some of you are undecided voters, what are you going to be looking to these candidates to say or do between now and November?
STUDENT: Act like civilized adults.
LISA STARK: A lesson even the candidates might benefit from.
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you.
I’m Lisa Stark from Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”
AUDIENCE: USA! USA!
JUDY WOODRUFF: Looking for ways to engage students in this year’s presidential election? Check out “NewsHour” Extra for lesson plans, activities, and videos. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour/Extra.