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Follow the Money: Networking Civic Engagement

In 2006, the Nation?s Report Card came out with unsettling news:America?s teens were barely proficient in social studies. According tothe report, three-quarters of the high school seniors surveyed couldnot answer basic questions about our political system, nor could theydescribe the roles citizens play in a democracy.

Newspapers jumped on the failing grades, calling the problem a civicscrisis, a national embarrassment, a sign that the world?s most powerfulnation had no clue how to raise and teach responsible citizens.

Yet our schools were founded on the twin goals of citizenship andemployment, and for more than 32 years, a Gallup poll has ranked?raising responsible citizens? as the number one priority for oureducational system. Clearly, we need to do better.

Ask a social studies teacher how to fix the problem, and prepare tohear about the sad state of civics textbooks, often outdated andrestricted by state policies to non-controversial topics. For many,what triggers an interest in politics is an issue, one that affects usdirectly, often in controversial ways.

If we plan to improve, we should pay attention to the ways 21st centurystudents are learning, both inside the class and out. For socialstudies, new nodes of participatory learning made possible by digitalmedia can now teach kids (and adults) how to transform data intomeaningful civics lessons. Organizations like the National Institute onMoney in State Politics ( offer interactiveonline analysis tools that show the uncomfortable closeness of campaigndonations and political voting patterns?a potentially spicy topic thatcan engage kids encourage them to learn about issues close to home.

For investigative minds, is an open-access dreamdatabase. It is also the most accurate and powerful database of itskind in the nation, according to executive director, Edwin Bender.After collecting electronic and paper files from over 16,000 candidatesaround the nation, can boast better data than whatis available on most official state Web sites.

?Right now we have mountains of paper,? says Bender, referring tocampaign finance records from the 2008 election. ?When all is said anddone, our database will have more than three million records coveringthree billion dollars worth of campaign donations, with each majordonor name standardized and all donors entered by our staff to makesure the information has the highest level of accuracy.?

But collecting data is only a part of what does,?Our institute is unique, but we don?t want to be a silo for data,?Bender notes. To avoid a silo effect, integrates itsdata with other sites, such as Project Vote Smart and the Center forResponsive Politics at Interactive analysis tools andmash-ups between these three sites give visitors a full tour ofcommittee and individual campaign contributions to candidates at boththe state and federal level. ?This way, for example, we can add acommittee analysis tool and add a layer to what happens at the federallevel,? Bender says.

Visual analysis tools like graphs, maps, charts, and a time machineshow trends in data?and interactivity makes raw data meaningful, evenfun. Most important, it puts students at the levers, giving them whatthey need to know so that they can follow money trails in their owndistricts. does what any good digital media should:rather than telling users what to think, it gives them the tools sothey can think for themselves.

Honest is not an adjective often used to describe politics. And yetthat word best describes the data collected by, apure view of who gave money to whom, during what election, and for whatpurpose. No spin, no speeches, no soaring rhetoric?just a powerfuldatabase with public information and many curious money trails. Forteens, there is perhaps no better way to deliver information.

According to the National Alliance for Civics Education, statisticsshow that people who understand how politics and government work tendto vote and participate in the democratic process?key goals of a goodsocial studies education. is a key part ofunderstanding the deepest layers of that process, and making the datainteresting and easy to understand is a goal they continually refine.

In yet another step toward that goal, recentlylaunched a new online tutorial featuring screen captures that guideviewers through the site, demonstrating how to understand the data. Atone point, the narrator draws a comparison between sports and politics:?If a batter paid the umpire in a ballgame a tip just before he walkedup to bat, do you think the crowd would holler bloody murder about hiscalls??

More tutorials are on the way, for health care and the environment.?Our next steps include drafting storyboards on one specific issue,such as energy donors, and linking our online tools in a way thatanswers specific questions, such as why people or companies makecampaign donations,? Bender says. ?What do those donors expect and whyis that important to them and the public??

The National Alliance for Civic Education says that people with highlevels of political knowledge are likely to be socially tolerant,trustful, and engaged. After a tour through, it ishard to imagine how campaign cash knowledge leads to social toleranceand trust. But when students understand the ideals of democracy, andcan use tools like to find gaps between what peoplesay and what people do, they will be taking those first critical stepstoward new roles as responsible citizens.


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