Civics Education for Court Staff

by Jennifer Wadsworth, Iowa

According to The Nation’s Report Card, the official site for results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, high school seniors are falling behind in their understanding of government and civics, scoring less than 50% on national tests.

And unless you pursue a career in law, government, or politics, it doesn’t get any better after high school. A study done by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in September of 2011 claims that only 38% of adults surveyed could name all three branches of government, and 33% of those surveyed couldn’t name any.

So it seems that people who know very little about government could be hired into government jobs. As educators, we may feel the need to rectify this lack of knowledge in our employees to make them more effective, to increase their job satisfaction, and to create better role models for the public.

Kristopher Steele, of Ohio, and his co-worker, Margaret Allen, have been contemplating civics education for court staff for several years. Since court staff can come to government jobs from a wide variety of backgrounds, Steele feels they need a good grounding in the profession. “Many of them see themselves as paper pushers,” Steele says, “and don’t understand why quality and timeliness are important. They see a file as a stack of papers. We want them to see a file as a family or a child.” Steele believes that if court staff members understand the impact they have on the system as a whole, they will be able to make better decisions about their work.

Ohio has recently mandated education standards for parole officers, and Steele and his colleagues are working to get that education in place. Included in the plan are four online, on-demand modules about the Criminal Justice System and the Court. These modules will cover the criminal justice system in general, the authority of a probation officer and the role of the court, concepts of due process, and ethical behavior for parole officers. Steele hopes that parts of these modules can be used to provide civics education to all employees of the court.

Dan Rettig, a senior attorney in Florida, was asked to create a course that provides court staff a basic understanding of the working of Florida government. As part of the course’s field test, he administered an informal pretest to a sample of non-attorney court employees. They averaged a score of only 68.5%. His judges were stunned that employees of the court system could know so little of state government as a whole. Rettig’s course aims to fill that gap by teaching the concepts of the constitution, the separation of powers, the role of the judiciary, and the function of court administration.

Like Ohio, Rettig also chose to deliver his course electronically in an asynchronous, on-demand format, making it quickly and easily accessible to employees all over the state. After researching the options, Rettig selected Adobe Captivate as his authoring tool.

It took Rettig about a year to do a thorough needs and learner analysis, write the content, develop the course in Captivate, and test the course. One of Rettig’s challenges was that most people cannot grasp the amount of time it takes to develop an online course. “It’s not like putting together a PowerPoint presentation,” he says. To make an online course interesting, interactive, and appropriate to the audience takes a lot more effort, but the effort can be well worth it for a course that is reused multiple times and eliminates the need for employees to travel.

The course has been well received in Florida, and its use by employees is increasing as managers incorporate it into their employee orientation plans. Initially, Rettig’s course was available only to employees of the court. It has now been made available to the public on the Florida Courts website. You can view the course here.

Like Florida, Indiana chose an online format for their civics education. Indiana utilized the services of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to create their Trial Court Staff Orientation Tool that aims to educate court staff about Indiana’s state government.

Judge Barbara Harcourt of Indiana, much like Steele, believes that the more court employees understand about their role in the system, and the importance of the justice system as a whole, the more they can feel confident in themselves and the greater ability they have to assist customers.

Judge Harcourt proposed that Indiana create an on-line orientation for court staff that gives them an accurate picture of Indiana courts, makes them feel welcome and valued, helps them identify and properly handle ethical issues they may encounter, and understand the importance of quality customer service.

For help in creating the course, Indiana turned to the NCSC and Daniel Straub, a professional trainer who works often with courts. Judge Harcourt and her staff gathered material they found in existing documents and training and sent it to Straub who organized it into a course. NCSC filmed Straub’s presentation and created the course using the Sakai platform. Indiana’s Orientation Tool is very similar in format to the NCSC’s “Different Work: A First Course in Effective Supervision.”

“Everyone at every level of the branch participated in getting this course off the ground,” says Judge Harcourt, and the response has been amazing. Judge Harcourt received many emails from long-term employees saying this course really broadened their knowledge of the court system.

In addition to the course itself, Indiana created a guidebook for supervisors of employees who take the course. This guidebook explains that the Orientation Tool is not a complete orientation to an employee’s job, but just to the workings of the state court system. It also contains exercises that a supervisor could use with employees to support their learning.

Indiana is willing to allow NASJE members to view their course; email Judge Barbara Harcourt to request a password. Judge Harcourt says that this course will need to be updated at some time, maybe even to a different delivery method. “At that time,” she says, “we’d be open to the idea of including other states in the project.”

As it seems many states agree that increasing court employees’ knowledge about the operations of state government in general is a worthwhile pursuit, perhaps civics education that can be used by many states would be valuable. There will always be differences between the operations and organization of different state courts, but concepts like due process, ethics, customer service, and distinctions between public and private sector employees might be common to all states. As Steele claims, “it would be great if we could share resources so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

If you have civics, government, or orientation education that you would be willing to share with your fellow NASJE members, you can share it on the Member’s Only website. From the NASJE Member’s Only Homepage, click on “Newsletter Extras!” Then click on the discussion group titled “Civics/Government Education for Court Staff.” (Depending on your computer settings, you may need to click the arrow to move to page 2 of Newsletter Extras!) In the discussion group you can add your course material, ask questions, comment on submissions by others, and more.

If you have trouble logging on to the Member’s Only website, contact Joseph Sawyer or William Brunson for assistance.


Jennifer J. Wadsworth serves as an educator in Iowa’s Judicial Branch.  As part of a small Education Division, she does a little bit of everything.  Her focus lately has been on eLearning design and on-demand facilitation.

Jennifer graduated from Iowa State University with an M. Ed. in Adult Education, Curriculum Design, and Training & Development.  While in college, she served on the board of the student chapter of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) for several years and later served as president of the Hawkeye Chapter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  As president, Jennifer and the board designed, obtained funding for, and taught a Train-the-Trainer seminar for the community to promote the use of Adult Education principles in local businesses.

During her fifteen years in the education field, she has worked as a trainer for a variety of organizations, including software companies, business coaching groups, educational institutions, and both state and federal government.  Though she frequently teaches technology skills, she has also designed new employee programs; taught communication, management, and change leadership courses; and written numerous newsletter articles, job aids, and other training documents.