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A big, new effort to teach children civics is about to be unveiled in Philadelphia

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The big new effort to teach children civics will be unveiled today in Philadelphia. The project is a series of 12 short music videos called "Well Versed."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT")

JAMILA VELAZQUEZ: (As Carla, singing) Each branch ensures the other branch is acting how they ought to act. One branch can't control it all. It's constitutionally called checks and balances. Oh...

MARTÍNEZ: As NPR's Cory Turner tells us, these videos arrive against a backdrop of concerns over what students know and don't know about the American system of governing.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Since today's unveiling is in Philadelphia, let's use a local metaphor, instead, and say American students' understanding of civics is a lot like the Liberty Bell - broken.

LOUISE DUBE: It's really a shame for our nation.

TURNER: Louise Dube is the CEO of iCivics, one of the groups behind these new videos. And she's talking about how earlier this year, just 22% of eighth-graders scored proficient on big, national civics tests. And U.S. history was even worse. Just 13% were proficient. Maybe you're shocked by those low scores. Dube isn't.

DUBE: I have no surprise. These results are pretty consistent over years and years - decades.

TURNER: She says the nation's schools slowly shifted their focus and resources toward literacy and math and away from civics and history, which is why iCivics, along with partners Nickelodeon and Attention, felt the time was right for this new animated video series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR RIGHTS")

TICKWANYA JONES: (As Jade, singing) The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments of the Constitution. The first gives us the right to express ideas and choose our own religion.

TURNER: In this song, called "Our Rights..."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MYKAL-MICHELLE HARRIS: (As Ava) Why are rights so important, anyway?

TURNER: ...A girl with purple hair walks her little sister through the Bill of Rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR RIGHTS")

JONES: (As Jade, singing) Our rights, our rights are here to protect us like armor from crazy rulers on a power trip. Like a sword and shield so they never strip our rights.

TURNER: There are 12 poppy earworms in all, with a diverse cast of kids singing about the finer points of democracy. At a time when civics and history have become deeply politicized, these videos also stand out for their bipartisan support. Here's former first lady Laura Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA BUSH: The animated videos debuting here today will help young Americans understand how our government works and the importance of our democratic liberties.

TURNER: And current first lady Jill Biden is set to appear at today's ceremony. Now, if you're driving right now or cooking, these songs may conjure old memories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PREAMBLE")

LYNN AHRENS: (Singing) We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility.

TURNER: The first episodes of "Schoolhouse Rock!" were released 50 years ago this year, but they're showing their age, just like the kids who once loved them. In November, these new "Well Versed" videos for a new generation of kids will be available online and across a constellation of Nickelodeon platforms. It's impossible to know what impact they'll have, only that they're arriving at a fraught moment for our democracy. As founding Father James Madison wrote 200 years ago, a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy - or perhaps both. Cory Turner, NPR news.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST A BILL")

JACK SHELDON: (Singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.