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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Public Policy and the Federal Budget Public Policy and the Federal Budget — Lesson Plan

The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:

  • Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
  • Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
  • Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
  • Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
  • Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
  • Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.


Leslie Martin teaches the two-semester, ninth-grade freshman seminar course on economic, legal, and political systems at West Forysth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina, where she has taught since 1998. Prior to 1998, she worked in industry—as a senior consultant at Competitive Solutions, Inc., in Raleigh, North Carolina; assistant vice president at Integon Insurance Corp., in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and an associate at Eli Lilly and Co., in Indianapolis, Indiana. Leslie Martin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Stanford University, a Master’s of Business Administration from Duke University, and a Master of Education degree from Wake Forest University’s Master Teacher Fellow Program. In February 2002, she was named Outstanding High School Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the North Carolina Social Studies Council. She is a National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certified teacher.

West Forysth High School is located in a suburban area near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The school has an enrollment of 1,700 students and a campus with 10 permanent buildings and several temporary classrooms. The school was established in 1964 and has undergone many changes over the years, both in size and leadership, as the community has grown and the grades served by specific schools have shifted. New residential development continues to bring new students from many different backgrounds into the ever-changing student population. The school offers both regular and honors programs. Technologies such as hypermedia, interactive software, and the Internet are available to both teachers and students.

At West Forysth High School, civics is taught at three different levels: standard, honors, and freshman seminar, which is the class seen in the program. The freshman seminar is an honors-level class, specifically designed for the highly gifted, self-motivated student, and emphasizes independent thinking. The curriculum, while following the standards established by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, focuses more heavily on independent research, group work, and group and individual presentations than do non-honors courses. The course covers two semesters, one on civics and American government and the other on economics. The economics portion deals with such basic concepts as supply and demand and monetary policy. The civics portion is a history of how the Constitution was created and what impact the various areas of government have on our lives. An overall goal of the course is to help the students understand the interplay between the government and the economy. The lesson in the program is a culmination of what the students have learned over the entire year. The course text is United States Government, Democracy in Action (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Lesson-Specific Standards

This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.

From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government (1994):

Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on:

  • the contemporary role of organized groups in American social and political life.
  • issues concerning the disparities between American ideals and realities.
  • issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
  • issues regarding the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy.
  • issues regarding how government should raise money to pay for its operations and services.
  • the formation and implementation of public policy.
  • issues regarding civic responsibilities of citizens in an American constitutional democracy.
  • the importance to American constitutional democracy of dispositions that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs.
  • the relationship between politics and the attainment of individual and public goals.

Students should be able to explain the importance of knowledge to competent and responsible participation in American democracy.

From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994):

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of:

  • how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
  • ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Teaching the Lesson: Overview, Goals and Planning

Over three class periods, Leslie Martin’s ninth-graders at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina, create, present, revise, and defend a Federal budget, and then reflect on what they have learned. Students participate in a simulation, working in small, randomly assigned cooperative-learning groups. Using such computer applications as PowerPoint and Excel to illustrate their recommendations, they first create a budget for presentation to the class that represents the priorities of the Executive Branch. They are next introduced to the actual 2001 Federal budget, and in a whole-class, teacher-led discussion, discuss some key concepts involved in creating a Federal budget. These concepts include entitlements, which they learn account for nearly half of the Federal budget, and the difference between zero-based budgeting, which they practiced in the first part of the simulation, and incrementalism (reallocating dollars from the previous year’s budget). Students return to their cooperative-learning groups to revise their budgets based on new ideas they have heard in the presentations and Federal budget realities that were addressed in the whole-class discussion. Finally, a few groups present their revised budgets, and the remaining students, who have previously each selected a Congressperson whose views are compatible with their own, simulate a Congressional hearing on the budget.

Leslie Martin’s overall goal is to have students participate in thoughtful discussions, evaluate important issues in U.S. government and policy-making, and understand the process by which political decisions are made. Her specific content goals are for students to understand the Federal budget process, recognize the forces the influence budgetary policy, identify factors that influence members of Congress when voting on the budget, develop relevant questions on the budget from the point of view of a specific Member of Congress, and evaluate how the processes and forces affect the final budget. Leslie Martin’s process goals are to have students recognize the importance of participating, listen to ideas and perspectives of others, recognize the consensus-making process, master the skills of group interaction, organize and present a persuasive argument, use appropriate technology to communicate ideas, and demonstrate the ability to support their ideas.

The students have been prepared for this lesson in a variety of ways. They have read the overview section in their textbook, United States Government, Democracy in Action (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1998), on the Federal budget process, including a brief presentation on entitlements and incremental budgeting. They know that the President presents a budget, sends it to Congress, and then negotiates until Congress passes the budget legislation. They have each done a report on one of the 14 executive departments, in which they described the agencies within that department. In specific preparation for this lesson, each student has chosen a member of Congress, whose views are compatible with his or her own, to represent in the Congressional debate. They conducted research on how that politician typically votes so that they could represent his or her views authentically. Finally, they have explored the meaning of “pork barrel politics,” using an analysis by Senator John McCain as a basis for discussion. This classroom is technology-rich and students are accustomed to preparing presentations using applications like PowerPoint and Excel.


Activity 1. Class Discussion of Government Budgeting Process

Introduce the lesson by briefly reviewing the budget process. Assign students randomly to groups of about five students each, and direct the groups to assume the role of the President and Presidential advisors and create a zero-based budget, i.e., start from scratch and build a budget that reflects their priorities of how the government should spend two trillion dollars. Also direct students to use their negotiating skills within their groups to reach consensus on the budget that will be presented to Congress. To give students some guidance on how to begin, Leslie Martin suggested they start with the 14 executive branch departments they had previously studied. She wanted to keep the exercise fairly simple at this point and purposely did not give them a great deal of detail.


Activity 2. Groups Create Draft Budgets

If the technology is available, encourage each group to use a computer, both for “number crunching” and to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, including a pie chart created in Excel, of the budget they have agreed on. If computers are not available, these activities can be done with more traditional tools. For homework, assign students to prepare a four-minute persuasive speech on their budget’s highlights and rationale and to select one student to role-play the President, who will deliver the speech. In retrospect, Leslie Martin thought she might have given more guidance on the nature of the speech they were to prepare, e.g., “If you’re presenting this to a group of adversaries, not the choir preaching to the choir but people that might not agree with you, what kinds of questions might you anticipate and how are you going to answer them?”

During this small-group work, circulate among the groups to make sure all are on task. Leslie Martin’s method of working with small groups is to check briefly to make sure everyone is on task and then to spend five to 10 minutes with each group, listening to their deliberations, intervening when necessary to keep them on track, and occasionally asking a question that might stimulate some deeper reflection on the topic at hand.


Activity 3. Groups Present Draft Budgets

Give each group a four-minute time limit and stress that the presentations are intended to be persuasive political speeches that identify the group’s priorities and illustrate how those priorities are addressed in the budget.


Activity 4. Class Discussion of the U.S. Federal Budget

Distribute the handout called A Citizen’s Guide to the Federal Budget, which contains a glossary of key terms along with charts, graphs, and tables that illustrate where Federal revenue comes from and goes, and shows the total spending by function for 1999 with estimated budgets for the years 2000 through 2005. Leslie Martin planned to spend about 10 to 15 minutes on this discussion, although she later felt that more time was needed–perhaps as much as a whole class period. She used the vocabulary discussion as a bridge to presenting the real budget. Seeing the level of entitlements (budget items that are already committed through prior legislation) in the real budget is the students’ first realization that they really only have about half of the two trillion dollars to allocate to their priorities. Leslie Martin deliberately did not provide this information earlier. She counted on students’ reactions to help emphasize the reality and constraints of Federal budgeting. Leslie Martin also introduced the concept of budgeting incrementally (in which the previous year’s budget is used as a starting point) and compared it to zero-based budgeting, which had been the basis for the students’ initial budget.


Activity 5. Groups Revise Budgets

Direct the groups to revise their budgets and presentations based on two factors: what they learned from other students’ presentations (Are there areas they forgot? Did they hear arguments that persuaded them to change their allocations?) and funding that has been previously committed, e.g., entitlements. Students should consider spending precedents as well as the concept of incrementalism. (In the lesson, no mention is made of the option to raise or lower taxes. Consider adding this option to the assignment.)


Activity 6. Groups Present Revised Budgets to Congress

Advise students that these presentations will be done somewhat differently from the first speeches. Choose one or two groups to present the President’s point of view and direct the other students to take on Congressional roles. During the post-presentation discussion, students get a chance to role-play some of the adversarial aspects of the relationship between the President and Congress, and also to try to reach consensus.


Activity 7. Class Debriefs on Budget Process

Engage students in a discussion of what they learned from this experience. For homework, assign a two-page paper in which students respond to the following questions: What did they expect the activity to be like? What was different from what they expected? What did they learn? How did what they learned affect their perception of the budget process and how democracy works?


Scheduling and Adaptations

Leslie Martin suggests that teachers assign students to read the relevant chapter in their textbooks at least two days before the start of this lesson and to spend some time determining what the students actually know about the budget process. Although she was able to complete the lesson over a three-day period, in retrospect, Leslie Martin felt that she had not given students enough time in the small groups to create their budgets and prepare their presentations, particularly in light of the busy lives that the students have outside of school, which affects how much time they have to do homework. The vocabulary discussion could have taken 20 minutes and the discussion of President Bush’s 2001 budget–which she had meant to spend 10 minutes on–could have gone 25 minutes. Leslie Martin concluded that she could have spent two weeks on this lesson.

While this lesson would work well in a block schedule, if only one day is available, consider eliminating the zero-based budgeting exercise. Begin with the vocabulary and last year’s Federal budget and give students 30 minutes to allocate the 55 percent of the budget that is actually available for allocation. Students might then just present their numbers rather than make a speech, and discuss what they learned from working in their small groups. An alternative is to have students create a budget for homework and use class time for members of the small groups to work out their differences.

To modify this lesson for a non-honors class, consider creating a pie with a variety of wedges and ask students to assign wedge sizes to each executive agency. Then go back and show them what the actual budget pie looks like and discuss the differences. Another way to modify this lesson is to give each student an executive department or federal agency that they have to research. Or, focus on specific discretionary areas and ask, “What does this do?” Regular-track classes or younger students might also find it helpful to receive a list of Web sites and resources they should examine.


Leslie Martin assesses student learning from this lesson in several ways. First, she has a debriefing session at the end of the lesson, in which she assesses student learning by listening to them (“I think that students can [usually] tell you the best of where they have been and where they have come from and where they are going. When a student says to me, ‘I thought that it would be this way, but it worked like this’ and they have a revelation or an ‘aha’ about the process and what they have learned, I have accomplished my goals.”

During this discussion, she asks students to reflect not just on the budget process, but on the human interactions within that process. This stems from her belief that behavioral skills can be learned. The student that is the loudest is not always the most correct. The student who is quiet or the person who is more reticent often has very valuable things to add to the conversation. She wants students to learn the process of not dominating the conversation, of asking for input, of including other people in the process. She also wants them to analyze their own behavior and how they react to other people. Sometimes an idea may be really good but if someone is abrasive and obnoxious it doesn’t get heard. Leslie Martin also provides feedback to the class about her observations but she does not grade students on group work.

The second part of the assessment takes place the week after the lesson has been completed, when students are assigned to write a two-page paper about the process–what they expected, what was different from what they expected, what they learned, how it affected their perception of that budget process, and ultimately how democracy works for them, not only in Washington, D.C., but also at home in North Carolina.

Students are also assessed through the state-mandated, end-of-course test. In addition, Leslie Martin takes advantage of more informal assessment opportunities, such as bringing a relevant newspaper article to class and having the students discuss it.

Lesson Materials

Background References

In addition to the course text, United States Government, Democracy in Action(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1998), Leslie Martin uses The Worldly Philosophers(7th Edition) by Robert L. Heilbroner (Simon & Schuster, 1999) to introduce economic theories.

To explain the concept of “pork barrel politics,” Leslie Martin used criteria and examples developed by Senator John McCain. Senator McCain’s Web site is updated regularly with his statements on and explanations of pork barrel spending. You can find helpful materials like those used by Leslie Martin by visiting and clicking on “Budget” in the Issues List or using the link for “Pork Statements and Lists.”

A Citizen’s Guide to the Federal Budget (PDF)

This guide to the Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2001 was created by the Executive Office of the President of the United States and was available online. Leslie Martin used two sections of the guide in her class. You can download these sections by clicking above.


Below you will find recommendations of additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

Hartoonian, Michael. “Economics and Ethics,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 5, December 2002, pp. 311-314.

Hartoonian, H. Michael and Richard Van Scotter. “The Real Business of America: Ethics and New Economic Realities,” Social Education, Vol. 64, No. 1, January/February 2000, pp. 36-39.

Parker, Walter C. “Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations,” Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 2, March 2001, pp. 111-115.

Risinger, Frederick. “Teaching Economics and the Globalization Debate on the World Wide Web,” Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 6, page 363-65.

Stokes, Angela. “Learning to Legislate in an e-Congress,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 5, September 2002, pp. 276-80.

Useful Web Sites

Concord Coalition

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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0