from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

Street Law: A Course in Practical Law
Sixth edition, 1999. 680 pages. ISBN: 0-314-14077-8.
West Educational Publishing, 5101 Madison Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45227.
(This company is a part of International Thomson Publishing.)

This Sixth Edition Is Even Better Than the Fifth

Albie Burke

The fifth edition of Street Law, dated in 1994, comprised three major items: a textbook for the student, a paperback Teacher's Manual, and a paperback Handbook of Selected Court Cases for use by student and teacher alike. When I reviewed those three volumes for The Textbook Letter, I praised them enthusiastically. I recommended them for use in high-school courses dealing with government or with constitutional law, and I noted that they also would facilitate the teaching of various topics in American history or English literature or journalism. I concluded my review by saying: "The Street Law volumes may represent a heavy investment for a school district to make, but they are almost unrivaled in their ability to present important subject matter and to launch students onto a course of critical thinking. Teachers should find these Street Law materials exciting to use."

[Editor's note: Two reviews of the 1994 version ran in TTL, May-June 1996, under these headlines: "An Outstanding Presentation of Important Subject Matter" and "This Good, Relevant Text Fosters Critical Thinking."]

The sixth edition, dated in 1999, sustains the favorable conclusions I reached when I reviewed the fifth, though the publisher has discontinued the Handbook of Selected Court Cases and has replaced it with an array of materials presented at a Web site. I shall say more about the Web site later, after I describe the changes in the student's textbook and the Teacher's Manual.

Improved Format

The Street Law textbook for students has been enlarged by 33 pages, has been reorganized to good effect, and displays a more attractive, more effective format. While the fifth edition of the textbook was divided into seven very long chapters, each covering many topics, the sixth edition contains 44 relatively short chapters that are deployed in six major units: "Introduction to Law and the Legal System," "Criminal Law and Juvenile Justice," "Torts," "Consumer and Housing Law," "Family Law" and "Rights in the Community." The division into 44 short, discrete chapters gives more definition to individual topics, and so does the improved format: Numerous headlines and colorful enhancements make the topics stand out, and the organizing principle of each major section of text is readily apparent. Teachers will find this helpful when they design their syllabi and courses, and students will find it helpful when they study.

Intellectual Scenarios

The Teacher's Manual for Street Law has been enlarged by 143 pages and has been reorganized to comply with the changes in the student's book. Many of the topics that appeared in the fifth edition of the manual have been carried into the sixth edition, but they now appear under new headings. More importantly, the manual now offers more analyses of cases. The Street Law writers have selected cases involving matters that frequently come before the courts and that frequently appear in news stories -- in other words, matters that are familiar to the public. (Conversely, the writers have avoided the use of highly technical or ambiguous cases that might be interesting to legal scholars but would have little didactic value in a high-school course.) The writers' assumption is that young people can think analytically and can address complicated issues.

The case material in the manual is not intended to tell teachers how to lecture in the classroom. Rather, the manual lays out a series of intellectual scenarios which progress from preliminary exploration of a case (including the gut responses that may be evoked if the case raises emotional issues) to rigorous inquiry within a framework of current, established law. In some instances, the classroom discussion of a case may not go beyond the preliminary stage. However, if the teacher wants to propel the discussion further, to a more complex level, the manual provides analytical tools for doing this.

As I said earlier, the publisher of Street Law has discontinued the Handbook of Selected Court Cases that formed a part of the fifth edition. Instead, case reports (which sometimes include transcripts of oral arguments) are now presented within the "Cases and Resources" section of a big Web site -- http://www.streetlaw.com -- that the publisher maintains. This "Cases and Resources" section offers an abundance of riches. Besides the case reports, there are narrative descriptions of famous trials, biographies of justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, scores of primary documents (including federal statutes, the mission statements of federal agencies, and even the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), links to the Web sites of various advocacy groups (such as the National Rifle Association and Handgun Control, Inc.), pedagogic tips for the teacher, and many other items as well. All this material can be viewed without charge, but I must issue a warning: Students who venture into the "Cases and Resources" section without assistance may be overwhelmed and may find the multitude of choices too confusing to be useful.

My Recommendations

With that caveat in place, let me answer the two questions that, I suspect, are on the minds of my readers: (1) If a school district has adopted the fifth edition of Street Law, and is now using it in classrooms, should the district consider replacing the fifth edition with the sixth? (2) If a school district decided against adopting the fifth edition, should the district now examine the sixth edition and reconsider? I think that the answer is yes in both instances.

Albie Burke, a specialist in the constitutional and legal history of the United States, teaches history and directs the University Honors Program at California State University, Long Beach. He also is an associate editor of The History Teacher, the quarterly of the Society for History Education.


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