Teach Our Children Well

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

If anyone ever questioned the value of civics and the importance of preparing young people for democracy in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous republic, these detractors learned a harsh lesson last weekend in our perpetual quest to build a more perfect union. Saturday’s tragic and deeply unsettling events in Charlottesville should challenge our collective conscience and force us to reflect on our failure to educate the (mostly) young men that invoked historic symbols of hatred to terrorize those confronting their deeply offensive rhetoric and actions through constitutionally-protected channels.


Civic education has many benefits, but at its core is a goal to develop the capacity, connections, and commitments necessary for informed, effective, and lifelong engagement in our democracy. This includes the obvious norms of voting, volunteering, contacting public officials, and paying attention to the news, but also a shared sense of community and commitment to a common destiny for an America that has forever promised the “golden door” to the “tired,” “poor,” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The truth is that we have too often failed to deliver on this promise in a nation that marginalized and virtually exterminated Native Americans, enslaved millions of African-Americans, excluded and detained Asian-Americans, and abused and made second-class citizens of Latino-Americans. These narratives, and the legacies of our original sins, haunt us and our nonwhite brothers and sisters to this day.

But we must follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and bend the arc of history towards justice. This begins by confronting historic and contemporary racial and ethnic discrimination in our classrooms. Once this powerful evidence is burned deeply into the minds of our youth, we move next to not mere tolerance of difference, but an outright embrace of its social and democratic value. These are among the dispositions essential to the survival of the American experiment.

Citizenship in this country conventionally ends with norms of personal responsibility: paying the bills, taking out the garbage, and casting a ballot in presidential election years. Civic education frequently pushes further and injects participatory norms like volunteering on a campaign, contacting an elected official, and writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. These actions are valuable, but still minimalistic during times like these that test our democratic institutions and try the souls of our nation.

What’s missing is a commitment to social justice, particularly among Caucasian Americans that have long benefited from the privilege of their skin color. The events of the past weekend and the election of President Trump last November stand as existential threats to our black and brown family members, friends, students, co-workers, and fellow citizens. And the rise of the so-called alt-right also terrorizes Jewish-Americans as they wield symbols and salutes that society vowed to never surface again.

We must teach our children that there is no moral equivalence between those that intend to discriminate and invoke harm on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion and those that confront hatred, bigotry, and deeply-seeded racism. That tolerance of diversity is insufficient, as the entrenched impact of centuries of overt and implicit racism must be extracted by the root. That times like these compel us to be “upstanders” for fellow citizens and residents of this country.

Moments like the present are our reason for being as civic educators. Our ranks are disproportionately white in a state where a majority of our K-12 students are black and brown. All of our students are watching what’s transpiring in this country, and they will look to you to help them make sense of it all. Educate them on historic and contemporary racism, empower them to confront it through words and actions, and join them in our perpetual quest to make America live up to its founding creed, that “all men (and women) are created equal.”

In Search of a Symbiotic Relationship Between Parents and Teachers in Supporting Youth Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As a young boy, I developed an early interest in politics, thanks in part to the influence of my parents and grandparents. I recall my father bringing me along to the voting booth, my paternal grandmother taking two newspapers each day and faithfully watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the party conventions, and my maternal grandmother meeting with her alderman at the kitchen table.

Now, with two kids of my own, I’ve tried my very best to pass the torch, modeling these same behaviors and demonstrating my daily commitment to strengthening democracy in Illinois through my work at the McCormick Foundation, teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and service on a number of nonprofit boards.


Last week, as part of the 2017 Summer Convening of the Action Civics Initiative in Philadelphia, I was asked to participate in a Facebook Live session sponsored by Pearson to discuss how parents can support the diffusion of action civics principles (read the summary article here). They center upon student voice; deliberative discussion; real world interaction with local leaders, officials, and systems; and support for teachers and instructors through professional development opportunities, materials, and favorable policies.

The Guardian of Democracy report published by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of schools recommends that “parents…encourage their children to develop an interest in keeping themselves informed about current events; encourage their children to take an interest in and volunteer in their community; and help their children develop civic knowledge, skills, and habits.”

Guardian of Democracy also encourages parents to “…review civic learning opportunities in children’s schools,” a practice we’ve institutionalized at the McCormick Foundation through the Illinois Democracy Schools Initiative. Through a school-wide civic assessment process, students, teachers, administrators, community partners, and parents are asked to weigh in on their support for students’ civic learning opportunities and sense of the organizational culture at the school undergirding them.

Nationally, too many high school civics teachers (one in four according to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) believe that parents or community members would object if political issues were discussed in their classrooms. When it comes to teaching about elections, only 28% of these educators feel that parents would provide strong support for this practice. This support is critical because teachers that have it are more likely to have open classroom environments and deploy deliberative practices.

According to researchers Michael McDevitt and Mary Caton-Rosser, “High school students…seem to thrive when teachers do feel they have enough community support to allow for (these types) of interaction.” Parents and teachers both clearly have a role to play in fostering students’ civic development and it should be seem as a “symbiotic,” not adversarial, relationship. The authors suggest that “…teachers…become more proactive in finding ways to enlist parents as partners in democratic education.”

To this end, McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis, in two separate articles, examine the interplay of students, parents, and schools in the political socialization process. In asking students to discuss elections-related news with parents, the authors find that "…Student-initiated conversation seems to awaken the civic parent in an adult, a role identity that might otherwise remain dormant…”

In sum, “The civic parenting phenomenon can be thought of as a mirror reflection of trickle up influence as the flow of influence moves in the opposite direction, from families to schools, with the child once again acting as a conduit for interpersonal political communication between the two parties."

More specifically, “Student-parent discussion appears to elevate the social utility or social value of paying attention to news media, and this increased motivation is not simply a fleeting effect.”

Thus, this symbiotic relationship between parents and school-based civic learning has mutual benefits for student and parent alike. It bears nurturing beyond teaching about elections and deliberative discussion, encompassing all of the action civics principles discussed above.

A Reflection on the NAMLE Conference

by Jay Mehta, English Teacher, Wheaton North High School

The power of a conference lies in the hands of an educator. Sharing information and connecting with professionals from around the world is an opportunity the NAMLE (National Association for Media Literacy Education) Conference 2017 in Chicago provided everyone who attended the 3-day conference. As an English teacher and as guest of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, I was fortunate enough to attend all 3 days of the conference. I found educators in all realms of the professional world and collaborated with them on various ideas and projects.

At first, I did not know such a plentiful variety of educators would attend the conference, but once presentations began I quickly filled up my notebook with copious amounts of ideas I could use in the classroom. Each presentation centered around research and practical methods of energizing students to take an active voice in their society. No matter your opinion, use your voice in media through an ethical manner in order to express your opinion - that was the consistent theme in every presentation. The notes jotted down in my notebook will mold the curriculum I have began to devise for my English classes. I have never had more methods to involve students in the learning process outside of school than before the NAMLE conference.


The message of involving student voice did not begin and end within each presentation. The board of the NAMLE conference arranged guest speakers during breakfast and lunch, which included Patricia Carter (Head of Global Safety Outreach, Twitter), Newton Minow (former FCC chair and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Aine Kerr (Manager, Journalism Partnerships, Facebook), etc. Listed are only a few of many contributors to the educational aspect of the conference and I am glad I could take note of their ideas of how to support student involvement in the media within the ever-changing area of “media literacy”, in which each individual has a responsibility to source-check any information before simply reposting it or discussing it for others to believe without evidence. The guest speakers were able to converse amongst each other and give the audience an insight of the struggles that each organization faces with educating the public about “media literacy”.

Overall, NAMLE Conference 2017 provided me with a plethora of ideas to build upon during my educational career, connections with colleagues I will utilize to strengthen the ability of my students being able to take an activity voice in society through “media literacy”, and new perspectives on what “media literacy” means in today’s society. Thank you to the Robert R. McCormick foundation for the sponsorship and to the organizers and presenters at the NAMLE 2017 Conference - I hope to see you next year.

Illinois a State Divided; Its Residents the Solution for Unity

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Despite the recent thaw in the Springfield Stalemate, Illinois government still has significant challenges in earning the confidence of its constituents. That was my major take-away after attending a program last week sponsored by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) titled “Illinois: A State Divided?

ICPR assembled an impressive panel representing Illinois’ demographic diversity, academia, business interests, and the media. This included:



Dr. Jackson led off with a distillation of polling data underlining the program’s theme. Illinois voters’ assessment of whether the country is on the right or wrong track is tied to geography, with Chicagoans (22%) least likely to answer in the affirmative, and suburban (28%) and downstate voters slightly and significantly (43%) more positive, respectively.

By comparison, voters are universally negative about the state of the state, with only 9% claiming Illinois is on the right track and little regional variation. However, while only one-third of Chicagoans feel that the city is on the right track, a majority of suburbanites (58%) and downstate residents (56%) are pleased with the direction of local affairs.

More generally, Illinois voters feel that state government does not represent the values of their community well (53%). Seventy percent claim that state government does not consider their community’s opinions when making decisions. And 62% believe that state government resources are poorly distributed across the state.

Rebuilding shattered confidence in state government will take time, and perhaps begins with greater accessibility of elected officials beyond campaign season, according to Karen Ford.

Celina Villanueva lamented the assumption among residents that political corruption is universal, and Tom Bevan said the only state comparable to Illinois is New Jersey which has its own legacy of corruption and deeply unpopular governor.

Todd Maisch is struck by the lack of state pride in comparison to our neighboring states, and shared his disappointment that the budget impasse ended without structural reforms that would allow Illinois to exit a cycle of budget deficits, tax increases, and anemic economic growth.

Looking ahead, Ford sized up a gubernatorial field dominated by wealthy white men willing to open their pocket books and likely to break national campaign spending records over the next sixteen months. But Bevan cautioned that money is less consequential in an era of tribal politics where people get their news in partisan echo chambers.

If there is hope on the horizon, it lies in the hands of Illinois residents who must demand more of elected officials and re-enter a mostly-vacated public arena. Illinois is a deeply divided state, and our political leaders, parties, media, and interest groups are contributing factors. Unity, achieved through deliberation and compromise, falls to us, the fair residents of the Land of Lincoln.

Thaw in Springfield Stalemate Welcome, but Illinois Remains in State of Financial Crisis

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Illinois’ long-simmering budget impasse ended rather abruptly last week when both bodies of the Illinois General Assembly overrode Governor Rauner’s veto. The compromise agreement contained a mix of painful medicine in the form of budget cuts and tax increases.

These doses were delivered by a bi-partisan supermajority, where one Republican Senator and ten Representatives (originally fifteen) broke with the Governor and “voted their district.” It was no coincidence that many of these individuals hail from districts that house state universities, institutions that have suffered alongside social service agencies for too long.

The human carnage of the past two years is real, and last week’s mutiny triggered changes at the top of the Republican Party, beginning with the resignation of respected Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, followed by a request for House Republican Floor Leader Steve Andersson to step aside in light of his “yea” vote, and culminating with a major shake-up of Governor Rauner’s staff.

By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [Public domain or Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While state operations may soon resume some sense of normality, major issues remain unresolved, including whether public schools will be funded for the fall. The budget agreement authorized appropriations to K-12 schools contingent on companion legislation creating an evidence-based funding model. It exists in the form of Senate Bill 1, but the Governor has vowed to veto it upon arrival given what he deems as overly generous funding for Chicago Public Schools.

The Governor has the option of a line-item veto, but Speaker Madigan considers this tactic constitutionally dubious, leading to a likely dead end. Rauner may instead use this school funding bill as a final point of political leverage to exact business-friendly reforms from his Turnaround Agenda, including changes to the state’s worker’s compensation system and property tax relief.

Also looming is the state’s underfunded pension system that’s at least $130 billion in arrears. Previous changes were deemed unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court, but legislation that would produce “consideration,” where a retiree could choose whether or not to count future pay raises in exchange for lower or higher pensions, respectively, has gained bi-partisan traction and may withstand judicial scrutiny.

In the short-term, while the state has resumed its required contributions to the pension system after an inexcusable hiatus, the recent budget agreement altered assumptions and actually cut back contributions. This has real consequences for looming payments poised to consume an ever larger percentage of the state budget.

Taken together, last week’s progress is a Pyrrhic victory in the long-term battle to restore Illinois’ fiscal health. A balanced budget provides necessary life support, but our sick state remains in intensive care.

Freedom of the Press Imperiled by Repeated White House Restrictions and Denigrations

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, the White House prohibited video and audio coverage of daily press briefings, plus photographs of Press Secretary Sean Spicer. While press access has been a recurring issue across several administrations, the degree and frequency of these limits have accelerated significantly during the early months of the Trump presidency.

White House (south side)

On the campaign trail and since he was sworn in, Trump has consistently heaped harsh criticism on the press, and this vitriol is shared among many of his supporters. In a conversation with regional television reporters at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Phoenix over the weekend, one revealed that she was told to return to Mexico (she’s Asian-American) as she walked along the rope line at a Trump rally.

Another said that she’s regularly greeted as a member of the “fake news media” while covering local political events. And I need not remind you that a congressional candidate assaulted a reporter on the eve of his election without consequence.

Feeling physically threatened and verbally abused is now par for the course for “democracy’s detectives.

The move to limit video and audio coverage of press briefings gets to the heart of how Americans consume news. We’re increasingly less likely to read a print newspaper, but still avid consumers of television, and to a lesser extent, radio news.

One of the McCormick Foundation's commitments is the civic development of the next generation of individuals, communities and institutions in Chicago and Illinois, the First Amendment freedom of the press is critical to this enterprise and central to our benefactor’s legacy. Our vision for a healthy democracy in Illinois leverages institutions that are accessible, transparent, responsive, and representative. A vibrant, free press, in its enduring watchdog role, helps make this possible, but it is threatened by events in Washington and closer to home.

Thankfully, a number of our grantees are active on this front, perhaps most prominently the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP). RCFP maintains a hotline for reporters and newsrooms under duress, providing direct support in acknowledgement of massive contractions in the industry. RCFP also files legal briefs in cases involving press freedoms, and engages in policy advocacy at the federal level in support of such reforms as a federal shield law.

We also support the Poynter Institute to provide regional and national trainings for reporters on a number of emerging issues. Poynter led a training last week at the IRE Conference on a new police arrest database, and have another planned this fall in Nashville on covering the Trump Administration.

Closer to home, the Better Government Association is an active user of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, perhaps most prominently in battle with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his use of private email for public business. According to President and CEO Andy Shaw, Illinois has a strong FOIA law, yet its compliance office has a 1-2 year backlog in responding to requests. Moreover, Shaw suggests that FOIA exceptions are often misapplied, and taxpayers wrongly foot the bill for FOIA lawsuits. Each of these problems demand policy solutions and the BGA is leading their development.

The battle between those in power and reporters tasked with holding them accountable is perennial, yet restricted access, physical and verbal threats to reporters, and general denigration of the press undermines this delicate balance and imperils democratic governance. Eternal vigilance is a must, and we’re lucky to have several national and local partners on the front lines. We implore you to join us in defending “democracy’s detectives.”

The #CivicsIsBack Summer Tour Off to a Strong Start in Its Second Year

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, 36 Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors gathered in Springfield for a second summer of intensive professional development in alignment with the new high school course requirement. Mentors are prepared to work with teachers, schools, and districts in their assigned educational region. Illinois has 38 outside of the City of Chicago, and we currently have mentors in 37 of them, with one remaining opening in Rock Island County.

Mentor Liaison Barb Laimins deserves strong accolades for supporting our initial cohort throughout the past school year, retaining the bulk of them, and filling vacancies with skilled, veteran educators.

This year’s training, and the two-day regional workshops throughout the state that follow, are responsive to data we collected from last year’s inaugural efforts. Specifically, teachers told us they needed additional support in implementing the emerging state social studies standards, the service-learning component of the civics course, and tools to foster students’ news literacy.

Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels skillfully planned and presided over this year’s mentor training and is working in tandem with them to co-facilitate workshops in their respective regions over the course of the next two months.

Mary Ellen is a skilled “mixer” of her own curriculum with those produced by our civic education partners. She and the mentors have skillfully woven the latter into this year’s trainings.


In the service-learning space, this includes our partners at the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and their Civic Action Project, the Center for Prevention Research and Development’s Engaging Youth in Positive Change program, and We, an internationally-focused organization that facilitates student service projects both locally and globally.

Turning to news literacy, our friends at the News Literacy Project have paired with the Center for News Literacy to support teachers in ensuring that students are not only wise consumers of news, but also responsible producers.

Mentors themselves are developing standards and course-aligned curriculum and units themed around engaging students in the public policy process. Look for them to appear on IllinoisCivics.org in time for the first day of classes this fall.

Mary Ellen, Barb, and the Mentors turned right around and began our regional trainings on Monday. They just concluded a successful two-day workshop in partnership with the Professional Development Alliance in Joliet, and kicked off another this morning with the DuPage Regional Office of Education in Lombard.

Next week’s stops included Carbondale and Kankakee, and after a one-week pause for the Fourth of July, the summer tour touches Macomb, Bloomington, Edwardsville, Charleston, Dixon, Loves Park, and Grayslake. Registration remains open for each of these trainings, and we encourage you to follow our progress on Twitter through the hash tag #CivicsIsBack.