Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part I: The Political Typologies of American Educators

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

This post represents the first of a four part series on political polarization and classroom practice, ultimately attempting to answer the question of what we can do as educators to bridge this seemingly cavernous fracture in the heart of our democracy. Teaching with controversy is among the most impactful civic learning strategies, yet it is also fraught with danger and educators are wise to proceed with caution.

To kick off this series, I will begin with the political typology of teachers themselves, as the line where we separate the professional from the personal on the political front is complicated.

I’m often asked, “Aren’t teachers overwhelmingly liberal, and don’t they try to make students into little Democrats?” The answer is a definitive no, as teachers’ beliefs are typically reflective of the communities where they teach. Moreover, teachers have forever had a commitment to teaching students about democratic institutions and encouraging participation agnostic of party. If anything, politics, and especially political parties, are often absent from civics curricula.

For further insight, Education Week published a report last month titled Educator Political Perceptions, which summarizes the results of a national survey of more than a thousand educators, half of them teachers, on a range of political issues. When it comes to ideology, educators form a bell curve, with a plurality identifying as moderate (43%), roughly a quarter liberal (24%) or conservative (23%), and only a small percentage far left (5%) or right (4%).


While there is a Democratic tilt when it comes to party affiliation (41% identify as Democrats), 30% identify as Independents, and 27% as Republicans. Similarly, Hillary Clinton gained half of all educators’ presidential votes in 2016, but this was only a tick above her overall national percentage (48.5%). Trump received 29% of educators’ votes, while 13% voted for a third party candidate, and 8% did not vote. One year into the Trump presidency, 80% of his initial supporters among educators still have a favorable opinion of him, compared to 27% among Clinton voters.

During these turbulent political times, educators are divided when it comes to their own political activities. Nearly half have avoided political activities altogether (21%) or some (27%) out of concern that it may create problems for their job in education, while 17% said they’ve tempered activities a little, and 34% not at all. As for the specific political activities educators pursue, contacting elected officials tops the list, followed by trying to persuade friends or colleagues to change their minds on a political topic.


The political typologies of American educators profiled, my next post will focus specifically on civics teachers and the nature by which they bring political controversy into the classroom. I will then address the empirical question of the extent to which political polarization is a mass phenomenon, or more the province of political elites. The series will conclude with some preliminary thoughts about the current challenges of teaching with controversy.

Resources for Informed Action

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

John Dewey stated, "The only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life. To form habits of social usefulness and serviceableness apart from any direct social need and motive, apart from any existing social situation, is, to the letter, teaching the child to swim by going through motions outside of the water." —Moral Principles In Education

In the same sense, the only way to prepare and assess if students are equipped to engage in civic life, is to engage them in civic life. As stated in a previous blog post, both the new Illinois Social Studies standards and civics requirement embrace the authentic assessment of student knowledge, skills and dispositions through informed action or service learning.

Several organizations have resources related to the proven practice of service learning/informed action. This can be a starting point for educators in the important work of measuring student growth.
  • Through funding provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has published resources related to Civic Online Reasoning to help students become both wise consumers and producers of digital media.
  • In the state of Tennessee, all school districts must implement a project-based assessment in civics at least once in grades four through eight and at least once in grades nine through twelve. The Tennessee Center for Civic Learning and Engagement provides support for what such portfolio based assessments should entail.
  • The state of Washington has created an Open Source Assessment Portal for social studies that provides examples of performance based assessments K-12 across the disciplines.
  • The National Youth Leadership Council provides examples of informed action K-12. Many of the service learning projects provide rubrics to assess student investigation and preparation leading up to action as well as reflection and demonstration of learning “post action”.
  • Empowering Youth for Positive Change program from the Center for Prevention Research and Development has both rubrics and checklists for informed actions related to local public policy projects.
Do you have ideas for how to authentically assess the new Illinois Social Studies standards? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students in Illinois for college, career and civic life.

The Measure of Success

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In an article I wrote last year for Social Education, called, “Thermometers to Thermostats: Designing and Assessing Informed Action”, I made reference to the viral TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” by best-selling author Brene’ Brown in which she struggled with the sentiment, “If you cannot measure it, it does not exist.” Many social studies teachers in Illinois are wrestling with the same premise as they work to assess the new inquiry standards. How do you measure informed action? Is it a test? Is it a portfolio? I have come to look at these questions in a different way. I do not see informed action as something additional to assess. I see informed action as the assessment of how students apply disciplinary content and proficiencies to address essential questions investigated in the classroom.

As noted in previous blog posts, the new Illinois Social Studies Standards are a paradigm shift for many educators in that they prescribe not only “what” classrooms should be teaching but “how” it should be taught. While many educators are fairly comfortable with measuring disciplinary content, or the “what” of civic education, there is ambiguity in measurement of the “how”- the acquisition of civic skills and dispositions leading to informed action.

Because there is no prescribed, “high stakes” test in Illinois, assessment is a local control issue. While the Illinois School Code prescribes that there be instruction and successful examination on such topics as the Flag Code, the United States and Illinois Constitutions the Declaration of Independence as well as Voting and Elections (105 ILCS 5/27-3), there is no mandate as to what these “examinations” should look like. Local districts have autonomy to choose the method of assessment. In my observations, most districts assess civic knowledge through the use of multiple choice tests. The new Illinois Social Studies Standards and civic education requirement provide an opportunity to think “Beyond the Bubble” and investigate assessments that allow students to communicate conclusions and take informed action, a.k.a. the proven practice of service learning.

Informed action projects can be the truest measurement of how students can apply the knowledge, skills and dispositions that they have practiced in class. Because they are the culmination of the inquiry cycle prescribed by the Illinois social studies standards, these projects are thoroughly embedded in both the content and process of student learning, and are an exercise that enhances and consolidates student learning, rather than taking time out to measure it. They can take the good work that we do in social studies and explicitly prepare students for civic life as students see they can be agents of change in their community.

Do you have ideas for how to authentically assess the new Illinois Social Studies standards? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students in Illinois for college, career and civic life.

Youth Media as a Means of Civic Development

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a meeting convened by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement titled “Youth, Media, and Civic Engagement in Local Contexts.” The meeting was supported by the Democracy Fund and hosted in Chicago by the McCormick Foundation and Mikva Challenge.

Wide-ranging conference discussions touched on a number of subjects, but centered on media’s role in youth civic development. This occurs in the context of local media ecosystems, some healthier and more diverse than others. And involves youth as both consumers and producers of news.

As a college instructor that guides students in creating issue campaigns for policy change, I am increasingly struck by the divergence in our respective media diets. Like many of you, mine is decidedly “old school,” as I have newspapers delivered to my door and read them cover-to-cover every day. While I sample in new media offerings on social media and via podcasts, they are often the product of legacy institutions (Washington Post, NPR, NBC News, etc.).

New media is the here and now for my and our students. Social media is ubiquitous, and they’re consuming news on platforms we may never access (see SnapChat). Some are quite sophisticated in their followings, pruning their feeds with an emphasis on quality and credibility. Others assume the attitude that if something important transpires in the news it will find them.

Regardless of our media diet, we are left with the basic question of how we develop a healthy appetite for news among students. Modeling our own consumption and incorporating current and controversial issues discussions into our classes is the age-old place to begin. But what does media outreach look like nowadays? Is there value in writing letters-to-the-editor or are we better served by tweeting directly at reporters and editorial boards? Alternatively, should students create their own media and disseminate it via social media?

Classroom integration of news literacy is critical, as are co- and extracurricular student media opportunities. Not only do student journalists benefit from the experience, but their peers that consume the final product also demonstrate long-term civic engagement benefits. Sadly, student media experiences are no longer universal, particularly in urban school systems like Chicago, but we do have a healthy non-profit youth media sector to train future journalists and amplify youth voice.

The youth media sector itself, student publications included, are vital components of a local media ecosystem. Beyond McCormick’s work in civic learning, we also support youth media and professional journalism in Chicago and Illinois. Most recently, we have explored the intersections of this work. News literacy is a vital component of civic learning. Civic learning is enhanced by youth media opportunities. In amplifying youth voice, the latter contribute to youth civic development as we move along the knowledge-engagement continuum.


Last week’s meeting was the first of many, and the thoughts articulated above are my own, but inspired by two days of engaging conversations. In this spirit, please share your own ideas about the intersection of news literacy, student/ youth media, and civic engagement.

The Icing on the Cake

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Cake seems to be a reoccuring theme in my social studies classroom. Marie Antoinette allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” when confronted with information that her subjects were starving from lack of bread. Benjamin Franklin noted, “A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.” Who can forget the marble vs. layer cake analogy when teaching students about federalism? This week the United States Supreme Court served up another “slice” for classroom use when they heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs.Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece Cakeshop is the “icing on the cake” of a year full of compelling court cases that can be used by classrooms to address essential questions related to power, freedom, justice and equality. By employing the proven practices of current and controversial issues discussions as well as simulations of democratic processes, teachers can facilitate student inquiry as prescribed by the new Illinois Social Studies standards that build both skills and deeper knowledge of the democratic institutions that scaffold our republic.

Here are some of my favorite resources to use when I have students examine the Judicial Branch of government.
What is missing from this list? Are their resources you can share to help students understand the court system? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Fifteen Days of Congress

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A chaotic close to a political year like no other provides a yuletide feast of current events conversations in social studies classrooms. But an enterprising educator struggles with pairings and portions, and this post is intended to provide last-minute tips to help make sense of it all before we send students on their merry way.

Let’s begin with recent indictments against high-ranking Trump Administration and campaign officials. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is clearly working his way to the top, and congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election continue simultaneously. What the President knew and when/ if he knew it remain open questions likely to carry into the New Year and perhaps beyond. Yet echoes of Watergate and Iran Contra drum louder by the day, imperiling the Trump presidency and forcing us to revisit the succession plan for our nation’s highest office.

Other than the sometimes successful use of parliamentary tricks, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Congress has mostly swung and missed despite unified Republican control of the three branches of national government. Efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed repeatedly, but the zombie repeal is still alive as part of the Senate’s tax reform legislation that passed early Saturday morning.

Given that the House and Senate tax bills vary in the volume and timing of tax relief to both individuals and corporations, a conference committee comes next. Its final product isn’t guaranteed to survive scrutiny of both bodies once more, as the needs of the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus must be balanced with the concerns of Senate moderates and wildcards like Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), and Jeff Flake (AZ).

The content of the current legislation is a civics lesson in its own right. President Trump was notably elected in part to a coalition of rural, white, working-class workings, yet the prime beneficiaries of this bill are clearly the Republican donor class that pulled out all of its stops to deny him the Party’s nomination in early 2016. Congress clearly feels obligated to reward its benefactors heading into a midterm election year.

Also fascinating is the abandonment of commitment to deficit reduction by the GOP. A balanced budget was long core to the rhetorical plank of the Party, yet the current legislation is projected to add $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, even with increased economic growth considered.

Speaking of the debt, the ceiling is set to expire once more, and Republicans will need to rely on some Democratic votes to raise the borrowing limit on the nation’s credit card in order to avoid default. Both sides will attempt to extract unrelated concessions, including funding for a border wall by President Trump and permanent protections for DREAMers among Democrats. Finally, should the ACA mandate be repealed under the guise of tax reform, look for bi-partisan discussions of price supports for the insurance industry to control rising health insurance premiums that would drive millions out of the private market.

Better to be in the classroom than Congress with only 15 school days remaining before holiday break. Here’s hoping this cliff notes version of the compressed political calendar keeps you one (or many) steps ahead of students with sugar plums dancing in their heads.

Classroom Resources for this Election Season

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This week, marked the beginning of both the holiday shopping season and the official start of the midterm election season. As Shawn stated in an earlier blog, less than a week remains for candidates representing established parties in Illinois to file their petitions for the March primaries.


While resources for presidential elections are plentiful, teachers are often left scrambling for midterm election materials to engage their students. There are a number of tools from civic organizations and educational partners that provide a foundation for involving students in the 2018 election season. Here is a list to start with.
We hope this list helps support your efforts to engage your students in the upcoming election season. What materials are you using that are NOT listed above? Please share in the comment section below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.