A False Choice: Informed Action is Vital to Educating for Democracy

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, Fordham Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow Chester E. Finn, Jr. penned a sharp critique of the National Council for the Social Studies’ (NCSS) opposition to states requiring students to pass the Citizenship Test as a condition of high school graduation. His piece went on to assail the teaching of civics and social studies more generally, and warrants a response from this lifelong civic educator and advocate.

I have already taken a public stance against the required Citizenship Test in an article published by Congressional Quarterly, but I agree with Finn in that “…the world (and nation) in which we live has greater need than ever before for its young adults to possess a solid grounding in the country’s history, values, and civic institutions.”

And we also find common ground in our support for direct instruction on the basics like the three branches of government and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. However, there is little empirical evidence that a content-centered curriculum alone results in higher test scores on assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics (NAEP) designed to measure students’ civic knowledge and skills.

In my analysis of the last three iterations of NAEP Civics at the 12th grade level, I found no evidence of any content variable (teaching the U.S. Constitution, for example) correlating with higher test scores. Most actually demonstrated a slightly negative correlation. By comparison, discussing current events, classroom debates, and simulations of democratic processes resulted in stronger student performance, current events dramatically so. These proven civic learning practices bring content knowledge to life.

The 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment asked students a question about whether or not they volunteered in their community, and if so, whether it took place on their own and through school. The difference on the latter variable was statistically insignificant, an important finding in its own right, but the difference in performance by students who volunteered and those who didn’t was dramatic (17-18 points; see graph below).


In illustrating the benefits of these student-centered civic learning practices I am not discounting the importance of disciplinary knowledge. Finn forces us to make a false choice in pitting one against the other. Knowledge often inspires civic engagement, and while engaging, we frequently seek further information to determine our next action steps.

Finn calls out “action civics,” labeling it “…a little nebulous but seems to boil down to advocacy and protests.” This charge is at best uninformed as the civic learning community has coalesced around the https://www.socialstudies.org/c3a framework where students are empowered to select issues deeply personal to them, draw upon disciplinary knowledge (the facts Finn privileges) to define the problem, and ultimately to explore public policy options that address both root causes and current symptoms.

Ultimately, there is a take action component, most often focused on an “inside strategy” like writing a letter to an elected official or creating a public service announcement intended to influence public opinion. This is the counterpart to the “outside strategies” that Finn derides, both of them critical to informed, effective engagement in our democracy.

Finally, Finn takes a shot at student voice in school governance and broader school climate reform efforts. He seemingly fails to appreciate that most students still attend public schools, governmental institutions staffed by public employees. Their governance, whether authoritarian or democratic (preferably the latter), is a daily civics lesson in its own right. What better place than school for students to learn the rights and responsibilities of their roles as citizens in our democracy?

I align with Finn in pursuing the historic civic mission of our schools and integrating direct instruction into a K-12 civics curriculum. We part ways in my belief that it must be paired with more student-centered practices like discussion, service-learning, and simulations, and also that student voice is vital to the governance of democratic institutions like public schools.

Reagan Institute Summit on Education Revisits A Nation at Risk

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Thirty-five years ago this April, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It was therefore fitting that the Reagan Institute convened a two-day summit in Washington, D.C., last week for a retrospective look at the report and discussion of the current and future challenges facing our P-20 educational system.

The McCormick Foundation was proud to be among the sponsors as the Reagan Foundation and D.C.-based Institute have long been national partners in advocating for stronger school-based civic learning. While A Nation at Risk is often blamed for the back-to-the-basics movement that led to a singular focus on math, reading, and science to the detriment of social studies and other subjects core to a well-rounded education, the report itself tied the challenges of the 1980’s with threats to democracy:

The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

As various luminaries of Republican and Democratic administrations took the stage over the course of the summit, low test scores, inequitable access, and poor preparation for college and career dominated the conversations. Yet civic learning surfaced in the closing comments of a few, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the opening plenary.


Senator Lamar Alexander, former Education Secretary and current Chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, went further.


I had the honor of co-facilitating a breakout session dedicated to civic learning that attracted a standing-room-only crowd, and a will provide a full recap in a separate post. We were graced by Former Secretary of Education John King’s participation, and he drew on his experiences as a social studies teacher here and in the closing plenary of the summit to advocate for high-quality civic learning.


The Reagan Foundation hosts a successful annual conference on national defense, and plans to convene this parallel summit on education policy in the years ahead. This inaugural undertaking with significant star power was an unqualified success as bi-partisan conversations across difference on issues of utmost importance are all too rare.

At this time of hyper-polarization, when our commitments to democracy and its institutions are face generational tests, the words of A Nation at Risk reverberate in timeless form:

A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.

Guest Blog: The Proven Practice of Simulations

by Christine Jaegle, Civics Mentor.for DuPage County

Christine Jaegle has taught social studies at Lisle Senior High School for a total of seven years, returning this past school year after taking time off to raise her children.

Christine helped implement the Legislative Semester there, a Government curriculum where seniors participate in a semester long congressional simulation. She has also helped design a new Civics course directed at sophomores with many of the same principles. In her comments below, Christine shares how the use of the proven practice of simulations of democratic processes benefits her diverse student body.
Utilizing simulations in the classroom is something I have always been extremely passionate about. At Lisle High School our American Government class for seniors is taught as a semester-long legislative simulation where students work to identify themselves on the political spectrum, elect leadership, and create legislation. The semester culminates at Committee Hearings held in the library and a Full Session held in our auditorium where they debate and vote on the fate of their ideas. For me, the biggest satisfaction I get out of utilizing this structure is to see students succeed who may have struggled in a traditional government course.

We have students with IEPs, 504 plans, ELL services, and anxiety or other emotional disorders stand up in front of their peers and passionately advocate for their bills by delivering eloquent speeches in support of their position. Additionally, many of these students step out of their comfort zone and volunteer to take on a leadership role. This enthusiasm stems from the choice and ownership that students are given over their topics. Students develop an authentic understanding of the process of government far better by participating in the simulation than they do in a traditional format.

I have adapted these principles in my sophomore Civics class when discussing current and controversial issues by implementing Socratic Seminars frequently this year. Providing this structure for discussions allows students to take ownership and discuss topics in a safe and structured environment. The norms of a Socratic Seminar provide a setting where students practice, utilize and become quite proficient at skills needed to have productive real world conversations on sensitive issues.

Do you use the proven practice of simulations in the classroom? Please comment below and share your expertise. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Minnesota Nice No More: Legislation to Neuter Controversy in the Classroom May Exasperate Political Polarization

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

We have written at length about the power and prevalence of controversial issues discussions in civics classrooms. An “academic balance” bill making its way through the Minnesota Senate challenges these presuppositions.


Senate Bill 2487 (SB-2487) would require public and charter schools to pass an “academic balance” policy prohibiting school employees from compelling students to “express specified social or political viewpoints” as part of an academic course or extracurricular activity.

Fair enough, but there’s more.

In declaring, “Public education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination,” the legislation seemingly implies that this is currently common practice. In my experience, teachers often shy from politics, exclusively emphasizing government institutions, and thus exhibiting a bias towards the status quo. SB 2487 would double down on this tendency.

According to the bill, students must also have “access to a broad range of serious opinions pertaining to the subjects of study.” This, too, is part of a responsible approach to teaching with controversy, but nonetheless infringes on teacher autonomy and arguably threatens academic freedom.

Furthermore, SB-2487 would “require caution from classroom teachers when expressing personal views in the classroom and prohibit the introduction of controversial matters without a relationship to the subject taught.”

One, this assumes that teachers fail to exercise “caution” already (see my previous point). And two, it conflicts with empirical findings about teacher disclosure. The decision of whether or not to disclose personal political views with students is important pedagogically. Those that choose disclosure must make it clear to students that they are free to disagree, the maintenance of an open classroom environment critical in either case.

Bill sponsor Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) fears that the political polarization gripping our society will envelop our schools, too. Assuming she’s open to advice from a Midwestern neighbor, I would suggest that controversy in the classroom be protected by state statute as it is in Illinois, not circumscribed as proposed in Minnesota.

By allowing students to grapple with political issues in a controlled environment led by trained professionals, they will come to appreciate the ideological diversity of their peers and learn how to deliberate across difference. The long-term solution to the forces of political polarization lies with leaning into their root cause: we were taught to avoid political conversations and flock to like-minded media and fellow partisans. Ideological amplification can be neutered by educators empowered to responsibly inject the issues of the day into classroom conversations.

Guest Blog: The “Ah-Ha” Moments

by Clinton Mathewson, Civic Mentor for Peoria County

Clinton has taught U.S. Government and Civics, AP U.S. Government and Politics, Geography, World History, Economics, Consumer Economics, and, Psychology over his ten-year career. He is a member of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Clinton earned his Master’s Degree from Eastern Illinois University in Educational Administration and his undergraduate degree from Illinois State University. Here are some of Clint’s thoughts on his role as civic mentor for Peoria County.

I have taught Civics & Government for most of my teaching career and can truly say I am extremely passionate about my students recognizing the importance of being active lifelong citizens in our society. Being able to observe that “Ah-Ha” moment when a student figures out the complexities of federalism or an effective electoral campaign strategy, makes teaching all worthwhile. When I saw there was an opening for the Civics mentorship, I was the one now having the “Ah-Ha” moment. The prospects of partnering with the Illinois Civics program to gain knowledge of best civic practices from other professionals and immerse myself in the vast amounts of resources they possess would be an amazing way to take my trade to another level. The thought of making connections, spreading knowledge outside of my classroom, and teaching educational strategies to colleagues in a geographic area I was new to had me setting all other items for the day off to the side as I filled out my application.

After becoming an Illinois Civics mentor and attending the Illinois Civics workshop, I had some great takeaways. Like many Civics teachers in the state of Illinois, I had already been incorporating the new civics learning standards into my class even before they were implemented. This was a huge boost as a teacher and eased some anxiety about what deficiencies I may need to improve upon to be a strong mentor. The other takeaway was that there is a vast amount of resources and an entire organization that wants to assist Civics teachers throughout the state with perfecting their craft. Illinois Civics is a professional learning community that spans as large as statewide or as small as a few educators sharing an email.

Being a Civics mentor has definitely changed my approach to teaching and the engagement of students in my classroom. I found myself borrowing numerous ideas that have been shared with me from other mentors and even classroom teachers that I have mentored. My students have become more engaged in my class because I am now constantly thinking about how I can develop more ownership in our future generation. Service learning has definitely been the area that I feel the greatest changes have occurred with my students. Allowing students to not only simulate but play an actual role in issues they are passionate about will play a strong influence on how my students will view their participation in government in the future.

What are some of the “Ah-Ha” moments you and your students have had this school year? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Using Podcasts for Professional Development

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In my role as Lead Teacher Mentor for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, I have traversed the state several times over this year in what I call my LOL (Land of Lincoln) tour of Illinois. One of my constant companions on the road has been civics-related podcasts. I have grown in my content knowledge and understanding of current and controversial issues through such thinkers as noted author Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Rosen, the President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, as well as Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Pearson.

While shrinking school budgets provide limited access to in-person conferences featuring noted experts, teachers can join the 67 million Americans listening to podcasts on at least a monthly basis. According to an article published by Forbes titled, “Why Podcasts are So Popular (and Four Content Lessons to Learn from Them)” by Jayson DeMers, podcasts enjoyed an eleven percent surge in 2017, giving listeners, “a refreshing alternative (to screens). Rather than using your eyes, you use your ears; there are silences, pauses, and genuine human voices rather than words and images on a screen.”

When used in the classroom, podcasts give an opportunity for students to hear from influencers and practice listening skills as they digest information in spoken word. Well-curated podcasts can also provide examples of civil discourse as a wide array of content experts address some of the most essential questions facing our communities.

Here are a few podcasts to consider adding to your media diet.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell provides episodes that, “will go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.” Season two has several civics-centered episodes.
  • The Sunday Spin from WGN Radio features current and controversial issue discussions led by host Rick Pearson examining local, state and national politics.
  • Constitutional from the Washington Post, builds off the success of the 2016 series, Presidential. Constitutional explores, “the Constitution and the people who framed and reframed it — revolutionaries, abolitionists, suffragists, teetotalers, protesters, justices, presidents – in the ongoing struggle to form a more perfect union across a vast and diverse land.”
  • 1A from National Public Radio, takes its name from the First Amendment and examines, “important issues such as policy, politics, technology, and what connects us across the fissures that divide the country.”
  • More Perfect from Radio Lab examines decisions made by the United States Supreme Court and what the rulings mean for “We the People”.
  • Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio provides short, classroom-friendly tutorials on the basics of how our democracy works. There are lesson recommendations and worksheets for student use.
  • Curious about the latest polling data and current events? Subscribe to the weekly FiveThirtyEight podcast.
  • We the People, hosted by Jeffrey Rosen from the National Constitution Center, brings together liberal and conservative thinkers to engage in civil dialogue about issues facing our nation. Other episodes interview noted experts such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  • My knowledge of history has deepened as a result of listening to Stuff you Missed in History Class. There are great personal narratives woven throughout each episode that can enrich your students understanding of history.
  • For general tips and ideas involving teaching methodology such as culturally responsive teaching or discussion strategies, subscribe to Cult of Pedagogy.

What podcasts do you listen to to inform your classroom practice? What should I add to my playlist? Please enter your ideas in the comment section below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Creating Civic Spaces in Troubling Times

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This morning I awoke to a troubling Facebook post by a colleague of mine from the east coast. My friend is a well-respected, veteran educator who teaches high school social studies. He shared how there had been a fire drill the day before and in response, he froze. He directed his students to stay in their seats to make sure it was not a false alarm. One of his students responded, “yea, to make sure this ain’t like Florida.”

It was not a false alarm and eventually, the fire drill was completed. But, this teacher’s response, and the response of his students was not an isolated event. Streams of educators throughout the nation responded to his post that they too experienced similar events in their school in the past week. One elementary teacher lamented that she told her 3rd graders that they were staying put until further confirmation during a fire safety exercise and one 8-year-old quickly agreed, “Yes because if an intruder pulled it, we’d all be going outside where it’s not safe.”

Early in my teaching career, one of my students was killed in a horrific traffic accident. Being a young teacher, I did not know how to respond to tragedy, it was left out of my teacher preparation program. Should I go on with the lesson at hand and avoid the topic altogether- thinking I might give my students (and myself) a respite from the loss, or should I address the grief we were all struggling with? I called my mentor for direction and he advised me to address the tragedy. He encouraged me that it not important that I have all of the answers, but it was imperative that I be present, open, listen and create a safe environment for my students to do the same. It was a heart -wrenching class, full of tears, memories and anger towards what we all felt was a preventable loss. After much discussion, the students launched a letter-writing campaign to local papers and elected officials demanding traffic lights be installed in the dangerous intersection that took their friend’s life. Communicating their grief and taking informed action was a cathartic process.


As educators, we have a responsibility to prioritize our students’ lived experiences in informing the essential questions we address in our curriculum. The proven practices mandated in the high school civics requirement as well as the new Illinois social studies standards support such endeavors. We must create civic spaces that engage students like current and controversial issue discussions that lead to students communicating conclusions and taking informed action (service learning). The Parkland High School students and their peers from around the nation are not going away. They are demonstrating that civic engagement does not begin and end with voting at 18, but encompasses a wide variety of issues and strategies for taking informed action, from lobbying, to social media campaigns, to advocacy.

My story and that of my colleague also point to the fact that educators need support in addressing tragedy in the classroom. Here are some resources that I hope will be helpful.
How do you address tragedy in troubling times? What are some of the strategies and resources you can share with others? What questions remain? Please comment below. Together, we can empower the youngest members of our community for civic engagement.