A Civic Check-Up for Illinois

by Emily Barry, Research Intern, McCormick Foundation Democracy Program

Before we implement civic education in all Illinois classrooms, we must first find the pulse of current civic practices throughout the state. The civic check-up came in the form of a survey distributed to teachers by Regional Offices of Education, and compiled by the McCormick Foundation. The survey checked the vital signs of healthy civic education: the direct instruction of civic themes, current and controversial issues discussions, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes.

This teacher-reported diagnosis reveals several healthy habits. For example, the majority of educators surveyed report their schools teach the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic as a theme of an entire course, or as a recurring theme throughout a student’s high school experience (65%). In addition, three-fourths of government and civics classes discuss current and controversial issues twice a week or more (76%).

However, the Illinois civic teacher survey also uncovers some civic ailments. Less than a fourth of classes currently require service learning (23%), and less than half of teachers agree their school has the adequate tools, training, and resources to use democratic simulations in classrooms (44%).

To support schools in revitalizing civic education, Robert R. McCormick Foundation recommends a heavy dose of professional development. The Foundation and its partners will host civic education workshops this summer, along with mentorship for teachers. These workshops will be held across Illinois to ensure equity of access for all educators. Most importantly, the teacher survey responses inform the design of regional professional development sessions, ensuring each workshop can be doctored to best meet regional needs. The sessions will feature the same vitals from the civic check-up: direct instruction, current and controversial issues, service learning, and democratic simulations.

We have a strong prognosis for civic education in Illinois. Professional development and teacher mentorships will strengthen current civic practices and invigorate new ones, such a service learning. Not only can we pronounce that #CivicsIsBack, but that civics is alive, well, and healthy.

The Tale of Two Convenings

by Shawn Healy, Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation

Free speech and the right to peaceful protest are foundational to democratic governance. They were both celebrated and challenged last Friday at venues blocks away from one another on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

At the UIC Forum, members of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC) gathered to celebrate the #CivicsIsBack campaign. This included recognizing ten new Illinois Democracy Schools, passage of a new high school civics course requirement, and approval of civics-friendly state social studies standards. The event was punctuated by a bi-partisan ceremony where students, civic learning advocates, bill sponsor Senator Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner shared the stage, the latter two offering congratulatory remarks for the ICMC’s recent achievements.

The new civics course requires class discussions of current and controversial issues, among the most promising means of fostering students’ civic development. Elections are perennially “teachable moments,” and attendees leaving the ICMC were presented with a lesson on the highs and lows of democratic discourse blocks away at and around the UIC Pavilion where Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump planned to rally his supporters.

In what has now become national news, the rally was aborted as protestors demonstrated against Trump and the many controversial and deeply offensive statements he has made during his nine-month campaign. They infiltrated the event itself and planned to both verbally and physically disrupt Trump’s speech. It was canceled by the candidate, who later said he wanted to spare the city of the political violence it is famous for harkening back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In the aftermath, the protesters declared victory, but it’s arguably a hollow one. Free speech should be celebrated, but we must confer the same rights to those with whom we disagree vehemently. The Trump candidacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire his true believers and further embolden his opponents. All parties are encouraged to campaign vigorously, yet respectfully, in the spirit of democracy and the First Amendment, and then vote our consciences for the candidates of our choice.

Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors

by Dr. Shawn Healy, Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation / Chair, Illinois Civic Mission Coalition

In order to support implementation of the new high school civics course requirement through the #CivicsIsBack campaign, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition is recruiting teacher mentors representing every region of Illinois.

Mentors will receive training from local and national professional development providers with proven expertise in civic learning. Mentors, in turn, will co-facilitate two-day summer institutes for subscribing civics teachers in their respective regions. Mentors will also be responsible for ongoing engagement with teachers, schools, and districts in their assigned region throughout the school year that follows.

Mentors must have at least three years of experience teaching civics or government at the high school level in Illinois. This experience should include proficiency with instruction on government institutions, current and controversial issues discussions, service-learning and simulations of democratic processes. Both current and retired teachers will be considered.

While the deadline for applicants has passed, we are still seeking qualified candidates in the following regions/ counties:
  • Champaign/Ford
  • Clark/Coles/Cumberland/Douglas/Edgar/Moultrie/Shelby
  • Clay/Crawford/Jasper/Lawrence/Richland
  • Clinton/Jefferson/Marion/Washington
  • De Kalb
  • Edwards/Gallatin/Hamilton/Hardin/Pope/Saline/Wabash/Wayne/White
  • Franklin/Johnson/Massac/Williamson
  • Alexander/Jackson/Pulaski/Perry/Union
  • Iroquois/Kankakee
  • Henderson/Knox/Mercer/Warren
  • Peoria
  • Rock Island
  • Menard/Sangamon
  • Mason/Tazewell/Woodford

Interested candidates from these regions should complete this online application no later than March 15, 2016. Selected mentors will be notified by April 1, 2016


by Dr. Shawn Healy, Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation / Chair, Illinois Civic Mission Coalition

Civics is back in Illinois in 2016! The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, convened by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, is set to launch a statewide system of supports for teachers, schools, and districts in order to implement a brand-new high school civics course requirement.

Our #CivicsIsBack campaign will disseminate information on the new law, speak to the importance and impact of high-quality civic learning, provide professional development and ongoing mentorship for teachers on proven civic learning practices, and make available a menu of online resources through this brand new web portal: IllinoisCivics.org.

We’ll speak to each of these component parts in the posts that follow, but let’s begin with the basics of the new law.

On August 21, 2015, Governor Rauner signed House Bill (HB) 4025 (Pubic Act 99-0434) into law, requiring that future Illinois high school students complete a stand-alone, semester-long civics course. Course content must include instruction on government institutions, current and controversial issues discussions, service-learning, and simulations of democratic processes.

A separate bill (HB 800) passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by Governor Rauner provides further clarity on HB 4025’s effective date. The course mandate takes effect on July 1, 2016, and applies to incoming freshmen for the 2016-2017 school year.

Based upon our research, 60% of Illinois public high schools currently require at least one semester of civics and/ or government in order to graduate. An additional 27% of high schools offer (but do not require) a course that can be categorized as civics or government. The final 13% of schools either have no existing course or their curricular offerings in this subject area are unknown.

We have a great deal of work to do as teachers, schools, and districts ensure current course offerings are compliant with the new law, convert elective courses to required ones, and in some cases, build civics courses from the ground up.

With your help, we will provide transformational civic learning experiences for Illinois students, placing them on a path for lifelong participation in our democracy.

Civics is back in Illinois, and its here to stay.