Early Returns Promising on Civics Course Implementation Efforts

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In order to understand the impact of our civic course implementation efforts, and better serve teachers, schools, and districts moving forward, we have partnered with our friends at the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University for formative and summative feedback and evaluation. Last summer, we offered nine two-day regional workshops for teachers throughout Illinois. Attendees (237 in total) completed pre- and post-workshop surveys, and the results are shaping our plans for this coming summer and beyond.

Teachers identified several reasons for attending the workshops, but a thirst for additional classroom resources and alignment with the emerging state social studies standards stood atop the list. Also significant was exploring opportunities for student electoral engagement and understanding the new civics course requirement. It is interesting to note that professional development credits and pressure from administrators to attend ranked low and last, respectively.

I’m most proud of the fact that these workshops appear to have achieved their desired impact in improving teacher confidence with the proven civic learning practices embedded in the new course requirement: direct instruction, discussion, service-learning, and simulations (see Figure 6 below). Teachers also emerged more confident in making the case for the importance of civic learning, its alignment with the Danielson Framework, tapping into a peer network for instructional support, and reaching out to local leaders for assistance.

The trainings surpassed expectations. One attendee proclaimed,
It was awesome! For the first time in 21 years of teacher I feel supported and have a network of people to rely (upon) and go to for assistance! Moreover, democracy is a verb and I AM EXCITED about teaching my classes in a totally different way.

Yet challenges remain, including the perennial roadblocks of limited time and resources. Others pointed to low student interest and engagement in class, lack of administrative support, difficulty “building buy-in across staff,” and community resistance, the “closed mindsets of small town communities…” in particular.

While we don’t claim to hold a magic wand, our team is committed to meeting these needs through in-person and online professional development opportunities, an expanded resource section on our website, additional outreach to and training opportunities for school administrators, and doubling down on our teacher mentor program.

On this final point, attendees crave “more connections with other area teachers” and “continued contact with other professionals.” They “…like having a teacher mentor (they) can call on…,” considering it a “big help.” And attendees value “access to the mentors which they are more than willing to give.”

I encourage you to read the entire report and stay tuned for more information about our mentoring program and summer professional development opportunities refined by its results.

Making Sense of Saturday's Demonstrations and the State of American Democracy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

While life may be a series of hellos and goodbyes, our new President Donald Trump was greeted on the first day of his presidency with historically large protests that spanned the nation and globe. And it seems likely that this loyal opposition movement is here to stay. The meaning of these protests and their tactics moving forward are open for debate and the subject of today’s post.

Trump’s surprise victory, accompanied by the vitriol that he and many of his supporters spewed during the campaign, is seen by some as a direct threat to their very identities, democracy more generally, and the country they hold dear. Saturday’s marches united young and old, women and their male allies, whites and people of color, citizens and undocumented immigrants, and the spectrum of sexual identities in a historic show of solidarity. Participants faithfully wielded their First Amendment rights to send a strong message of eternal vigilance.

The causes represented were numerous, and class lines blurred, but the demonstrations were coordinated for the most part by white, middle-upper class women. This isn’t unique to history, but an ongoing challenge for progressives is to acknowledge and find unity among existing movements like Black Lives Matters, the Dreamers, and Occupy Wall Street, among others.

Trump’s ascension is in many ways symptomatic of the disruptive forces of globalization. He effectively spoke to social and economic grievances held by working class whites, uniting them with most of the prevailing Republican coalition to expand the party’s control in both Washington and most state capitals.

November’s results are arguably the culmination of more than seven years of successful organizing by the Tea Party, which assembled for the first time just three months into the Obama presidency. Within eighteen months, the movement was the backbone of massive Republican victories in Congress and beyond. Their setbacks in 2012 were only temporary, as 2014 and 2016 were both bountiful for the GOP, with riches in terms of executive and legislative seats unseen since the Hoover Administration.

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Saturday’s demonstrators must take notes from the Tea Party, fighting the battles of the moment against the new administration and an empowered Congress, and plotting a course to remake the map in 2018 and beyond.

This means engaging in the policymaking process and simultaneously crafting an agenda with broad appeal to the various constituencies assembled on Saturday, but also to independents and even some Democrats swayed by Trump.

Many of our students participated on Saturday, and all of them are trying to make sense of this new era of hyper-polarization where the parties themselves are in an evolutionary state. Young people are politically and ideologically diverse like the nation as a whole. A plurality self-identify as liberal, yet most don’t don the Democratic label. Herein lies the opportunity for the progressive coalition to build anew, with young people on its ground floor.

A significant number of youth self-identify as conservative, Republican, and Trump supporters. They too are in the shaping zone where traditional positions and alliances are changing by the day. Their causes, party, and President have a responsibility to help bring this country together.

Time will undoubtedly bring clarity to the whiplash of events of the past week, and teachers must stand tall once more in making sense of the now and later with our students.

Trump's Dark, America First Inaugural Address Has Strong Historical Parallels

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Last week we said goodbye to President Obama and dissected the meaning of his farewell address delivered right here in his hometown of Chicago. On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th President, and delivered a brief address that has since been dissected by pundits ad nauseum, mostly with deep criticism for its dark tone and lingering campaign flavor.

Donald Trump Rally 10-21-16 (29849627834) As teachers, we owe it to our students to dive deeper. True, Trump’s speech cast a shadow on the state of the country he inherits, and he used it as a contrast for his agenda to “make America great again.” But it is not without historical parallels. Andrew Jackson claimed that his victory in 1828 represented a revolution in that the people took back their government.

Trump struck similar tones in suggesting that “…today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another -- but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

And Trump’s “America First” adage has 20th Century connotations, reflective of the isolationism that gripped the country between the First and Second World Wars, and the slogan of Charles Lindbergh that smacked of anti-Semitism.

It was Richard Nixon that spoke for the so-called “silent majority” in 1969, representing a counter-weight to a decade of progress on civil rights and economic equality.

Trump enters office on the heels of eight years of our first African-American president and massive progress on the issue of marriage equality. By contrast, he rallied white working class voters left behind in an era of globalization, speaking to their anxieties and harkening back to more prosperous times. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, characterized his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” and many of them proudly embraced the moniker.

Trump cast their state, and that of the country as a whole, in dystopian terms:

“But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”

Beyond a retreat from multilateral trade agreements and military alliances, Trump points to patriotism as the bond that will heal the nation’s seemingly intractable divisions.

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

Trump is far from the first political leader to wrap himself in the flag, and there is something to be said about introducing young people to a common set of ideals and institutions that define America. But we must also teach them that a “more perfect Union” is not only possible, but imperative.

A new political era is indeed upon us, and as educators we must grapple with its inherent complexities alongside our students. On Wednesday we’ll sort through the growing opposition to President Trump and Republican leadership in Washington. As was true in the historical instances referenced above, its emergence is critical to the continuation of our longstanding experiment with constitutional democracy.

President Obama's Farewell Address a Civics Lesson and Call to Action

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

President Barack ObamaLast week, President Obama returned to Chicago to deliver his farewell address at McCormick Place. “Our nation’s call to citizenship” was central to his message, wrapped around three threats to our democracy. His words translate into a powerful lesson plan for engaging students in post-election public policy and the democratic process more generally.

Our collective work in civic education lies at the center of two (often) competing agendas, both of them present in the President’s address. One, we seek to build adherence among our students to the American system of democracy. And two, we strive to equip them with the tools and dispositions to form a more perfect union.

The first threat detailed by President Obama was various roadblocks to the American Dream, including equitable access to an education. This leads naturally to class discussions of the platforms of our two major political parties, and how they square with the campaign rhetoric and Cabinet appointees of President-Elect Trump.

The parties themselves are very much in flux at this juncture in our history, and our students can play a major role in shaping their future. Millennials now constitute the largest voting bloc, and a plurality refuse to identify with either party. Opportunities abound to craft an inclusive message that appeals to this next generation of voters.

President Obama elevated the contentious issue of race relations as a second threat to democracy, claiming that “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” For example, Chicago, among many other cities, is grappling with racially discriminatory policing practices and appalling violence that cripples deeply disadvantaged communities disproportionately populated by people of color. The President encouraged us to assume the best of intentions among all parties as we aspire for the true meaning of our creed, that “all men (and women) are created equal.”

The third and final threat centers on the lack of shared assumptions among Americans, where even a “common baseline of facts” is elusive and there’s a strong tendency to demonize our opponents. It’s therefore difficult, for example, to address the devastating consequences of climate change if we can’t even agree that it’s real.

As educators, we must own each of these threats.
  • We must develop an ethic of shared mutually among our students, helping them recognize that the fate of our neighbors and communities is intimately connected to their own.
  • That tolerance of difference is a floor, not a ceiling. Indeed, diversity among Americans is and always has been our greatest strength.
  • And, while everyone is entitled to their own personal opinions, there are a basic set of empirical facts that set the stage for value-laden debates.
President Obama concluded with a call to action, and it’s my hope that it inspires our students to buy into the American system of government, but also commit to using the tools of citizenship to build a more inclusive and upwardly-mobile society.

If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.

The Springfield Stalemate Looms Large as the 100th Illinois General Assembly Convenes

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

On Monday, in line with our focus on post-election policy, we discussed three key variables to consider when teaching the newly sworn in 115th Congress. Yesterday, the 100th Illinois General Assembly took their own oaths of office, making for a timely preview of the body and the road ahead this spring.

As detailed in our post-election analysis, Republicans made subtle inroads into Democrats’ supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate, undermining it altogether in the case of the former. Thus, the House and Speaker Michael Madigan no longer have the votes to override gubernatorial vetoes along party lines.

However, compromise has been elusive since Republican Governor Bruce Rauner was inaugurated in January 2015. Rauner has demanded passage of selected elements of his pro-business, anti-labor “Turnaround Agenda” in exchange for a budget agreement featuring a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.


Speaker Madigan and House Democrats contend that both parties should pass a budget first before moving on to these “non-budgetary” items. The result has been a stalemate that has resulted in 18 months without a full fiscal year budget, billions of unpaid bills, and irreparable harm to the state’s social service agencies and higher education institutions.

Of course, this is all old news. Signs of movement emerged in the last week as Democratic Senate President John Cullerton and Republican Minority Leader Christine Radogno have crafted elements of a grand compromise that would fully fund the state’s budget with help from a significant income tax increase and new tax on sugary drinks. In order to appease the Governor and his fellow Republicans, term limits for legislative leaders are part of the package, as is pension reform that may meet constitutional scrutiny, along with reforms to the state worker’s compensation system.

While Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan haven’t been party to these talks, they establish a marker for a grand compromise that has been elusive to date. For the sake of our state and its citizens, let’s hope this stalemate doesn’t linger until the next election.

For those of you still licking your wounds from November, the filing period for the 2018 midterms begins this fall, and the sweepstakes for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination is already heating up. Rauner himself plans to run for re-election and gave his campaign an early Christmas gift in the sum of $50 million.

The Governor also has long-term plans to further undermine the Democratic legislative majorities, so 2018 looms large as the 100th General Assembly convenes.

It’s critical that our students understand what’s at stake in these deliberations, and opportunities abound to engage them in efforts to break the stalemate. Stay tuned here for further updates and pedagogical strategies to make this a reality.

Three Key Variables to Consider When Teaching the 115th Congress

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Consistent with our focus on post-election policy, today’s post will preview the 115th Congress, sworn in last week. In November, Republicans retained control of both the House and the Senate. They have a 241-194 majority in the House, and a narrower 52-48 majority in the Senate.

The responsibilities of our national lawmaking branch are far-reaching, but a few key variables warrant close observation in our classrooms this spring and beyond.

First, to what extent will congressional Republicans serve as a rubber stamp for President-Elect Trump’s agenda? Trump’s flexible beliefs in many ways challenge traditional Republican orthodoxy, from trade policy to entitlement reform to the U.S. relationship with Russia. Yet Trump turned the electoral map upside-down in his surprise victory and carried many vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress with him. Presidential coattails usually lend themselves to a honeymoon period with members of his party. How long will Trump’s last?

Early signs of dissent have already emerged in the Senate, where Republican Senators McCain, Graham, and Rubio have voiced concerns about Russian interference with the U.S. presidential election and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s close ties to Russia and President Putin. Assuming Democratic unity, they need to peel off only three Republicans to constitute a working majority of their own.

This leads to the second variable: What battles will Democrats circle as key to confronting President-Elect Trump and their Republican counterparts? The Tillerson nomination may be one, along with Trump’s controversial nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education.

Also contentious will be Trump’s eventual nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Recall that Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominee from even receiving a hearing despite having nearly a year left in office. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already suggested that payback is in order. If so, we may indeed have an ongoing constitutional crisis with the third branch of government permanently crippled.

On the flip side, Democrats are the party more closely identified with government and its programs, so they arguably have a vested interest in seeing it and them succeed. This includes preserving the greatest policy shift of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the third and final variable we’ll consider today.

Trump campaigned on its repeal, and Republicans in Congress have fought the ACA since its inception. Despite significant gains in covering Americans previously uninsured, “Obamacare” has its detractors, as it’s blamed for massive increases in health care premiums and failing to attract a sufficient number of younger enrollees to cross-subsidize their older peers and make the health care exchanges profitable for the insurance industry.

However, its provisions to provide access to individuals with pre-existing health conditions and also to cover young people under their parents’ plans until they reach 26 are widely popular. Republicans will thus be challenged to repeal Obamacare with a replacement that retains these provisions. The individual mandate is key, and Republicans are likely to scrap it. They will thus own the future of health care reform in the United States, much as Obama and the Democrats have for the better part of the past seven years. Caveat emptor.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon Delivers Final Lecture at SIU in Carbondale, Embraces Lincoln's Legacy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

I had the distinct privilege of attending United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s final public lecture on December 21st at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. His Illinois itinerary also included a visit to the Lincoln Library and Museum.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute was among the event’s sponsors and hosted an intimate reception for the Secretary-General prior to his lecture (see picture below). As I’ve written previously, the Simon Institute has long served as our bridge to Southern Illinois teachers and schools in our work to strengthen the state’s civic education system.

At the lecture, we were joined by students and teachers from Carbondale Community High School, our first Democracy School in Southern Illinois. Their delegation was led by social studies teacher Daron Abscher, our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor representing the Jackson-Perry Regional Office of Education.

Building global awareness among students is an important objective for civic education. And Secretary-General Ban elevated a plethora of topics of international import, including the protracted conflict in Syria, risks of genocide in South Sudan, and climate change.

He expounded on the latter subject, likely in response to the pending change in American presidents and the potential of a sharp shift in policy away from deliberate steps to mitigate it domestically.

Climate change is real. The science is settled. As the world faces record warmth, the Paris Agreement (of 2015) has entered into force with rapid speed, embraced by all of the world’s leading emitters—including the United States… It is a rare and precious achievement that we should nurture and guard.

Secretary-General Ban also trumpeted the inaugural UN Youth Envoy with special emphasis on youth employment. He proclaimed, “We are determined to work not just for youth, but with youth.”

The Secretary-General’s speech was flavored with local fare, including the late Senator Paul Simon’s affinity for world affairs. Simon visited more than 100 countries and worked on arms reduction treaties across presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic.

In a nod to his pending Lincoln Library visit, Ban drew “…a straight line from the principles that President Lincoln defended to those that animate the United Nations.” Labeling Lincoln “…a heroic force for equality, integration, and reconciliation,” the Secretary-General associated these ideals with the “best spirit of the United States,” concluding that they are needed now more than ever before.