Add Your Voice to a National Field-Building Civic Learning Coalition

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

The McCormick Foundation is proud to be a part of a national field-building coalition for change in civic learning. In February, our Board of Directors approved a $200,000 grant to iCivics, the leader of this coalition, and I have been subsequently asked to serve on its steering committee.

This work launches at a perilous time, where democratic governance itself is increasingly considered a “bad” or “very bad” means to “run this country,” particularly among our youngest Americans.

It builds upon the Democracy at a Crossroads Summit last September, which highlighted the aforementioned trends coupled with the marginalization of school-based civic learning, but also promising policy and funding responses in Florida and Illinois to reverse the latter trend. The conditions are ripe for an expansion of this work, with a strong group of civic learning leaders and a handful of foundations at the table. And a policy window is opening for state-centered reforms between the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections.

This field-building effort is an attempt to affect systemic change. It is informed by previous successes in STEM and social-emotional learning (SEL), beginning with a root cause analysis of why civic learning is so marginalized. We also hope to identify the key levers for systems change, along with obstacles that may impede our path.

A multilevel campaign will follow this root cause analysis and I’ll have much more to say on its specifics in the months ahead, but in the short term, you can contribute by adding your voice to our State of Civic Education Survey. It takes 10-15 minutes to complete, and your input is valuable regardless of your title or affiliation. We are all stakeholders in the civic development of each successive generation of Americans, and you can help us develop solutions to the current crisis in civic learning, and ultimate preserve and strengthen our democratic institutions for posterity.

Review: Flunking Democracy - Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I was contacted last year by Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity, based at Columbia University in New York, in an inquiry about the McCormick Foundation’s support for school-based civic learning in Illinois.

Rebell has led and been involved in a number of state-based educational equity legal challenges, all of them centered in discriminatory funding practices that too often discriminate against students of color and those of lower socio-economic standing. Some of these challenges resulted in court-ordered funding increases, but the judicial decisions were mostly agnostic as to what educational equity looks like in practice.

While writing Flunking Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2018), he came across compelling research demonstrating a “civic empowerment gap” partly rooted in disparate school-based civic learning opportunities. Most state constitutions make passing reference to educational equality, and some even underline schools’ civic mission. Illinois suggests that “A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez (1973), an educational equity case, considered education a “…fundamental personal right because it is essential to the effective exercise of First Amendment freedoms and to intelligent utilization of the right to vote…” The 5-4 majority disagreed with the notion of a fundamental right and deferred to local control and the funding disparities it may invite as a rational state policy.

Nearly a half century later, educational inequity remains stark, and civic learning has been marginalized. Civic participation and public trust have waned and our democratic institutions have atrophied as a result. We have repeatedly made the case here that high-quality, school-based civic learning offers a promising long-term solution to this democratic crisis, and Rebell comes armed with a powerful legal case in our favor. He offers both state and federal litigation strategies, and salutes the work of our Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and Democracy Schools Initiative as channels by which a favorable court decision can be implemented at the state and district levels, respectively.

Illinois is among a handful of states where educational equity cases have failed to date. Recent state legislation intended to address some of the largest local school funding disparities in the country is being implemented, but the state’s fiscal crisis may undermine its admirable intent.

The state has made progress on the civic learning front with a new high school civics course requirement and K-12 social studies standards that require students to take informed action, yet the state has not appropriated any funding for their implementation. And civic learning remains severely marginalized in grades K-8. Illinois thus emerges as a candidate for a civic learning equity challenge.

The U.S. Supreme Court may be a heavier lift in light of Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority. However, civic learning has attracted bipartisan support (retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current Justice Sonia Sotomayor and among its most prominent champions), and the Court occasionally produces unlikely ideological alignments.

Regardless, the civic learning community welcomes Rebell’s contribution to our cause as we build the field nationally and mobilize for state-based campaigns mirroring the successes of Florida and our own in Illinois. His book is well worth the read as he carefully summarizes prevailing literature and adds a legal strategy to our collective toolbox to ensure that schools live up to their founding civic creed.

Guest Blog: Socrates, The Power of Questions

by Dan Fouts, Maine West High School

Dan Fouts teaches AP Government, Philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. His blog, Socrates Questions, shares how students can use “big questions” to shape inquiry, aligning with the new Illinois Social Studies standards. In this guest blog, Dan discusses the importance of using “big questions” in the classroom.

Socrates believed that the purpose of education is to facilitate the self-discovery of others through questioning. Smart use of questions, combined with relentless critical thinking, lead us to see knowledge as a continuous journey to understanding. As more individuals embark on this journey, the quality of our civic discussions improves and we become a more just society.

Fortunately, Socrates' mission is gaining great traction in today’s reform environment. Common Core, teacher evaluation frameworks and the recently published C3 Framework standards for social studies all in some way promote the value of teacher and student questioning and critical thinking. A quote from the C3 Framework brings the commitment into focus.

Engaged questioning and critical thinking are indispensable skills as we confront the challenge of a divided America.

We see political divisions in our debates over gun control, and over the legitimacy of our law-enforcement institutions.

We see them in our historical arguments over immigration policies and the competing visions of what role America should play on the world stage.

We see them sociologically in our race relations and culture wars which erupted in Charlottesville, and in the flourishing of the MeToo Movement.

And we feel them psychologically as we struggle with issues of gender identity and defining what it means to be an American.

The time is now for our students to understand these challenges and take informed action to bridge our divides.

For teachers looking to learn more about how to to use “big questions” in the classroom, visit Dan’s blog, “Socrates Questions” for resources, inspiration and professional development opportunities. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Is Citizen the Right Word?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

Last month, I had the privilege to facilitate vertical articulation in a suburban school district around the new Illinois Social Studies standards. To create a common vision for this work, I asked the teachers in the room a simple question, “What is the purpose of social studies?” The word cloud below illustrates the results.

As the participants began to wordsmith the items in the cloud to create a cohesive mission statement, a question emerged, “What do we mean when we say social studies prepares students to be citizens?”

The 2011 Guardian of Democracy Report: The Civic Mission of Schools made the case the civic education was NOT a political issue, rather, an endeavor that both sides of the spectrum could embrace.

The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or the significance of the founding documents, […and] the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression; through the great struggles for civil, and social, and worker’s rights. It is up to us, then, to teach them.

- President Barack Obama

Since the founding of this Nation, education and democracy have gone hand in hand. The Founders believed a nation that governs itself, like ours, must rely upon an informed and engaged electorate. Their purpose was not only to teach all Americans how to read and write but to instill the self-evident truths that are the anchors of our political system.

- President Ronald Reagan

So why did my colleagues take pause at the term “citizen?” Their concern was that the word, “citizen,” has political connotations to many of the children in their classrooms. For many students, “citizen” may be a term that is a “non-starter” for them, as public policy and political rancor has made the term a loaded and emotional one. They might think, “I am not a citizen, so this content does not apply to me.”

All agreed that the intent in using the term “citizen” was to denote that all of us are participants of the communities in which we live. In the end, the group crafted a statement stating that the purpose of social studies is “To prepare students to be informed and civically engaged individuals who understand diverse perspectives, as well as their own culture, with a desire to take action, local to global.”

Shawn’s recent blog post responding to a recent critique by the Fordham Foundation about the nature of civics and social studies education in general reaffirms the importance of preparing ALL students for civic life. But does the language we use to that end matter? What do you think? Please post your comments below. Together, we can prepare the youngest members of our democratic republic for college, career and civic life.