Illinois Civics Courses Changing Classroom Practice and Producing Strong Student Outcomes

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since the debut of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign in 2016, we have provided periodic updates on our progress. The primary intent of the Campaign is to support teachers, schools, and districts throughout Illinois in implementing the new high school civics course requirement and related, revised K-12 social studies standards.

To measure our progress, we partnered with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, and have previously summarized their findings on the impact our interventions have had on teachers participating in our professional development, plus the fidelity by which teachers, schools, and districts are implementing the law.

Core to our campaign are Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors, veteran educators representing the state’s 38 Regional Offices of Education outside of the City of Chicago. Teacher Mentors have received extensive professional development from the Illinois Civics team, and in turn, are charged with serving as resources for peers, schools, and districts in their regions.

Early returns suggested classroom and building-level interest in implementation among Mentors, but our second year of evaluation shows gains with principals, superintendents, teachers in the region, parents, and local leaders (see graph below). However, parents remain a stakeholder group in need of additional cultivation.

Mentors find that the greatest strength of the new course requirement is the integration of best practices in civic learning: direct instruction, discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes. This strength is also a challenge among teachers committed to more traditional practices and administrators who “…do not see the value of the requirement.”

Mentors report integrating these practices into their own instruction and their profound impact on students. One mentor stated:

“[The student-centered nature of the civics requirement] engages students and puts them in charge of their own learning and collaborating on activities” and “forces deep and meaningful learning.”

CIRCLE also measured student outcomes from exposure to a civics course (see graph below). Because they did not perform a random control trail, we cannot make causal links, but “…results do suggest tangible benefits to student development garnered from taking the new social studies course.”

As compared to those who did not take a course, students who took a course were more likely to:
  • Experience more supportive classroom environments that encouraged civil discourse.
  • Say that they had discussed controversial issues in their courses.
  • Say that they felt safe expressing their opinions.
  • Say that they were encouraged to consider multiple views on controversial issues.
  • Discuss current events and learn about how government works.
  • Report improved interest and commitment to their local communities.
  • Think that it is everyone’s responsibility to be concerned about state and local issues.
  • Volunteer, help a neighbor, or serve as a leader.
These findings compliment those related to our mentors and provide evidence that statewide course implementation is taking hold. Future posts will further parse these findings, review their implications, and chart a course for the final year of intensive support for course implementation and plans for long-term sustainability.

Complete Census Count Critical for Rural Communities in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of addressing the Illinois Governor Rural Affairs Council (GRAC) in partnership with Anita Banjeri of Forefront’s Democracy Initiative in regard to the 2020 Census. Mary Ellen and I have posted in the past about national concerns on administering the 2020 Census, its high stakes for Illinois, and how to integrate it into your classroom this fall.

Anita and I shared some of these lessons with the GRAC, and received a favorable reaction from Council members, including Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti (see picture below). A few highlights are particularly relevant for civics teachers serving in schools outside of the Chicago area.

As mentioned in a previous post, Illinois is speckled with hard-to-count communities (HTC’s) outside of Chicago, including Rockford, DeKalb, Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield, Metro East (suburban St. Louis), Carbondale, and Pulaski and Alexander counties at the state’s southern tip. While HTC’s are heavily concentrated in urban counties (71% of the HTC population), 79% of HTC counties are rural.

HTC’s skew nonwhite, young (the early childhood population in particular), and poor, the latter of which rural populations show a greater propensity towards. However, there is a significant Black population in the rural South, Hispanic population in the rural Southwest, and Native Americans living on remote reservations. Other HTC rural populations lie in Appalachia and among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Lt. Gov. Sanguinetti mentioned Arcola, IL, as an example of a rural community with a large Hispanic population and an Amish population, both likely qualifying as HTC.

This leads back to the technological challenges presented by the 2020 Census as the Bureau moves towards a primarily online system. The vast majority of the population will be prompted to complete the Census online, and rural households are less likely to have broadband access at home than their urban counterparts (21% without versus 13%; see graph at right). The Census Bureau is poised to provide paper alternatives to targeted communities with limited broadband access, but this methodology has not been tested and thus possesses significant risk for contributing to an undercount in rural communities.

At the GRAC meeting, I shared data on projected population growth and decline by county in Illinois since the last Census, where 89 of the state’s 102 counties have shrunk in population, all of them outside of metropolitan Chicago with the exception of Lake County. In a separate presentation, we learned that while Illinois’ metropolitan population has grown by 4% since 2000, its rural population has shrunk by 5%.

Much attention must be devoted to ensuring a complete count in Illinois come Census Day in April 2020. Lt. Gov. Sanguanetti, for one, offered to record public service announcements in both English and Spanish to encourage the state’s residents to fully participate. This is welcome, as is the funding appropriated ($1.5 million in FY 2019) by the Illinois General Assembly for Census outreach.

The short-term strategy is one of “hold(ing) on to what we got,” but moving forward, we must do more to reverse rural population loss. To this end, Dr. Norman Walzer of Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies presented a number of strategies, including incentivizing young families to move to rural counties and marketing them as high-quality, lower-cost places to live. Engaging students in inquiries of this nature sets up opportunities for informed action in rural schools and communities throughout Illinois.

Civic Learning the Long-Term Solution to Restoring Faith in American Democracy

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week I reviewed a Brookings Institution study on the state of civic learning in the United States. Today, I’d like to review a separate report published by the Democracy Project that explores how we can reverse “a crisis of confidence” in our democratic institutions. The report is a collaboration of Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center. It draws from a large national survey and regional focus groups, “…examining American attitudes about democratic principles and institutions at home and support for U.S. policies that advance democracy abroad.”

While the project did not find a decline in support for democratic ideals, it demonstrated “…a crisis in confidence of how U.S. democracy works in practice.” A majority view American democracy as weak (55%) and more than two-thirds (68%) feel it is getting weaker. These feelings are more pronounced among people of color, perhaps attributed to their historical marginalization in American democracy and sensitivity to its shortcomings.

When asked to identify problems that plague our democracy, big money in politics and racism and discrimination emerged as the greatest concerns, followed by government ineffectiveness and unreliable media and partisan news (see graph below). Specific to racism and discrimination, whites and people of color have decidedly different views, where the former deems “equal rights and protections for minorities” as improving, and the latter see significant regression.

There was evidence of strong support for the protection of individual rights and small groups from the “tyranny of the majority.” And by a wide margin respondents support continued or increased promotion of democracy and human rights abroad by the U.S. government.

As we seek to rally public support for democracy generally and our public institutions specifically, the messaging that resonates most poignantly is around the threats to individual liberties and freedoms and increased civic engagement as the best defense against their erosion. Tactical means of strengthening democracy center on greater incentives for youth to engage in public service, stronger protections against racial bias, and limits on campaign contributions in federal elections.

The most encouraging finding, which translated into a recommendation at the end of the report, is broad support for school-based civic learning. Eighty-nine percent favored a proposal to “ensure that schools make civic education a bigger part of the curriculum.” This surpassed all of the other competing proposals, and if implemented, could produce “…a stronger public understanding of democratic principles.”

I would go further in suggesting that high-quality civic learning opportunities empower young people to address the democratic weaknesses that emerged in this survey, advancing specific policy proposals to eliminate racial inequities and strengthen public institutions. Civic learning plays an important role in affirming our 244 year experiment in democracy, but also in equipping our posterity to build a more perfect union in search of alignment of founding ideals and present realities.

Brookings Institution Report Spotlights Inequities in Civic Learning

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last month, the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy released a report on K-12 civic learning. They explored the extent to which “…schools (are) equipping students with the tools to become engaged, informed, and compassionate citizens.” And they disaggregated their findings by race and class to identify inequities in access and outcomes with respect to youth civic development.

I have written extensively about the National Assessment in Civics at the high school level, and this report makes a notable contribution to the literature in driving down to elementary (4th) and middle grades (8th), positioning civics performance against the prioritized subjects of reading and math. Scores in all three subjects rose since 1998, a period that coincides with implementation of No Child Left Behind.

However, gaps in student performance on civics assessments widened between black and white students, along with those qualifying for free and reduced lunch and those that are ineligible. While the white-Hispanic gap narrowed and tracked similar trends for reading and math, the gap in civics remains larger than the other two subjects.

The report also assessed state civic learning policies for their incorporation of proven civic learning practices, specifically direct instruction, discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, simulations of democratic processes, and media literacy.

Illinois was identified with policies supporting each of these practices except service learning, an oversight given that it is embedded in the new civics course requirement. Moreover, although Illinois is credited for using the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework to write new social studies standards, the report fails to connect the “taking informed action” component of the C3 inquiry arc with service learning specifically and action civics more broadly.

I also take issue with the authors’ contention that white and affluent students do not experience more exposure to proven civic learning practices than students of color and those that qualify for free or reduced lunch. Their conclusion is based upon small disparities among student subgroups reporting never experiencing selected practices. However, my previous research demonstrated that access to proven practices at dosages that correlated with highest test scores (daily exposure to current events discussions, for example), was inequitable by race, income, maternal educational attainment, and language proficiency.

I concur with their conclusion that state policy can help address broad-based and subgroup-specific deficiencies and gaps in youth civic development. The authors also point to potential changes in pre-service education, professional development opportunities, and funding for civic learning as promising levers to strengthen civic learning, recommendations we are pursuing in both Illinois and nationally.

The final chapter profiled social studies teachers and compared them with peers in English Language Arts (ELA), math, and natural sciences. Social studies teachers are disproportionately male (58%, versus 20% for ELA, 38% math, and 41% natural sciences). The report attempts to explain this finding, and concludes it may have something to do with the larger share of male teachers that also coach.

Unstated was the lack of racial diversity in the teaching ranks overall and that it is most pronounced among social studies teachers. Only 16% of social studies teachers are teachers of color, compared with 19% in ELA and natural sciences, and 22% in math. I wrote previously about the mismatch of our ever diverse student population and stagnant, if not regressing population of teachers of color, and would add the urgency of addressing it to the implications of this important report.

Census 2020: The Stakes Couldn't Be Higher for Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week I laid out the challenges facing administration of Census 2020, and Mary Ellen followed with “Monday morning lesson plans” for incorporation in your civics classes this coming fall. Today I’d like to highlight the implications of Census 2020 for Illinois.

The Census Bureau’s goal is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” but this is easier said than done. According to the Funders Census Initiative 2020, during the 1940 Census, 453,000 more men registered for the military draft than were reflected in the census. And while this disparity equated with only 3% of white men ages 21 to 35, it rose to 13% for black men in the same age cohort.

In 2010, the Census Bureau overcounted whites by 0.83%, but undercounted blacks by 2.06%, meaning that blacks ceded 3% of their representation to whites. Communities of color are considered hard-to-count (HTC), as are low-income households (equated with renting) and young children.

For reasons articulated in the previous post, HTC communities lose out on political representation, government funding, and even private investment. According to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, $800 billion of federal funding supporting 300 programs is appropriated annually to states based on census counts. Due to Illinois’ undercount in 2010, the state lost $952 per person of federal funding. In 2015 alone, Illinois lost $122 million for every 1% of the population we failed to count.

The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia reports that Illinois has lost six congressional seats since 1960 as a result of slow or declining population growth. They predict the loss of at least one additional seat in 2020. Texas, by comparison, has gained 13 seats since 1960 and is projected to add three more in 2020.

It’s widely known that Illinois is losing population in recent years, with losses most pronounced outside of metropolitan Chicago. In fact, 89 of Illinois’ 102 counties experienced population loss from 2010 through 2017. Rockford, Kankakee, Decatur, and Metro East (suburban St. Louis) have been particularly hard hit, while Lake County is the only Chicago area county with a shrinking population.

Given the stakes of Census 2020, it’s imperative that we identify and mobilize HTC communities in Illinois. This tool helps identify HTC’s and reports that 80.7% of Illinoisans completed their mail-in census forms in 2010, meaning more resource-intense, in-person follow-up for the remaining 19.3%. The Census Bureau projects that 16% of our state’s population is HTC, and that 18.1% of households have access to the Internet when administration of the census is moving mostly online.

While HTCs are most prolific in Chicago, there are pockets throughout the suburbs and Northern Illinois (see below). HTCs in Central Illinois include Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, and Decatur, and specific tracts in Metro East are also HTC. In Southern Illinois, Carbondale, Cairo, and large portions of Pulaski County qualify as HTC.

In sum, Illinois’ demography presents significant challenges for Census 2020. The stakes are high politically and financially. We must all do our part to reach HTC’s, many of these populations and communities reflected in the student bodies of our classrooms and schools.