Improving School Climate to Support Student Success

by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a research brief in September 2018, titled “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success,” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey. As a key element of Democracy Schools is “school climate,” I was excited to read more about their findings and connect their ideas to strengthening civic learning in schools.

The research brief examines, “how schools can use effective, research-based practices to create settings in which students’ healthy growth and development are central to the design of classrooms and the school as a whole.” The report explores findings related to the science of learning and development, school practices that should come from this science, and policy strategies that can support this work on a wider scale.

Related to the science of learning and development, a key finding from the report that connects to our work in civic learning is that “human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.” How do schools cultivate those relationships between students and teachers? What builds teachers’ awareness, empathy, and cultural competence to appreciate and understand their students’ needs and experiences?


Teaching Tolerance has a number of resources and professional development opportunities related to this. Addressing teacher capacity in these areas is essential to promoting the civic development and efficacy in our students.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey also assert that an implication of the science of learning and development for schools is that there needs to be “supportive environmental conditions that create a positive school climate and foster strong relationships and community.” Schools must work to strengthen relational trust among educators and families. How can families be integrated into the school community? What assets do community members have that can be leveraged in classrooms? Engaging these stakeholders and valuing their expertise can strengthen school and community connections, which is another key element of Democracy Schools.

Additionally, Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey recommend that schools become “’identity safe’- i.e. places where all students feel competent and supported in all classroom.” Strategies for promoting identity-safe classrooms include teaching that promotes understanding and developing student voice, responsibility, and belonging in classroom communities. The connection to student voice provides another parallel to the work in Democracy Schools, as our schools strive to find ways for student decision-making to be impactful at various levels of the school community.

A second strategy includes, “Cultivating diversity as a resource for teaching through culturally responsive materials, ideas, and teaching activities, along with high expectations for all students.” Related to this work is addressing racial bias that often exists in schools. Kathleen Osta and LaShawn Route Chatmon from the National Equity Project discuss additional strategies related to this in “Five Steps to Liberating Public Education from its Deep Racial Bias.”

Schools also must prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) that foster skills, habits, and dispositions that allow for academic growth and development. Developing social and emotional skills helps to cultivate the civic dispositions that we want in our students, so they can be further engaged in their communities.

Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey state, “Many schools also infuse social-emotional learning through the curriculum- for example, through curricula focused on perspective-taking and empathy in history and English language arts, and on community and social problem solving in social studies, mathematics, and science. Such efforts produce positive outcomes for student engagement, attachment to school, achievement, attainment, and behavior, including strong collaboration and support of peers, resilience, a growth mindset, and helpfulness toward others.”

These are all qualities we need in our young people to support the strengthening of our democracy and emphasize how a cross-curricular approach can strengthen civic learning.

A final area that connects to our work from this study connects with instructional strategies that support student motivation and efficacy. Inquiry is featured as an important learning strategy and one that the new Illinois Learning Standards for Social Science prioritizes.

Democracy Schools teachers design curriculum and utilize democratic teaching strategies by complementing the curriculum and assessments with civic learning that incorporates student-created essential and supporting questions as well as sustained inquiry. Creating these questions develops opportunities for deeper student engagement and learning.

Recommendations from the report include focusing the system on developmental supports for young people, designing schools to provide settings for healthy development, and ensuring educator learning for developmentally-supportive education. Overall, this emphasizes an alignment between the benefits of civic learning and positive school climate supporting effective learning in schools.

How Should We Live Together?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

As we return to the classroom this week, once again we will create a safe civic space to help students process a national tragedy. As I struggled to articulate my thoughts and role in responding, a friend eloquently posted, “My heart breaks for the families of the 11 killed in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. It is especially cruel that these people were killed in the name of hate and in a place that should be sacred. I will continue to work to erase hate and promote understanding”

Another friend replied with a charge for all of us in the classroom, “As we search for ways to react meaningfully, Social Studies educators have a special opportunity. Our classrooms are the homes for students to learn empathy, respect, [and] how to listen to others with understanding.”

The new Illinois social science standards and high school civics requirement promote active student inquiry into the most essential question facing our communities — How should we live together? In doing this rigorous work, students are able to build knowledge and skills to prepare them for effective civic engagement. However, as my friends alluded to in their social media posts, something else is happening in the midst of this inquiry. Students are employing important civic dispositions as they, in the words of the IL Social Science standards, "apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school and community settings."

Much of the work of the #CivicsIsBack campaign centers on building networks of professionals who can support one another in closing the civic empowerment gap. In the next month, there are numerous opportunities to join this network to “work to erase hate and promote understanding” in our classroom.


For resources to respond to the events in Pittsburgh consider these resources from Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance and the Anti Defamation League.

Do you have resources that would be helpful in helping students address the essential question, “How should we live together?” Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

Conceal and Carry in Schools? An Opportunity for Service Learning

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

One of my most fundamental responsibilities as a teacher is to keep my students safe. This blog has, on numerous occasions, discussed how to create a classroom that is safe, equitable, and inclusive for all learners. We have also processed how to create safe civic spaces to help students process current events in troubling times. We have yet to address how to keep our students safe from school violence?

Barbara Laimins, the #CivicsIsBack Mentor Liaison, recently attended a local school board meeting where the membership was deliberating whether they would endorse a resolution being presented at the upcoming IASB Joint Annual Conference to allow individual districts to choose whether they want to arm faculty members as part of a student safety and protection plan.

The exact language of the Student Safety and Protection Resolution from Mercer County CUSD 404 that will be voted on at the upcoming conference, November 16-18, 2018, is as follows:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Illinois Association of School Boards shall support and advocate for legislation which provides local school boards the option of developing Student Safety and Protection Plans which may include administrators, faculty, and/or other staff who have completed a state approved training course above and beyond concealed carry training, who have passed the multiple background checks and qualifications required for a concealed carry license, or have a current concealed carry license issued under the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act. Only staff who fulfill all requirements listed would be eligible as an active and armed part of the Student Safety and Protection Plan, upon being granted board approval.


This proposed resolution is the perfect opportunity for students to engage in service learning through researching and advocating how they would like their school board to vote on this issue. Classrooms can engage in an inquiry of this current and controversial issue topic and have their own simulation of a democratic process to deliberate their perspectives to take informed action.

Informed Action can take many forms, including writing letters to their school board or the editor of the local newspaper, testifying in person at a school board meeting, presenting petitions signed by a variety of constituents, hosting an informed conversation or panel discussion with a variety of stakeholders, creating political cartoons, engaging in social media...the opportunities are plentiful!


To help support inquiry on this topic, here are a few resources to use in your classroom:
Do you have any ideas of current and controversial issue topics that lend themselves to informed action? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Strategies to Support Struggling Readers in Civic Inquiry

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


In recent blog posts, Shawn highlighted compelling data analyzing the impact the #CivicsIsBack initiative has had on bridging the civic empowerment gap in the state of Illinois. While the results are encouraging, there are still important questions to tackle in order to meet the need of ALL learners in the civic classroom. One of these questions is, What are some strategies or resources that can be used to support students of varying reading levels in conducting research and building background knowledge to participate in civic inquiry?

In an article documenting a study of the literacy challenges faced by students and teachers in an advanced, project-based version of the US Government and Politics course, Dr. Walter Parker and Dr. Shelia Valencia from the University of Washington stated that:

Students in this study, when working with course texts, encountered densely constructed textbooks, challenging specialized vocabulary, and lack of teacher support for learning from text. Generally, they could read but not comprehend. Both teachers and students developed strategies to avoid learning from text-based resources. These strategies hindered students’ ability to learn course content and further disadvantaged students who needed more practice and support in learning from text.

My travels throughout the state of Illinois to provide professional development to support educators provides anecdotal evidence that this is not an issue isolated to students in APGOV. I have long believed that civics is best in a diverse classroom with students from varying lived experiences. However, the unintended consequence of having a cross-section of the community in the classroom is the variance of reading abilities.

So, how can we provide equitable opportunities for success in civics for students who need support in learning from texts? Here are some suggestions from Parker and Valencia as well as other resources to explore.
Do you have a favorite strategy to support struggling readers in your civics classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

School Leaders Say Civic Learning Marginalized by Test Pressures in Other Subjects

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In June, I recapped an administrator academy that Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I delivered for Springfield (IL) Public Schools. The academy was designed to build greater support for school-based civic learning among administrators, familiarizing them with new state policies impacting civics, but also making the empirical case for doubling down on civic learning.

Education Week has increased its coverage of civic learning in the wake of the 2016 Election and Parkland tragedy earlier this year. This spring and summer, respectively, they conducted and reported on a national survey of school leaders’ views on civic education (n=524). More than half of school leaders (52%) said that their schools provide “too little” civic education. The remaining 48% said there was just the right amount (one administrator said there was “too much”).

These leaders are seemingly well-positioned to support expanded civic learning opportunities for students, so what’s holding their schools’ back? As evident in the chart below, civics does not suffer from a lack of student interest. And contrary to the contention of many educators with whom we work, teacher training opportunities are a challenge in only 16% of cases. Similarly, there are few reported shortages of curricular materials to teach the subject.


Current and controversial issues endemic to high-quality civic learning fail to scare off the vast majority of administrators, and only 15% report challenges making civics a school or district-wide priority.

All of these challenges cast aside, the remaining, glaring obstacle is “pressure to focus on subjects other than civics because they are tested and emphasized.” More than half of school leaders suggested that this is challenging to very challenging (51%), and another 28% considered it somewhat challenging.

These findings are helpful as they allow us to focus our energies on breaking down civics’ marginalization by other prioritized and/ or tested subjects. One strategy centers on district and state policies, as civic learning and the social studies more generally should be treated as core subjects with credit and/ or hours of instruction requirements coequal to math, English language arts, and science.

Some states like Florida have had great success in pairing a civics course requirement with a high-stakes exam. For political and economic reasons, this option was and is not on the table in Illinois, but we must not punt the assessment question. Civic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors can be measured, and a consortium of states, Illinois included, is currently developing instruments to this end.

A second strategy encompasses both research and communications. There is some empirical evidence that high-quality civic learning opportunities correlate with student success across the board, but more must be done to examine the relationship between civic learning and students’ social and emotional development, related impacts on school climate, and potential links to student attendance, engagement, and graduation.

I’m confident that further research will affirm what we know anecdotally and experientially, and these findings should be paired with an effective communications strategy. We have long made the case for civic learning on the basis of preparing young people for informed, effective participation in the civic life of our communities, state, nation, and world. But reading, math, and science are ascendant because they have been successfully linked to preparation for college and careers. Civic learning has much to add here too in terms of both “hard” and “soft” skills. The field must therefore employ the advocacy skills we teach to elevate civic learning to its rightful place at the center of schools’ missions.

Closing the Civic Empowerment Gap through the #CivicsIsBack Campaign

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In August, we published a three-part series analyzing year two evaluation data of Illinois’ statewide civics course implementation plan provided by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The first piece provided a broad overview of the findings, and the second did a deep dive on the results of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program.

The concluding post further analyzed the student outcomes data derived from more than 3,000 Illinois high school students that completed surveys during the 2018-2019 school year measuring their exposure to proven civic learning practices and a stand-alone civics course, along with related civic dispositions and behaviors.

These students attended schools affiliated with teacher mentors and span from the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis to rural communities throughout Central and Southern Illinois. And they are broadly representative of the state’s student population, skewing slightly more white (54% white, 24% Latino, 21% Black, 11% multiracial, 3% Asian, and 2% American Indian/ Alaskan Native).

Last month, we published a companion piece disaggregating student participation and performance on the Advanced Placement American Government and Politics Exam by race, revealing deep inequities in terms of both access and outcomes. In a similar vein, we asked CIRCLE for disaggregated student survey data from our civics course implementation evaluation. My analysis of this data follows, which is available in its entirety here.

In terms of access, the results are mixed, as LatinX and Asian American students were less likely and Black students more likely to report taking a civics course (see Figure 1 below). Given that the course is a state mandate, more must be done to ensure equity of implementation across schools and districts statewide.

Figure 1: Did you take a social studies course that was completely about
how the government works and your role in participating in public decisions?

Similarly, while Black and Asian-Pacific Islander students were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities with exposure to a civics course, this distinction had no impact for LatinX students and overall participation in extracurricular activities is cause for concern among with LatinX and Black students (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Did you participate in a school club, sports team, or other
extracurricular activity during this school year (percent yes)?

These concerns considered, students enrolled in civics courses reported relatively equal access to proven civic learning practices across race (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: This year, in my classes, I have discussed controversial issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

The student survey concluded with a battery of questions assessing students’ civic behaviors and attitudes. While course exposure had a positive effect across races, significant gaps remain, privileging white and Asian-Pacific Islanders over their Black and LatinX peers. Figure 4, which asks students to assess their preparedness for political participation, is illustrative of both course benefits and remaining gaps.

Figure 4: I have the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in
politics and public issues (percent agree/strongly agree).

Course implementation continues in earnest with a quest for racial equity front and center. As these results demonstrate, we must do more to ensure universal access to both a required civics course, but also extracurricular activities critical to students’ social, emotional, and civic development. While access to best practices in civics courses is relatively equal by race, we must dig deeper and search for equity so long as students of color express less confidence in their civic skills and dispositions. In part, this entails a wholesale interrogation of existing curricula in a quest to align classroom instruction with students’ lived experiences. Stay tuned for further details on an emerging “lived civics” agenda.

Teaching Resources to Understand the Kavanaugh Hearings

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In a previous blog post, I shared resources to understand the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process and earlier this week, Shawn shared why the Kavanaugh hearing is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, explaining that, “The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.”

Beyond understanding the importance of the 2018 midterm elections and the system of checks and balances that scaffold the appointment process of federal judges, the Kavanaugh hearings have provided classrooms an opportunity to engage in current and controversial issue discussions related to power, justice and equity.

Navigating these quickly changing events can be challenging for teachers. Below are some resources to help.
How are you helping students make sense of the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career and civic life.

The Kavanaugh Nomination: A Pivotal Moment in Our Nation's Political Life

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A month ago, my colleague Mary Ellen Daneels previewed the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, sharing a plethora of classroom resources ripe for immediate use. Little did we know of the dramatics that would follow.

Kavanaugh was a fairly conventional nominee for a Republican President that vowed to select individuals vetted by the conservative Federalist Society. He did have a significant paper trail given his previous service as a lawyer in the Bush Administration, but twelve years on the federal bench and an Ivy League education placed him on par with his presumptive peers on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

However, history suggests that some of the most contentious nominations center on the ideological positioning of the Justice being replaced in relation to the nominee. In this case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on an otherwise evenly divided Court, decided to retire in June, opening the door for his former law clerk, a conservative more in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Court could place precedents that progressives hold near and dear to their heart in jeopardy, including those related to affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

The Senate is empowered to confirm judicial nominees, and we are in the midst of the vetting process. Historically, the bar was whether a nominee was qualified to serve a lifetime appointment in the Court, but as symptomatic of our increasingly polarized politics, ideology entered the fray with Reagan’s failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987.

Recent allegations of sexual abuse against Judge Kavanaugh bring us back to 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated conservative Judge Clarence Thomas to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. An all-male Judiciary Committee arguably provided cover for Thomas against sexual harassment allegations from his former colleague Anita Hill.

Thomas survived a narrow confirmation vote, but 1992 became known as the “Year of the Woman” when many female candidates were motivated to enter the arena of electoral politics, and a number of candidates found success, including ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

Four women now sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but each of them are Democrats. All eleven Republican committee members are Republican, and two of them (Senators Grassley and Hatch) were there in 1991.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in Congress, and only four have ever served on the Supreme Court. More female candidates than ever before are pursuing elected office at the state and national levels this November, so a second coming of the “Year of the Woman” may not be far behind.

The midterm elections are an important backdrop to the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as Democrats have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate, and with it vetting future presidential nominees. Should Kavanaugh not be confirmed and the Senate falls to Democrats, the clock is running out on Republicans to appoint a like-minded conservative.

In this scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine the Kennedy vacancy remaining open through the 2020 Election. Indeed Republicans did the same to President Obama during his final year in office.

Turning back to Kavanaugh, the FBI is currently in the throes of an investigation called for by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), but also endorsed by two of his colleagues, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Assuming a strict party line vote outside of these three Senators, they hold the balance of power in a body controlled 51-49 by Republicans with Vice President Pence poised to break any tie. Recall that the filibuster was neutralized for Supreme Court nominees last year.

As we await the results of this investigation, the background provided above is critical to advance students’ understanding of how we arrived at this juncture. It goes without saying that we should also underline that what happens in high school and college follows us throughout our lives, impacting our careers and families.