Middle School Civics Debate Heats Up in Springfield

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director


Middle school civics is on the legislative docket in Springfield, with strong support for House Bill (HB) 2265 to require a semester of civics in grades 6, 7, or 8. It passed the House Education Committee on School Curriculum and Policies yesterday and advances to the House floor with an April 12th deadline. Proponents filed 755 witness slips, with only 31 opposed. Among the organizational proponents are the Barat Education Foundation, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Teachers Union, Citizen Advocacy Center, Forefront, League of Women Voters of Illinois, Metropolitan Planning Council, and Teach Plus Illinois.

There is opposition to the legislation, and what follows are responses to legitimate questions posed by those leaning “no.”

Aren’t the new Illinois Social Science Standards sufficient to insure integration of civics throughout the middle grades?

I led the task force that wrote the new social science standards and they have proven transformational at the high school level when paired with the new civics course requirement. Without such a mandate in the middle grades, however, there is no accountability for schools or districts failing to implement the standards. I respect local control and know of a few districts that are implementing the standards with fidelity across subject areas. Unfortunately, this is the exception, not the norm.

We have strong anecdotal evidence that districts throughout the state are eliminating the social studies entirely, subsuming them within ELA. And nationally, 44% of districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001.

This comes at a time when democratic institutions are in peril and only 23% of 8th graders test proficiently on NAEP Civics (and only 12% of Hispanic students and 9% of Black students).

Won’t a semester of civics in middle school crowd out the other social studies disciplines like history, economics, geography, and financial literacy?

HB 2265 requires only a semester of civics, leaving two and a half years to address the other important social studies subject areas. The requirement aligns well with the new state social science standards (specifically a grades 6-8 civics strand) and the longstanding Constitution mandate. Most schools teach ancient civilizations in 6th grade and US History in 7th and 8th. We believe that civics would complement the latter in 8th grade.

Isn’t this another unfunded mandate hoisted upon financially-stressed schools and districts?

Four years ago, the McCormick Foundation committed to contributing and raising a combined $3M to support statewide high school course implementation. Since October 2015, McCormick has provided more than 1,300 hours of professional development to 10,000-plus teacher attendees statewide.

These professional development opportunities are impacting teachers’ classroom instruction. Based on pre- and post-assessments of regional workshops in the summer of 2017, feelings of competence grew measurably among attending educators in key instructional strategies, including discussion of current issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes.

A Spring 2018 survey shows strong civic outcomes among students as a result of course exposure, including enhanced knowledge and skills. Students are also more likely to report engagement in a range of civic behaviors, including serving as a leader in a group or organization, discussing politics online, volunteering, and helping to make their city or town a better place to live.

In addition to $3M of investments in Grades 6-12 civic education in Illinois in 2019, McCormick has committed $400K per year over three years to support presumptive implementation of a middle school civics course. We are in the process of recruiting other foundations and corporate funders to join this follow-up effort poised to leverage the success of high school implementation.

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