Middle School Leaders Claim Civic Learning Marginalized in Their Buildings

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) moves through the Illinois General Assembly, the Illinois Civics team is partnering with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University to determine the presumptive implementation needs of teachers, schools, and districts through a survey distributed earlier this month. We encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to weigh in and complete the survey by mid-May.

The need for middle school civics is profound. Only 23% of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency in civics on the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), with a stark civic achievement gap evident along racial and ethnic lines (see below). This coincides with a report from the Council of Chief State School Officers that 44% of school districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001.


School leaders concur that the social studies, and civic learning specifically, have been unfairly and dangerously marginalized in an era where what is tested is taught. Last spring, Education Week surveyed 524 school leaders nationally about the state of civic learning in their districts. Fifty-seven percent of middle school leaders contended that their schools spend too little time on civic learning (not a single respondent said “too much”). And only 23% of middle school leaders reported that their schools offer a stand-along course in civics.

House Bill 2265 prescribes a mix of teacher-led and student-centered civic learning practices including direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes in alignment with what school leaders consider most important. According to the Education Week survey, K-12 school leaders prefer current events discussions, instruction on the Constitution and related civil liberties, and modeling civic participation and voting.

Given the value that K-12 school leaders place on civic learning, they rank the pressure to focus on other tested subjects as the greatest challenge. The intensity of this pressure is most pronounced in middle and elementary schools.

A related challenge is that civic learning is not a district or school priority. A lack of civic learning resources and the political, controversial elements of civics present lesser challenges. Student interest, and somewhat surprisingly, teacher training, are deemed the least challenging among the survey options listed.

As demonstrated in my January post on the Civic Education System Map published by the CivXNow Coalition, the way civics is taught can help change public perceptions about its importance. In turn, public support drives state and district policies and related prioritization. The curricular mix embedded in House Bill 2265 will help propel a virtuous cycle, directly addressing the challenges surfaced by K-12 school leaders in the Education Week survey.

Overall, these findings underline the need to drive high-quality civic learning opportunities down to the earlier grades. We look forward to collecting the analyzing the Illinois-specific data from our middle school civics survey currently in the field in the months ahead to design an implementation plan responsive to the needs of teachers, schools, and districts in our demographically and geographically diverse state.

Social-Emotional Learning and Civics: What are the Connections?

by Scott McGallagher, Democracy Program Research Intern

“Social-emotional learning is not frou-frou, it matters.” This impassioned statement from Desmond Blackburn, and many others like it from his colleagues, impressed upon their audience the importance of supporting social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. Mr. Blackburn, the Chief Executive Officer of New Teacher Center (NTC) was a panelist, along with Dr. Elaine Allensworth the Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (hereafter the Consortium) and LaTanya McDade the Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), at the Forefront and W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation discussion of “Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators” on Thursday, March 21st, 2019.

The essential question driving the discussion for the day was: how do we close the gap between “pockets” of SEL excellence and “systems” of SEL excellence? Dr. Allensworth early on established with her colleagues and the audience that student engagement—amongst their peers and with teachers—is the most imperative element of fostering emotional and social growth among young people. Behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement that the Consortium highlights draws connections to a “lived civics” framework of civics education that challenges students and teachers to create intentional and inclusive classrooms where all students’ knowledge, experiences, and voices are heard.

Civics curricula that is emotionally and socially responsive to the students who are growing from it should challenge students not only to learn more about their own identities, but about how they learn about the world and others around them. This central focus sets up students to be able to practice empathy in the classroom in how they relate their experiences to those of their other classmates.

In turn, students equipped with this skill can venture out into the world and have productive and respectful civic and political deliberations with those they encounter. At the heart of SEL is the bond between students and teachers, much like there is a bond in generational partnerships in civic spaces where community members share their knowledge and collaborate towards action.

One of the most profound takeaways from Dr. Allensworth’s research was that teachers who take the time to really get to know their students address interventions through alleviation rather than aggravation. This may sound simple, but surprisingly many of the panelists and educators in the audience said that this is unfortunately not the norm.

In a Civics classroom, fostering students who are emotionally and socially competent relies upon incorporating space for critically positioning the intersections of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences. As Mr. Blackburn referenced regularly throughout the event, resources should not just be allocated to develop students, but also teachers, as students cannot gain these critical perspectives without a teacher equipped to guide students through this journey. We must get to a point in classrooms—and not just in Civics classrooms—where all young peoples’ knowledge and experiences are valued and recognized for how they not only shape their lives, but when sharing their stories, shape how others view life from varying perspectives.

Some questions that circled around in my head at the conclusion of the presentation include the “how” of involving parents/guardians and other adults in these conversations, and how young people can engage in these practices with their parents/guardians at home. As well, I was left wondering when talking about establishing best practices of SEL across the curriculum, how are educators mindful of translating these practices to classrooms’ specific contexts?

Additional resources on SEL across the curriculum:

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (October 2018). Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators.

Illinois Students Make the Case for Middle School Civics, Part II

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Tuesday, we shared a student (Kelsey’s) narrative statement on behalf of House Bill (HB) 2265, legislation to require a semester of civics in Illinois middle schools. Kelsey’s teacher, Chris Johnson, is an Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor for Henderson, Knox, Mercer, and Warren Counties in West Central Illinois, and teaches civics at both the middle and high school levels at ROWVA Junior/Senior High School.

HB 2265 passed the Illinois House last week with a bi-partisan supermajority, and moves next to the Senate with a May 24 deadline for passage. There is no stronger testimony for #CivicsInTheMiddle than the voice of students, and we’re please to offer a powerful statement from a second student of Mr. Johnson’s, Kayla, below.


From one study, out of 165,000 high school students surveyed, 45% of those students feel unprepared for college. We have a solution that could possibly make these students feel more prepared from an earlier age. Starting a civics requirement for middle school students would help provide them with an early knowledge of life, which will make them more prepared in the long run. A semester in their last year of middle school will get them be more prepared for high school, which will then help for beyond that.

Keeping students in touch with the real world is life changing. My civics teacher made our class download the New York Times or Washington Post apps on our phones. Why did he do this? He wanted to make sure we were realizing what was happening outside of school and our commonly used apps on our cellular devices. The importance of this lesson for students is to show them what is real or fake news. Reputable sources like these are a positive thing for people who haven’t been informed on the dangers of fake news. There are more younger people than we know that see fake news on social media and believe it. This can be very dangerous for young people currently forming opinions on the world and politics. I know I learned a lot from Civics and realized that there is a lot more going on in this world than I realized. Also, this is a good time to introduce what a reliable and an opinionated website is. This information will help students in their classes and in life. I know this would have helped me a lot freshman year, when I was writing papers and doing research projects.

Going into high school, we were required to take 2 years of history. But a lot of us had no idea what was going on in these classes. Some of us had no idea what the difference was between a Democrat and a Republican. I now understand these differences and know how to make my decision when voting. I wish I would've known what I know now before taking my history classes, because I know I could have understood things a lot better. Teaching students what the difference between the parties and why they are important, is something that I wish I would've learned in middle school. Touching on the basics of voting and understanding the election process is important. They have to take the constitution test in middle school and in high school, so they spend a little time on these topics, but not a lot. Spending less time on the constitution and focusing more on the real-life situations and what affects us would be much more beneficial. When watching the news, as a sixteen-year-old, it is hard to understand some of the topics sometimes. A civics class would definitely help with this and it would make a lot of people more informed.

Civics opens the idea for students to support their own opinion. You learn to stand up for what you think is right, while also learning how supporting your opinion. I liked this idea because when you have two students fighting for their own opinions or fighting for their case, it opens the audience to two different sides of the story. Having people educated enough to have their own opinions on issues will only help everyone in the long run. A civics class for younger students will make their lives better by making them educated, learning more about important things in life and giving them a step up on the real world.

Illinois Students Make the Case for Middle School Civics, Part I

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Chris Johnson, Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor for Henderson, Knox, Mercer, and Warren Counties in West Central Illinois, has taught civics at both the middle and high school levels at ROWVA Junior/Senior High School (pictured below, bottom left). He engaged his students in exploration of the current debate in Springfield over middle school civics, and a couple of them, Kelsey and Kayla, felt passionately about the need for #CivicsInTheMiddle. Both provided narrative statements on behalf of House Bill (HB) 2265, currently awaiting consideration in the Illinois Senate after passing the House last week with a bi-partisan supermajority. Kelsey’s narrative follows and stay tuned for Kayla’s statement on Thursday.


In small town schools, it may be difficult to provide higher level classes for students. Aside from basic social studies courses, civics classes may not be offered; therefore, they are not required. This is a major controversy for today’s generations. If the school systems are not providing civics education for students when they are in a junior high level, they cannot expect these students to be prepared for high school level civics classes.

I took civics the fall semester of my junior year. During this semester, I was taught more about being involved as an Illinois citizen than any other class has taught me. While I have been educated about the roles of the government, civics opened me up to many more opportunities and ideas. Not only did this class expose me to the reality of the real world, but it also allowed me to further understand complex situations that can influence my role as citizen. If I was taught this curriculum at an earlier level, I would have been more prepared for the situations I have had to face.

Including this class into the curriculum for junior high students influences them to be more involved as they begin to face actions like voting. Before I took civics, I was not aware of why I should vote and all of the benefits of voting. While we also focused on the constitutions, court cases, and budgeting techniques, voting stuck out the most to me. While I was not old enough to vote while learning these ideas, it changed my mindset for when I reach the age to vote. This class is a class that every student should experience, so it should be made a requirement. Even though some students may view this class as useless or a hassle, it does teach great lessons.