Past is Prologue for Presumptive Implementation of Middle School Civics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

As legislation to require a semester of civics in middle school moves to the Illinois Senate, this post will further elaborate on the McCormick Foundation’s presumptive plan to support statewide implementation. Like the high school course, we propose a three-year plan to help middle school teachers, schools, and districts incorporate a civics course in grades 6, 7, or 8.

The past three years provide a prologue for middle school implementation. I’ve written previously about the impact of high school civics implementation, from the fidelity by which teachers, schools, and districts have implemented the law to student civic engagement outcomes. I have also addressed the value provided by more than 1,300 hours of professional development (PD) to 10,000-plus teachers since October 2015.

Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, offered some additional, high-level take-aways from our multi-year implementation efforts during a presentation at the 2018 National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference. Kei’s conclusions were published last month in the Success in High-Needs Schools Journal in an article co-authored by Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and me (beginning on page 58).


  1. Show Not Tell: Professional development should let teachers experience what the new pedagogy feels like as learners. Our mentor-led PD combines civic content and pedagogy and models their integration into teachers’ classrooms.
  2. Be a Yoga Master: Not all teachers are the same--show ways to adapt lessons. As Mary Ellen is wont to say: “Good teachers are mixers.” As PD providers, it is our duty to share suggested “ingredients” and allow participants to “season” to their liking.
  3. Teachers are Partners: Take teacher inputs seriously--they need voice before they can give voice. Teachers are central to our grass roots implementation efforts and have shaped our plans from start to finish.
  4. Words Matter: How you describe a practice can make or break the adoption. For example, the service learning component of the course requirement terrified many teachers at the outset. Mary Ellen wisely reframed it to “taking informed action” in alignment with the new Illinois K-12 social studies standards and offered a variety of means to pursue this end with students, lowering the collective blood pressure of civics teachers instantly.
  5. Use Other Assets: Know the broad educational landscape in the state and use other leverage points. The Danielson Framework is one example. Adopting the course requirement with fidelity indirectly affects teacher performance because the framework overlaps with civics pedagogy.
We currently have a survey in the field that we strongly encourage middle school social studies teachers and administrators to complete by May 15 to inform presumptive implementation plans. These findings, combined with our high school experience and evaluation results, will further shape our middle school implementation plans. Current highlights include:
  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, are pivotal to our proposed effort. They will be offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • We are especially excited about a new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to develop high-production learning modules for teachers centered on the proven civic learning practices: discussion, service learning, and simulations, respectively. Participating teachers will earn microcredentials in each practice, and our goal, through a combination of in-person and online professional development opportunities, is to reach teachers or instructional coaches in each Illinois school and/ or district serving students in grades 6-8. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this fall.
  • Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have been central to our high school course implementation efforts, and we intend to continue the program with modifications to account for lessons learned and the unique needs of middle schools.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with CIRCLE to evaluate the impact of our teacher professional development offerings and, reciprocally, the fidelity of middle school course implementation. At the end of the implementation period, we will also assess the impact the course has on student civic development, measuring growth in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • In addition to the McCormick Foundation’s ongoing investments in youth civic education and engagement in Illinois ($4.2 million in grants in 2018), our course implementation efforts have an annual operating budget of $1 million. We pledge to contribute an additional $400,000 to this effort each year and are working to raise the balance through local philanthropic partners.

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