#CivicsInTheMiddle Is Law in the Land of Lincoln

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Friday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill (HB) 2265 into law. Now officially Public Act 101-0254, the law requires a semester of civics in grades 6, 7, or 8, employing direct instruction, discussion of current and societal issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes. It takes effect at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

We are deeply appreciative of Representative Camille Lilly’s sponsorship in consecutive General Assemblies of a middle school civics requirement. While she believed deeply and supported the high school requirement passed in 2015, Rep. Lilly felt that high school was too late to begin cultivating students’ civic development. Beginning next fall, middle school students for generations to come will benefit from Public Act 101-0254, entering high school, and later adulthood with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary for informed, effective, and lifelong engagement in the civic life of Illinois.

Senate sponsor Jacqueline Collins proved a fierce advocate in the upper chamber, shepherding the bill through a contentious committee hearing and ultimate passage on the floor with a bi-partisan supermajority.

A coalition of civic organizations mobilized behind HB 2265, but two deserve special recognition. CHANGE Illinois, led by Madeleine Doubek and recently-departed Jeff Raines, placed #CivicsInTheMiddle at the center of their policy agenda and actively worked the legislative roll call, helping to build a healthy list of House and Senate co-sponsors.

Our American Voice, led by Sheila Smith and John Fontanetta of the Barat Foundation, showcased their statewide middle school civics service learning program in both Chicago and Springfield. The latter event coincided with the final weeks of the legislative session and included legislative visits by student participants and a meeting with Governor Pritzker on the Capitol steps.

As was true of our high school push four years prior, students and teachers in the trenches were the heart and soul of the #CivicsInTheMiddle Campaign. This includes our statewide network of Illinois Democracy Schools, 74 strong, and Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors, a group of veteran civics teachers that led the charge for high school course implementation in their respective regions, 38 in all.

As with 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. Highlights include:
  • Ongoing teacher professional development opportunities, both in person and online, offered in partnership with civic education nonprofits and institutional partners, including universities and regional offices of education.
  • A new partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to build online 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. We anticipate the first module, focused on discussion of current and controversial issues, to launch this winter.
  • Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches representing ten Illinois regions. Civics Instructional Coaches will receive in-depth training both in-person and via webinars. Civics Coaches, in turn, will facilitate professional development for middle and high school civics/social studies teachers in their respective regions. Civics Coaches will also be responsible for ongoing engagement with Regional Offices of Education, teachers, schools, districts, and pre-service programs in their area via newsletters, social media engagement, workshops, and conference presentations throughout the school year.
  • As was true of our high school efforts, we will partner with Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) to evaluate the impact of our implementation efforts, beginning with the online microcredentialing system. This spring, CIRCLE administered a survey to middle school teachers and administrators to further assessment implementation needs. Preliminary results are summarized here and will further shape these preliminary plans.

#CivicsInTheMiddle is the latest of several policy wins for Illinois’ civic learning community and reason to celebrate. But now the hard work of implementation begins in earnest. We are grateful for the longstanding and deep commitment to youth civic development among our civic learning and institutional partners and most importantly, teachers in the trenches. We look forward to continued collaboration in the months and years ahead. The long-term prognosis for Illinois’ civic health is promising because we have collectively chosen to invest in high-quality, school-based civic learning.


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