Illinois Democracy Schools Largely Embracing Lived Civics Principles, but Civic Empowerment Gap Persists

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since 2006, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, convened by the McCormick Foundation, has recognized 74 Illinois high schools as Democracy Schools. The recognition process has evolved significantly, broadening civics to a cross-curricular priority, measuring the organizational culture undergirding students’ civic learning experiences, and most recently, centering racial equity through a lived civics framework and disaggregating student survey data by race/ethnicity.

This spring, eleven members of our Democracy Schools Network piloted a revised student survey and schoolwide assessment process. What follows is a summary of trends in the student survey data, disaggregated by race (read the full analysis of questions related to lived civics).

The sample of 3,904 students was broadly representative of Illinois’ demographic and geographic diversity. White and Latinx students were slightly overrepresented, and Black students underrepresented. Students of two or more races, Asian students, Pacific Islanders, and American Indian students were significantly overrepresented. Because students were allowed to select more than one racial/ethnic identification, all racial subgroups may be modestly overrepresented.



Students were asked a battery of questions about the design of their classes and teaching strategies used within. For the most part, students rated their courses highly through the lens of lived civics, but there remains significant room for growth. For example, the vast majority of students (76%) report learning about the culture and history of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds “sometimes” to “often,” yet white students are most likely to select “often.”


Fewer students reported learning about “people like me that are making or have made a difference in (their) community,” nearly two-thirds (65%) suggesting “rarely” to “sometimes,” but Black and Latinx students are the highest among those who selected “often.”


Similarly, most students are neutral to in agreement (69% combined) that teachers make time in class to discuss important issues in their community, with Black and Latinx students more likely to be neutral than their white and Asian peers.


On measures of school climate, students provided more mixed reviews across a battery of questions, exemplified by their neutral-to-agreeable (65% of students) response to, “Adults in my school treat all students fairly regardless of background or identity.” Mirroring concerns about disproportionality in exclusionary discipline by race/ethnicity, Black and Latinx students were most likely to offer a neutral response to this question and least likely to agree strongly.


Turning to student voice, a plurality of students (35%), led by Black and Latinx students and students of two or more races, are neutral when it comes to their ability to express views and highlight important issues through the school newspaper or student media. However, white and Asian students are significantly more likely to agree and agree strongly in response to this question.


When it comes to political action and expression, most students are on the proverbial sidelines, the exception being an even split between students saying that they have participated in a decision-making process at school. Black and white students were disproportionately more likely to answer this question in the affirmative and Latinx students in the negative.


Half of students reported volunteering in the community, but Asian (57%) and White students (59%) are significantly more likely to say “yes,” and Black (40%) and Latinx students (45%) “no.”


Upon turning 18, the vast majority of students (72%) plan to vote regularly, but white students (77%) are significantly more likely to answer in the affirmative. By comparison, students of two or more races (28%) have dramatically higher numbers answering in the negative, with students of color across the board more likely to report uncertainty.


Finally, across multiple measures of cognitive engagement with politics, Black and Latinx students shared less agreement, and more neutrality, than their Asian, and especially white peers. For example, when asked if “…by participating in politics I can make a difference,” Black, Latinx, and students of two of more races were more likely than white and Asian students to answer neutrally, while the latter two groups led among students in agreement.

In summary, our sample of Democracy Schools have strong evidence that a lived civics curriculum is taking root, yet there is significant room for growth, and a need to ensure that civic learning opportunities are offered equitably to all students. Schools should pay attention to inequitable opportunities and experiences with respect to student voice and school climate for students of color, Black and Latinx students in particular. Schools’ overall middling performance in these two categories make them priorities for the larger Democracy Schools Network to address.

The most alarming findings in this survey are evidence a stubborn civic empowerment gap across a range of measures of students’ current and prospective civic engagement. Equal inputs don’t necessarily translate into equal outcomes, highlighting the important distinction between equality and equity.

What can be done to make the quantity and quality of civic learning opportunities more equitable across race and ethnicity? And to what extent might school climates failing on measures of inclusivity and nondiscrimination undermine the benefits of relatively equal civic learning opportunities?

Future data analysis and posts will attempt to begin answering these questions, as will teachers and administrators within our Democracy Schools Network as we collectively work to eliminate the civic empowerment gap.

Resources for Media Literacy

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

October 21-25th marks the 5th Annual U.S. Media Literacy Week. The mission of Media Literacy Week is to raise awareness about the need for media literacy education and its essential role in education today. Organizations, schools, and educators from all over the country will be sharing resources via #MediaLitWk. In the 2017 report, “The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution”, cites media literacy as a complementary stream of civic education. The report explains:
...young people are increasingly empowered to influence the topics and stories that are widely shared. At the same time, they are deluged with unreliable information and actual propaganda, and research shows that most young people perform poorly at distinguishing fake news from reliable news. This skill can be taught effectively in schools, and students can learn to be effective producers of news. Given these recent developments, the need for news media literacy education is acute.
Media literacy is central to #CivicsInTheMiddle work. Students must learn how to be wise consumers of information; as well as practice how to engage with and produce information. Here are some resources to support #MedLitWk and media literacy throughout the year.
  • National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), organizes #MediaLitWk and supports information literacy year-round.
  • The News Literacy Project has lesson plans, archived webinars and a digital platform called Checkology that can be used in one-to-many or one-to-one. classrooms. Don’t forget to subscribe to their weekly newsletter called The Sift for weekly updates on “teachable moments” related to news literacy.
  • iCivics has curriculum units for middle and high school classrooms on news literacy, as well as media and influence. The NewsFeed Defenders game engages students to learn how to spot a variety of methods behind the viral deception we all face today.
  • The Stanford History Education Group has created assessments of civic online reasoning—the ability to judge the credibility of digital information about social and political issues.
  • Crash Course has a 12-part video series on Media Literacy.
  • Newseum ED has wonderful infographics for classroom use as well as lesson plans.
  • Facing History and Ourselves partnered with the News Literacy Project to create a timely unit on media literacy called “Facing Ferguson” that is appropriate for high school students.
  • The American Press Institute has activities and lesson plans for all ages.
  • This link from Edutopia has vetted a 5-minute film festival with nine videos on news literacy.
  • LAMP, or Learning about Multimedia Project, has materials that shine a light to “challenge stereotypes, fake news and more.”
  • The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University has a Digital Resource Center that teachers can sign up for to curate resources for classroom use.
What resources do you use to support the complementary practice of media literacy? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Resources to Understand the U.S. Supreme Court

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Instructional Specialist

Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay
Monday marks the start of a new term for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). The 2019-20 term is sure to provide many teachable moments as SCOTUS takes up issues related to immigration, abortion, gun rights, and LGBTQ workplace discrimination. For #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms, there are plenty of opportunities to use the courts to engage in the proven practices of civic education embedded in both the middle and high school civics mandates. Here are some resources to start with.

Direct Instruction on the Supreme Court
  • The official website for the United States Supreme Court allows access to a variety of information on the Court, including a calendar and schedule for the current term, and the audio from oral arguments, posted each Friday after arguments take place. There is also an overview of the Supreme Court where you can research the Court’s procedures and biographies of justices.
  • iCivics has a curriculum packet on the judicial branch that explores the courts’ role in settling disputes and administering justice, and the unique role of the U.S. Supreme Court in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
  • The National Constitution Center has a Judge Chats lesson plan in which students explore the requisite skills necessary to become a judge that can lead to an informed conversation with a visiting judge.
  • Annenberg Foundation has a lesson plan on judicial independence in which students consider the importance of an independent judiciary to the preservation of constitutional democracy and the quality of life for all Americans.
  • The American Bar Association Division for Public Education has differentiated lessons for both middle and high school students on justice and the rule of law.
  • PBS Learning Media Illinois has lesson plans related to the importance of precedents, civil rights & civil liberties, federalism, and landmark cases.
  • For more resources around landmark SCOTUS cases in history, peruse the offerings from the Annenberg Foundation, the Bill of Rights Institute, and Street Law with the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Simulations of Democratic Processes
  • Street Law has ready to go resources to support students engaging in moot courts, mini-moot courts, the issuance of the writ of certiorari, and other judicial processes.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation has several powerpoint presentations on free expression cases to prepare students to participate in a moot court.
  • iCivics has online games to simulate the workings of the court including Supreme Decision, Argument Wars, and Court Quest.
Current and Societal Issue Discussions
  • ABA Division for Public Education publishes a Supreme Court Preview plain-language analysis of all cases given a plenary review by the Supreme Court in advance of oral argument using a combination of charts, statistics, case summaries, and essays.
  • The New York Times Supreme Court site contains news articles about recent SCOTUS decisions. The site also contains links to articles relating to each of the Justices, interactive multimedia features, and a summary of the notable cases from the present term.
  • More Perfect Podcast, from WNYC and Radiolab, tells the stories underlying important Supreme Court decisions, how those decisions affect the lives of the American people.
  • Street Law has resources for students to explore two pending cases before the court, Bostock v. Clayton County, GA & Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Aimee Stephens.
  • The Oyez website has a succinct summary of all cases to be argued this term.
  • Dan Fouts in his Socrates Questions blog has created some sample prompts for the Supreme Court comparison FRQ that leads to a larger discussion around the question, “How does the Supreme Court make sure that the law stays stable but doesn’t stand still?”
What resources do you use to support instruction on SCOTUS? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.