2019 Was a Very Good Year for Civic Learning in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

With Winter Break in sight and the books on 2019 about to close, this year-end retrospective recaps what was a very good year for civic learning in Illinois.

2019 began with the promise of a renewed push for middle school civics, culminating in the #CivicsInTheMiddle Campaign. Representative Camille Lilly (D-Oak Park) sponsored legislation to require a semester of civics in middle school beginning with the 2020-2021 school year, embedding proven civic learning practices (direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations).

The legislation sailed through the House by Spring Break, gaining a bi-partisan supermajority, and moved to the Senate under Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago). The formula repeated itself in the upper chamber, although the Senate committee hearing was more contentious, but by May 23, middle school civics cleared the Illinois General Assembly, once more with a filibuster-proof, bi-partisan vote. Teachers and students provided critical outreach to undecided legislators down the stretch.

Governor Pritzker signed Public Act 101-0254 on August 9th, and the Illinois State Board of Education followed with guidance for teachers, schools, and districts, permitting desired flexibility in implementation.

Simultaneously, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC), convened by the McCormick Foundation, launched a three-year implementation plan informed by both its previous experiences with the high school course requirement and survey data gathered from middle school teachers and administrators. Highlights include in-person and online teacher professional development, complementary unit and lesson plans, instructional coaching by region, and support from civic learning partners. Online professional development will take the form of content-specific webinars and a three-course microcredential course series centered on proven civic learning practices, titled “Guardians of Democracy.”

It should also be noted that high school course implementation concluded in 2019. Since October 2015, nearly 9,000 teachers attended ICMC workshops, and McCormick staff and teacher mentors provided more than 1,300 hours of professional development. The aforementioned middle school interventions are not exclusive, but rather intended to support middle and high school civics teachers, providing supports to sustain the latter implementation effort.

Beyond the middle school breakthrough, the Democracy Schools Initiative successfully piloted new assessment instruments, still measuring civic learning opportunities and school culture, but through a racial equity framework. Eleven Network schools reupped their commitment to the equitable pursuit of their civic mission, with a larger group set to do the same in 2020, including prospective new members. The Democracy Schools Network currently numbers 74 high schools reflective of the state’s geographic and demographic diversity.

Finally, the McCormick Foundation hosted a convening this fall on the state of student discipline and restorative justice in Illinois schools. In 2015, Illinois passed a law (Senate Bill 100) limiting exclusionary discipline practices in schools; requiring districts to track suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements by race, gender, and grade; and recommending use of restorative practices in their stead.

While exclusionary discipline declined modestly, stark racial disparities remain, and restorative practices are rarely employed. Our convening identified both barriers to implementation, but also opportunities, and we intend to leverage them through a series of 2020 grants and continued convening of the Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, among other partnerships.

To our trusted teachers and administive colleagues in the trenches, please take a bow at the end of a banner year for civic learning in Illinois. While much work remains, we have emerged as a national leader and have much to be proud of. It is the honor of my lifetime to work by your side to transform the civic trajectory of the Land of Lincoln. Our long-term salvation rests in the hearts and minds of the students you touch every day.

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