Illinois Middle School Social Studies Teachers Thirsty for Professional Development Opportunities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Tuesday, I analyzed data from a spring survey of Illinois middle school administrators to inform our presumptive implementation plan should Governor J.B. Pritzker sign legislation to require middle school civics (House Bill 2265) this summer. This companion post will summarize the findings of a parallel survey of middle school social studies teachers conducted by our research partner, the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. One hundred eighty-two teachers completed the survey as of June 11.

A middle school civics requirement would be a game-changer as only 10% of survey respondents report the subject is addressed in a stand-alone course. Thankfully, 80% suggest it’s integrated into other social studies courses, and only 6% claim it isn’t explicitly taught at all (see chart below).

Turning to key course content, the U.S. Constitution, governmental structures, federalism, and major themes of U.S. history are a major emphasis of one or more units in existing courses. However, the relationship between the U.S. and other nations is underemphasized, as is the role of citizens in shaping public policy, media literacy, and service learning.

On the pedagogical side of the equation, teachers are most comfortable with group projects, discussions of current and controversial issues, and critical media analysis (researching, discussing, and writing about news from multiple sources and perspectives). Teachers report less confidence in facilitating simulations of democratic processes, service learning, and public policy analysis.

While service learning and simulations are among the instructional practices teachers prioritize for implementation, current and controversial issues discussions top the list. Echoing their administrative colleagues, teachers find that discussions generate “student buy-in,” ensuring they are “informed and educated on hot topics in our world today.” Moreover, controversial issues discussions “allow…students to share differing points of view” and “…see the importance and connections to their own lives.”

Teachers are less apt than administrators to see civic learning emphasized across academic disciplines at their schools, or to identify civics-related professional development (PD) opportunities, collaboration time, or curricular resources. In fact, the vast majority of teachers have never received training on a range of civic learning content and pedagogies or have learned how to incorporate them only informally (see graph below).

Like administrators, middle school teachers are eager to take advantage of PD opportunities centered on integrating civics across the curriculum, aligning curriculum with current standards, and proven civic learning practices that foster students’ civic development. This may help to combat indentified barriers like teachers’ limited buy-in, the larger marginalization of the social studies, lack of coherence in the existing social studies curriculum, and a perceived lack of support among families for addressing “hot topics.”
Rest assured that this valuable feedback provided by Illinois middle school civics teachers and administrators will inform development of our presumptive implementation plan, and that we will measure progress against this baseline, reporting regularly on what we are learning and the extent to which the new course requirement is implemented with fidelity.


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