Understanding How the Government Works: Federalism

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

The IllinoisCivics.org Summer Webinar series shifted this week from the proven practices of civic education embedded in both the middle and high school civics course requirements to focus on disciplinary content for direct instruction on democratic institutions, and specifically the concept of federalism.

There have been a plethora of current and societal issues related to federalism recently. Essential questions about the division of power between the state and federal governments have taken center stage in deliberations surrounding the government response to COVID-19, access to the ballot and election security, immigration policy, criminal justice and police reform. As Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation shared, Federalism, like separation of powers, is an ongoing debate, a perpetual balancing act.

Debates over federalism can be traced back to before “the room where it happened.” The failures of the Articles of Confederation pointed to the need “form a more perfect union” and federalism was a compromise to balance competing federal and state interests. Despite its significance throughout U.S. History, according to a survey taken by our partners at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), federalism is briefly covered in a single unit in a plurality of middle school civics courses in the state of Illinois, with less than 10% of classrooms using federalism as an ongoing theme (see image below). Further, according to the same CIRCLE survey, Illinois middle school educators report they have few formal training opportunities to learn how to teach about basic political and Constitutional concepts.


IllinoisCivics.org is committed to bridging this civics opportunity gap in Illinois by supporting teachers with research-based, relevant professional development and resources to enhance their current practice.

Our IllinoisCivics.org website has:
  • A Curriculum Design Toolkit with resources to help you identify assets in your curriculum and resources to meet any needs for civics course implementation, including strategies for direct instruction on government institutions.
  • Lesson plans aligned with the Illinois Social Science standards and proven practices of civic education that explore constitutional concepts like federalism, separation of powers, check and balances and judicial review.
  • Guidelines for Administrators that describe how the Illinois Civics mandates align with other educational initiatives.
If you missed the webinar, you can access the recording and get connected to research supporting the use of direct instruction on democratic institutions as well as resources and strategies for teaching about federalism.

At the end of each webinar, Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches share their top strategies and resources for implementation. This week, the coaches shared tools they encourage teachers to begin with to enhance their current instruction around federalism.
  • Tracy Freeman from Normal recommends “Civil Society and Times of Crisis” from the Bill of Rights Institute.” Further, when trying to teach students the complicated relationship between the federal and state governments, Tracy explains that, “(The) Money aspect fascinates students. I try to use a parent/child analysis. Parents give you money to go on vacation with another family, you pick to buy yourself meals (block grant). Your parents give you money to bring homes souvenir for sibling (categorical grant).”
  • Patty West from Springfield recommends iCivics. “This site is great for teachers new to civics instruction. There are two lesson plans on this site you can use to introduce federalism to your students, The “Federal” in Federalism and State Power: Got a Reservation? Each lesson has a detailed Teacher’s Guide with step-by-step instructions. Student information sheets as well as activities and slide presentations are provided. iCivics also has a game (Power Play) and webquest that can be used as extension activities for this topic.
  • Heather Monson recommends the National Constitution Center because:
It is not too late to register for the remaining webinars. Each session will take place on Wednesday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Educators can join live to interact with hosts and ask questions or watch a recording of each session. Each webinar is free and participants can elect to earn two PD credits per webinar for completing a post-webinar application activity.

What are you doing to implement the middle and high school civics requirements? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

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