Building for Better Democracy Together: A Final Report on the Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since June 2016, the Illinois Civics team led statewide implementation of a new high school civics course requirement and revised K-12 social studies standards. Beginning last year, these efforts shifted to middle school in preparation for the parallel middle school civics course that debuted this fall. The Illinois Civics team partnered throughout with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University to research and evaluate our implementation efforts. We wanted to both demonstrate fulfillment of our commitment to support implementation among teachers, schools, and districts, and improve our deliverables over time with process-oriented feedback, ultimately building a sustainable system of statewide supports.

Today, we are pleased to release CIRCLE’s summative report on our high school campaign titled “Building for Better Democracy Together: Final Report on the Illinois #CivicsIsBack Civic Education Initiative.” The report was co-authored by Noorya Hayat, a CIRCLE Researcher, and Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, CIRCLE’s Director. Given the report’s length, I plan to parse its findings in a five-part series published here.

The first part of the report summarizes findings from the first two years of high school course implementation, captured previously on the Illinois Civics blog. We thus begin with findings from Year Three, 2018-2019, the final year of intensive supports for the high school #CivicsIsBack Campaign. The authors wrote,

While Year One and Year Two focused on “seeding” and “growing” teacher leaders and teacher capacity and administrator buy-in by investing in direct training, resources and outreach, Year 3 and thereafter had a strong focus on ensuring the systems that produce and influence teaching and learning of Civics are set up in a way that serves Illinois students equitably for years to come. Continuing with the gardening analogy, the implementation is now in the phase in which the soil is fertile and capable of producing strong seedlings and even other flowers to bloom without intensive involvement of the gardeners. It is not to say that “the garden” needs no care. But rather, it has built up a healthier ecosystem that benefits from responsive and thoughtful care.

Recall that the #CivicsIsBack Campaign was premised on a statewide system of supports that included private resources from foundations and corporate funders; institutional partners at colleges, universities, and regional office of education to serve as sites for ongoing teacher professional development; civic education nonprofit partners to provide teacher professional development, curriculum, and complementary student programming; and teacher mentors representing the state’s 39 regional offices of education. 

As evident in the graphic above, these supports were assembled to drive shifts towards teaching practices embodied in the new course requirement, revised social studies standards, and teacher performance assessments. We drew upon a decade of field-building in civic learning led by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, a statewide network of Illinois Democracy Schools, and arguably the nation’s most dynamic local ecosystem of civic education nonprofits concentrated in Chicago.

Mentor teachers were central to our course implementation efforts, changing their own practices and translating this transformation for peers in their schools, districts, and ultimately regions. The changes were a product of ongoing in-person, and eventually online, teacher professional development opportunities in every corner of the state, mixing content and pedagogy, demonstration and self-application.

I’ll speak to these changes at greater length in subsequent posts, but it’s also important to note the shifts in practice among our civic education nonprofit partners.

The #CivicsIsBack Campaign…engaged a network of professional development providers as partners and often grantees over the past years in a way that strengthened the local community of professional organizations because they often saw one another at trainings and received information about opportunities to provide training in different communities over the years. The initiative also challenged local PD providers to shift how they work with schools to meet their needs and think more deeply about ways in which their curriculum aligns with standards.

Given passage of the middle school course requirement last year, implementation work has continued uninterrupted, and our partners in PD are critical to sustaining the implementation investments of the past five years.

According to the report’s authors, “with the Middle School Law, Illinois became the only state to successfully embed a full semester of Civics in both middle school and high school, with specific guidance on how to implement Civics.” The next post will dive into the impacts of high school implementation.


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