Is it Time to Reset the System of Checks and Balances?

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
The system of checks and balances has been an enduring concept for deliberation throughout United States history. Essential questions around the separation of powers and the use of tools such as executive orders to blur the lines between the branches are opportunities for #CivicsInTheMiddle classrooms to engage in current and societal issue discussions that promote a deep understanding of our constitutional republic.

Last week, Dr. Steven D. Schwinn, professor of law at the John Marshall Law School at the University of Illinois at Chicago, joined IllinoisCivics.org for a webinar to explore the question, “Is it time to reset the system of checks and balances?” Participants received a preview of Dr. Schwinn’s upcoming book on the same topic and had a chance to reflect on issues involving power, justice, and representation as the nation prepares for a presidential inauguration and a new congress in 2021. If you missed the webinar, you can access a recording on our IllinoisCivics.org Webinar Archive.

We asked the IllinoisCivics.org Instructional Coaches to share the resources they use to teach students about the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. Here are their suggestions.
  • Jason Artman from Mendota recommends C-SPAN’s Cable in the Classroom lesson on Checks and Balances for Middle Schools as well as the iCivics Branches of Power game.
  • Chris Johnson from Oneida says, “Crash Course does a great job introducing government concepts including checks and balances. (The video is a) good refresher or an introduction for younger students.”
Heather Monson from East Moline has a plethora of resources to share:
  • The New York Times - Teaching and Learning about Checks and Balances during the Trump Administration: “(This) has you covered on teaching checks and balances with this nice collection of background information, activities, videos, political cartoons, and resources.”
  • United States Courts - Separation of Powers in Action: “The court has ruled on the issue of separation of powers in the landmark case, US v. Alvarez.”
  • Real Clear Politics - When Checks and Balances Fail: “This is a topic we generally don’t discuss in class because we believe and understand that checks and balances can’t fail by their very nature. But there are times that they do appear to not work as well as they should.”
  • Your Dictionary: “Need a quick reference to find examples of checks and balances in the Constitution? This is your website”.
  • Khan Academy - Principles of American Government: “Khan Academy does an excellent job with civics. This link includes a nicely organized graphic organizer that can help students understand how the powers are distributed in the federal government. It also includes checks for understanding as the students work through the readings”.
  • Scholastic Upfront - What You Need to Know about Checks and Balances: “This gives some excellent background information at two different appropriate reading levels. It includes teacher resources as well.”
For more resources on the separation of powers and other constitutional concepts, please visit the IllinoisCivics.org Webinar Archive and the Curriculum Design Toolkit. You can also find opportunities to learn and collaborate on the Professional Development Calendar.

What are you doing to help students examine essential questions around the separation of powers? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life in remote, hybrid and traditional classrooms.

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