Illinois Will Require Civics Classes for All Students
By Diane Rado
A civics makeover is unfolding in a school cafeteria on Chicago's West Side, where some 40 Chicago Public School teachers are debating hot-button issues and role-playing as members and staffers of a "Presidential Commission on Immigration Reform."
The lively simulation exercise, part of a three-day training session on reshaping civics instruction, is the kind of activity that educators statewide will have to teach now that a new law has elevated civics to a high school graduation requirement in 2016.
The civics law signed recently by Gov. Bruce Rauner creates the most prescriptive state graduation requirement on the books in Illinois, and has the potential to push students, families and even teachers out of their comfort zones, educators and policy experts say.
Unlike the generic four years of language arts or two years of science, the civics requirement of at least one semester spells out what must be taught: "Civics course content shall focus on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process."
Those activities are far more provocative than memorizing the three branches of government or the Bill of Rights, and educators say civics instruction will likely be aimed at juniors or seniors, because they are more mature than younger high school students.
"We're talking about controversial issues all the time ... there's always the biggies: gun control, racial profiling, abortion ... the big things that are news," said Lisa Willuweit, the humanities division head who oversees social studies at West Chicago's Community High School.
Students must prepare, gathering background information before they enter into a class debate. "We have a very formalized structure ... we just don't throw out explosive topics and go for it," Willuweit said.
Her high school already requires a government class for graduation, and for many years students have done a simulation of the legislative process, including holding committee hearings, debating issues and re-enacting full sessions of the House of Representatives.
But engaging students in controversial and partisan issues may be a challenge for some teachers.
"They have long been reticent to be perceived as politicizing their classroom," said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative research and policy organization. He said he teaches once a week at a Democracy Prep charter school in New York City's Harlem neighborhood that prepares students for a "life of civic engagement."
In Illinois, many districts will need to prepare to offer the kind of civics instruction the new law requires.
"I think the hard work is ahead," said Shawn Healy, a civics scholar at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation who chaired a state-appointed task force on civics education. The group held hearings around the state last fall, prompting legislation this year to require that students take civics before they can get their diplomas.
It's the first time in a decade that the state is adding a course required for graduation, and it was a hard-fought battle, with major education groups opposed to yet another mandate.
The state now requires two years of social studies, one of which must be in U.S. history or a combination of U.S. history and American government. State law also requires public schools to teach American patriotism and principles of representative government, as well as the proper use of the American flag.
About 60 percent of high schools require a civics or government course, according to Healy, but it's not clear to what extent those classes include the elements of the new law. Another 27 percent of high schools have elective classes in the subject area. The rest don't have a civics course -- or the foundation doesn't have data on whether such a course is being offered.
More data is being collected, to show what may be needed to comply with the law. The state task force had recommended that civics be a stand-alone course, meaning not just part of a history or government class. But whether that happens is uncertain. The Illinois State Board of Education recently issued guidance to districts on whether schools must offer a separate civics course or if they can incorporate civics into existing social studies courses.
The agency said schools must provide the instruction prescribed in the law, such as simulations and discussion of controversial issues. But it also stated: "School districts are free to determine how to incorporate civics education into their current curricula in a way that best meets the needs of their students."
Healy said he interprets that guidance as allowing schools with an existing American government course, for example, to comply with the law as long as they include the instruction and activities specified, such as democratic simulations and community service.
Meanwhile, the McCormick Foundation and other nonprofit, business and civic groups have pledged to contribute at least $1 million annually for three years for teacher training in civics across the state.
Even before the law, the Chicago Public Schools district launched several civics initiatives and began training teachers to provide revamped civics instruction. About 30 schools are offering the curriculum, though many more high schools will need to do so now that the law has been signed. Jessica Marshall, civic engagement and service learning manager at CPS, said schools have several more years to incorporate the curriculum because students likely won't take the class until junior or senior year.
At the recent civics training at George Westinghouse College Prep, CPS teachers were working with a curriculum called "Participate: A Civics Course For Chicago's Youth," which meets the requirements of the new law. The simulation exercise on immigration issues will be one that teachers can bring back to the classroom for their students.
Over the summer, some controversy erupted over the timetable for the civics law, with state education officials interpreting the law as taking effect Jan. 1, 2016, and affecting all high school students enrolled at the time. That would mean, for example, that a senior who hadn't taken a civics class would have to do so quickly and rejuggle his or her schedule.
Lawmakers scrambled to fix the problem, acting on a separate piece of legislation to clarify that the effective date of the civics law, if signed, would be July 1, 2016, and that students entering the ninth grade in 2016-17 would be the first group affected by the law. The state House approved the amendment last month and it has moved to the Senate for action.
That timeline appeases the state's major school organizations, which have been opposed to the civics legislation from the start.
"We're not opposed to kids learning civics. We're opposed to the General Assembly prescribing more and more mandates without adequate funding," said Brian Schwartz, associate director and general counsel at the Illinois Principals Association.
After the General Assembly approved the civics legislation May 30, proponents and opponents engaged in their own civics lesson, encouraging their supporters to write letters, send emails and make phone calls to try to sway the governor.
Rauner signed the legislation Aug. 21.
Larry Pahl, a civics teacher at Bartlett High School who served on the state task force on civic education, got the news that afternoon that Rauner would sign the bill, and he told his students immediately. "They applauded spontaneously," Pahl said. "They understand the importance of civics."
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