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Middle School Civics in Illinois: Progress and Opportunities

A major study of civic education in Illinois middle schools examines how civics implementation has been shaped by the state’s laws and context, but makes recommendations relevant to improving civic learning everywhere.

Authors: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kelly Siegel-Stechler
Contributors: Grace Northern, Nicole Faraci, Sarah Burnham, Noorya Hayat, Alberto Medina


CIRCLE has released the final report of our evaluation of middle school civics in Illinois, which examines the state’s progress implementing new mandates and requirements and makes key recommendations for classroom teachers, school administrators, and district leaders to better support civic learning in the state.

This report is the culmination of a major two-year mixed-methods study, and the latest effort in a longstanding collaboration between CIRCLE and educators in Illinois, particularly through Illinois Civics Hub. Our research-to-practice partnership has brought research to bear on efforts by educators and practitioners in Illinois, and provided us with key insights about teachers’ and students’ experiences that inform CIRCLE’s commitment to stronger and more equitable K-12 civic learning.

You can learn more about the history and foundations of our partnership with Illinois here, and explore the executive summary and full report on our Illinois middle school evaluation below:

Progress Driven by Committed Educators

The CIRCLE report assesses the status of civic learning in Illinois middle schools after Public Act 101-0254 came into effect in the 2020-2021 school year. That law and its associated mandates required a full semester’s worth of civic instruction in grades 6, 7, or 8; the use of evidence-based pedagogies like inquiry-based learning and discussion of current and societal issues; and the addition of content related to LGBT and Asian Americans’ roles and historical contributions to the country and the state.

The new mandates also came at a challenging time, given the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, we find that schools have made strong progress in implementing requirements and improving civic learning in the middle school grades. Among our key findings:

  • Instruction on required content and service-learning have been widely implemented, with some room for improvement in quality and the use of particular pedagogies
  • Current and societal issue discussions are happening
  • Educators value the mandate to use “inquiry as a mode of learning” and see it as an opportunity to help students develop transferable skills
  • Civic learning is happening across and beyond the curriculum, including outside of social studies classes, and students report extracurricular activities provide an important pathway for developing civic skills and knowledge.
  • High-quality civic learning experiences are correlating positively with civic outcomes like community engagement
  • A positive school climate and the strong development of student voice are among the strongest correlates with civic outcomes.
  • Civic education in middle schools is improving students’ civic knowledge and civic dispositions—it is not leading them to frequently discuss politics outside of school or otherwise “politicizing” them.

Challenges to Full and Faithful Implementation

Our report should be considered an evaluation of efforts in progress in the state, where many schools are just now starting to regain their footing after the COVID-19 pandemic and adapt to still recent requirements. That said, we identify several challenges that must be addressed by leaders and stakeholders in the educational ecosystem in order to fully support educators and students’ civic learning.

  • Civics remains deprioritized in many schools and districts, leading to a lack of time, support, and resources for teachers
  • Teachers face and fear pushback from families and community members related to potentially controversial content and issue discussions
  • The mandate for teaching about the historical roles and contributions of Asian Americans and LGBT Americans lags furthest behind in implementation, likely due to lack of resources on these new content areas and potential pushback from parents and the community
  • While current and societal issue discussions are happening, they are often not yet fully incorporating student input and/or a structure for fully engaging critical discussions

The full report offers recommendations for teachers and school leaders to address these challenges, and suggests resources that can strengthen school-wide and pedagogy-specific middle school implementation.

This work was funded in part by Robert R. McCormick Foundation.