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CIRCLE and Civics in Illinois: A Partnership for Impact

Our longstanding relationship with Illinois Civics Hub and other educators in the state has developed into a robust research-practice partnership with a profound impact on civic learning and on our own work.

Authors: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Alberto Medina


Civic education is one of the main focuses of CIRCLE’s work, and equitable K-12 civic learning for all students is a foundational part of our mission. An effective in-school civic education that reaches diverse youth and prepares them for lifelong civic participation is necessary to grow voters and leaders in every community. That learning and participation are both central to fulfilling the vision of building a robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society.

CIRCLE’s 20 years of work in this field has included major, field-defining research as well as leadership in national efforts like the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. It has also included in-depth co-learning with state and local education agencies, coalitions, schools, and teachers working at the front lines of civic education across the country.

Chief among those collaborations has been our long-standing work in Illinois’ civic education community led by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and Illinois Civics Hub. Most recently, CIRCLE completed a two-year evaluation of the state’s implementation of a new middle school civics law and mandates. That’s merely the latest in a long line of projects that have profoundly shaped our understanding of what it takes to provide effective and equitable civic education; how best to study civic learning in deep collaboration with educators themselves; and how an effective model for research-practice partnership can have a profound, long-term impact.

A Shared Civic History

The links between CIRCLE and civics in Illinois go back 20 years. In 2003, CIRCLE produced the Civic Mission of Schools report, a foundational document in the civic education field that highlighted its namesake idea and promoted key practices in civic education.

That report led directly, in 2004, to the launch of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and, in 2006, to the creation of Illinois Democracy Schools. That initiative, now led by the Illinois Civics Hub at the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, supports a growing network of 84 schools in empowering over 100,000 students to nurture and sustain our democracy by prioritizing civic learning opportunities and experiences in schools.

CIRCLE’s research informed these and other initiatives in Illinois and, in later years, formally studied their impact. From 2016-2020, CIRCLE conducted a major, multiyear evaluation of a then-new high school civics law and mandates in the state. More recently, we evaluated the Guardians of Democracy initiative co-led by Illinois Civics Hub, a professional development opportunity for educators to learn–and then train other teachers–to use those key civic pedagogies that CIRCLE first recommended in its Civic Mission of Schools report.

The latest report, on current progress implementing civics mandates for middle school, continues to build and expand on this work supporting and evaluating civic learning in the state.

An Exemplary Research-Practice Partnership

The length, breadth, and depth of CIRCLE’s work on civic education in Illinois has allowed both sides to form relationships, build trust, understand the needs and contexts of each other’s work, and build a sustainable and impactful research-practice partnership (RPP).

This type of collaboration is defined as one that seeks and achieves “improvement or equitable transformation through engagement with research. These partnerships are intentionally organized to connect diverse forms of expertise and shift power relations in the research endeavor to ensure that all partners have a say in the joint work.” (Tseng, 2021, p. IV).

For CIRCLE, research-practice partnerships are a central part of our work that fit our vision of what is equitable, ethical, and necessary to achieve change. Our research and theory of change has been not just informed, but transformed by our engagement with practitioners like Illinois educators, and we strive to ensure that our work can be just as influential to partners’ own efforts and meet their own needs and goals. That includes developing and investigating deeper questions about what systems are conducive to equitable civic learning and on the role of teachers, students, policymakers, and other stakeholders in those systems. 

This type of partnership is only possible when both parties intentionally disrupt the “business as usual” in which researchers provide, and practitioners receive, data and expertise. Our team has played various roles within the RPP that go well beyond that of an “evaluation team,” and our partners have been more than “clients” who pay for the evaluation reports we’ve produced. In an equal thought-partnership, we have used these reports to think about next steps, and how we can understand the impact of each initiative.

One example of our expanding impact together is a recent collaborative effort to increase youth voice in the Illinois Democracy Schools network, which resulted in a grant from the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERP) that will be used to deepen youth-led participatory budget projects at the network schools.

Statewide and National Impact

CIRCLE’s conception and understanding of the sustainable shifts in practice needed in civic education have evolved with this partnership, and have had a major impact on other areas of our work. 

For example, CIRCLE director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is a principal investigator and lead author of the pedagogy companion to the Educating or American Democracy (EAD) Roadmap, an ambitious national effort to transform civic education. That guidance, and other efforts to reshape civic learning in the U.S., have been informed by our years-long work in Illinois. Moreover, Mary Ellen Daneels, who directs Illinois Civics Hub and has been a key partner to CIRCLE in this work, is co-leading the EAD Roadmap’s Teacher Leadership Task Force which is organized by CIRCLE.

Our work in Illinois has also helped us shift policy and practice in other states. The broader civic learning community learns from our joint work; state governments and coalitions

look to it as evidence for the effectiveness of local approaches. CIRCLE has gone on to assess and advise the implementation and impact of civics laws and mandates in states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The impact in Illinois has been profound from the very beginning of our work in the state. The findings of the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index, which CIRCLE had a hand in producing, were instrumental in leading to the 2015 law and mandates for high school civics. In turn, CIRCLE’s findings on the success of the high school civics implementation were used to push for the middle school civics mandates evaluated in our most recent report.

The Illinois Democracy Schools model of schoolwide, systemic shifts toward equitable civic learning have been informed by CIRCLE’s research about what works and what’s needed. More than 80 high schools, serving over 100,000 students, have signed up as Democracy Schools. Our work also helped establish the Guardians of Democracy microcredientials project as an effective model, with scalable national potential, to meet the pressing needs of teacher training on civics pedagogies.

We look forward to continuing CIRCLE’s long, productive, profound research-practice partnership with educators on Illinois civics education. We believe that our collaboration, and its broad, tangible impact, exemplify an effective model for other institutions that want to achieve the systemic changes needed to ensure all young people are ready to sustain American democracy.

Learn more by listening to this episode of the Education for Sustainable Democracy podcast featuring CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Mary Ellen Daneels of Illinois Civics Hub.