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Guardians of Democracy: Civic Educator Credential Project

An update on our partnerships in Florida and Illinois focused on training teachers to incorporate effective civic education pedagogies.

Over the past decade, CIRCLE has enjoyed and learned from long and productive partnerships with the Illinois #CivicsIsBack initiative led by the McCormick Foundation, and the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida. Both collaborations stemmed from the passage of a new K-12 civic education law in each state; CIRCLE and our partners then stepped in to support the implementation of these civics mandates through research and evaluation. This work on civic education policy and practice is part and parcel of our commitment to better understand, promote, and support how to provide a comprehensive civic education to all youth. Starting this year, CIRCLE is playing a similar role in assessing the current state of civic learning in Massachusetts and the implementation of its new civics law (S. 2631) and History and Social Science Framework. That work is being conducted in partnership with Boston University’s Center for Education Policy Research and its founding director, Dr. Ariel Tichnor-Wagner.

A major component of our partnerships in Florida and Illinois is in-service and pre-service training of middle and high school educators who are either adopting a new instructional  approach to civic education or learning the foundational content of civics. Together, they have trained well over 20,000 teachers since their work began. Beginning in 2012, CIRCLE has served as their evaluation research partner. As we worked closely with these colleagues while responding to their research needs and providing data on their impact, it became clear that there was tremendous knowledge being developed in both states. Namely, they were learning about and then adopting their training to respond to teachers’ diverse needs.

At the same time, we learned a lot about what makes for good civic education in-service training. A few years ago, CIRCLE and the teams from Illinois and Florida came together to explore ways to sustain and increase the impact of these in-person training initiatives. We approached this work with the understanding that there was both a real need and a great opportunity to offer high-quality training, based on the hard-earned lessons gleaned from thousands of in-person teacher interactions. This would be especially valuable for educators  in states that do not have strong civic education laws or opportunities for professional development.

To that end, we launched an initiative to design an intensive online learning experience that helps teachers everywhere learn key pedagogies used in civics instruction, namely: Current and Controversial Issue Discussion, Simulations of Democratic Processes, and Informed Action. Civic educators who complete the course can earn a microcredential: a digital certification indicating that they have achieved mastery of each instructional approach offered in separate courses.

This project is now known as Guardians of Democracy. It is supported by the McCormick Foundation, and CIRCLE plays a key role providing evaluation support to the joint Florida-Illinois team. The project is progressing well, with an overwhelmingly positive reception from educators who took the course in its pilot phase. Based on their feedback, the Current and Controversial Issue Discussion course is hosting its third cohort of educators; later this summer, the second course on Simulation of Democratic Processes will launch.

Each course offers opportunities to deepen pedagogical mastery and applications by offering Bronze, Silver, and Gold level badges. The Bronze badge provides a comprehensive knowledge base and opportunities for peer-to-peer sharing and feedback opportunities designed to build knowledge, skills and confidence in using the particular approach. In the Silver course, educators not only deepen their knowledge of the pedagogy, but also have to test the technique in their own classroom and reflect on how they can improve their practice using structured, peer-supported feedback. In the Gold level, they take it to the next level: the teachers seek feedback from students and make adjustments to their approach based on that feedback.

The courses are carefully scaffolded to grow educators’ agency and capacities to master the techniques and center their teaching on their own students, while learning to give and receive constructive feedback and incorporating an important practice of reflection into their teaching routine. Teachers create a portfolio of practice to journal their learning and take the portfolio with them as they continue their learning. Teachers also gain access to a rich and ever-expanding list of resources they can use as they continue to use the pedagogy they learned about. As the project continues moving forward, we hope there will be more and more educators taking the course and more advanced teachers mentoring others—when teachers earn the Gold Badge, they also qualify as an instructor for that course.

The Current and Controversial Issue Discussion course is now open to teachers nationwide. Interested educators should complete this short form to express their interest and be notified  the next time the course is offered.