The McCormick Foundation Civics Program believes that a lifelong commitment to active civic life requires preparation. Our work focuses on young people between the ages of 12 and 22 because we believe that this period of adolescence is the bridge between youth and adulthood, when we most readily acquire and begin using essential civic knowledge, skills and habits. Earlier in our nation’s history it was well understood that the role of education was to create the kinds of informed and engaged citizens necessary to perpetuate a healthy democracy. In recent years, because of a growing focus on college and career readiness through enhanced math, reading and science, our education system has lost sight of its important civic role.
Reversing this trend is a job too big for any single foundation or organization. If we are to return quality civic education to our schools we need to partner not only with our grantees but with like-minded foundations, nonprofits, school systems, educators, elected officials and others. The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, led by the McCormick Foundation, is one such partnership. The state Coalition is also a part of the broader Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a national initiative to restore a core purpose of education to prepare America's youngest citizens to be informed and active participants in our democracy.
The six promising approaches for citizenship development outlined in the 2003 Civic Mission of Schools report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) are the foundation of our work. These six approaches have become a standard benchmark for much of the civic education field. They include formal instruction in United States government, history, law, and democracy; structured engagement with current and controversial issues; service learning linked to formal curriculum; extracurricular activities that encourage greater involvement and connection to school and the community; authentic student voice in school governance; and finally, participation in simulations of democratic structures and processes.
The Civics Program is helping to create a dynamic civic education system. Because our education system must constantly evolve to address challenges we face in our schools, communities and nation, we also must continue to change in response. Our combination of programs and grant making enables us to continuously refine our approach. Using what we learn, we are able to make effective and strategic investments in our grantees, educators, programming and civic engagement opportunities.
Democracy Schools, accredited secondary schools that provide students with authentic experiences in the rights, responsibilities and tensions that are part of a constitutional democracy, are the ideal model. These schools consciously promote civic engagement in all students and have an intentional focus on fostering participatory citizenship. Democracy Schools emphasize helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to current problems, opportunities and controversies. Democracy Schools collaborate with parents, students, and their communities in developing a civic mission and in providing curricular and extracurricular civic learning experiences for all students.
Our programming includes our signature Freedom Express, a traveling museum that illustrates how the First Amendment enables a healthy democracy where we can freely exchange ideas, consider multiple perspectives and take action on issues that matter to us. We also provide educators with a rich menu of professional development opportunities, curricula and online resources that support their work.
When asked about the crafting of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin replied that the Constitutional Convention had created, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” The challenge of maintaining and strengthening our unique form of self-governance is as much a challenge today as it was in 1787. Given the complexity and challenges of modern life, the health of our communities and democracy may rely even more today on an informed and active citizenry. The McCormick Foundation is doing its part to help us nurture citizen engagement today and well into the future.