Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Schools and the 3 C's: College, Career, and Citizens

By Shawn Healy
Our nation’s schools are failing in their obligation to prepare America’s next generation for informed engagement in our representative democracy. According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational (NAEP) in Civics, released recently by the U.S. Department of Education, less than a quarter of students of all grade levels performed at or above proficiency level in the subject. Moreover, fewer than five percent of graduating seniors leave high school with the ability to list two privileges of U.S. citizens, explain the impact of television on the political process, or summarize the views of Roosevelt and Reagan on the role of government.

Given these appallingly lackluster results, it should come as no surprise that our nation’s political discourse is callous and shallow, voter apathy outside of presidential elections is the prevailing norm, and public corruption permeates all levels of government. In an era of standardized testing that has served to narrow the curriculum and crowd out the social studies, our schools are tasked with ensuring that our students are career and college-ready. These obsessions have undermined schools’ original civic mission, for all graduating seniors must also emerge with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for lifelong exercise of their responsibilities as citizens.

Thankfully, Illinois has a cadre of schools who have acted as stalwarts to these troubling trends. Deemed Democracy Schools, nine Chicago area high schools have been accredited by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition as exemplary providers of authentic experiences for their students in the rights, responsibilities, and tensions inherent in living in a representative democracy.

Seniors at Community High School in West Chicago’s American Government class participate in the “Legislative Semester,” an in-school simulation that recreates the structures and politics of the Illinois House of Representatives. Freshmen at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, meanwhile, take part in the SEEDS (Students Educating for Equity in a Diverse Society) program, which teaches students that they possess the power to affect societal change by asking them to pick an issue they care about, develop an action plan, and share their ideas at an open house.

These and other Illinois Democracy Schools are blazing the path to reverse our civic decay by proving that a commitment to their civic mission need not come at the expense of career and college-readiness, or standardized test scores for that matter. Indeed, best practices in civic education have been proven to foster skills and competencies transferable to the 21st Century workplace. In addition to basic reading and math skills, these include a basic knowledge of economic and political processes, media literacy, an ability to collaborate with a diverse group of people, positive attitudes about working hard and obeying the law, and creativity and innovation.

Picture political discourse that transcends partisan infighting, an informed electorate that holds public officials accountable for their actions in office, and an effective, efficient public sector that serves the interests of the people it serves, not the insiders working within. Our nation’s schools stand as the linchpin for civic redemption, and these appallingly low test scores should serve as a clarion call for the renewal of their civic mission. Let’s do our part in Illinois and commit to making every school in the state a Democracy School.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at