Education: Part 2

This post is a follow-up to the one below, which generated some really healthy discussion in the comment thread. It’s good to see you guys getting fired up about something!! When people in CD are posting blog comments complete with research footnotes, we’ve hit a whole new level of dialogue. Nice work.

The common problem in debates of this nature is that emotions get stirred up and egos get involved, and then the main thread of discussion can get lost in a flurry of subpoints. So it’s worth another post to 1) bring us back to the original question, 2) summarize the salient points made by commenters, and 3) set the stage for another round of discussion.

In the original post, I asked two questions: 1) what is the role of Christians in bringing reform to a failing public school system, and 2) does public education have anything to offer Christian parents who desire their kids to be taught well so they can make an impact for the kingdom of God?

Comments surfaced multiple answers to these questions, notwithstanding some tangential rants along the way.

In answer to question 1, we all agree that godly teachers, working from within the current system, can do much to bring reform and to really teach kids well in spite of the limitations of the system. And may I add: if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of missional Christian teachers, public education would be much worse off than it is. Those of you who give your lives each day for the education of kids deserve utmost thanks, respect, and affirmation. You are doing kingdom work!

In answer to question 2, it was pointed out by some commenters that public education can offer at least one thing to Christian parents: opportunity for mission. By educating our kids in the public schools, by being involved in the classroom, by interacting with families at school, we have a tremendous opportunity to be salt and light. With this point I absolutely agree, and I hope that all parents in Coram Deo who are pursuing public education are doing so from this motivation! It has been noted and even footnoted that kids’ success in education is directly tied to the home. So the primary responsibility for education falls on the shoulders of Christian parents, regardless of which educational method we choose. It’s pretty clear that a kid with a good and godly home can get a decent education almost anywhere.

Having said all that, we used to say when I worked in politics that “the numbers don’t lie.” The truths above don’t erase the fact that one-third of publicly educated students don’t graduate high school. The Titanic is sinking, folks! I got the sense from some commenters that the only way to really care about poor kids is to work within the system. I am suggesting, however, that this might be the very thing we must not do. The system is what’s broken. The system is the thing that’s not working. That’s not my opinion. That’s research data and graduation statistics and Time Magazine.

And if I may be so bold as to go a little further: the system isn’t broken because rich kids do better than poor kids. The system isn’t broken because Christian parents are pulling their kids out and choosing other options. And the system isn’t broken because Millard kids are better off than downtown kids. The system is broken because it’s a bad system. It’s a valueless system. It pretends that education can be pursued separately from God and morality. In the same schools where we teach kids that 2+2=4, we are teaching them that God may or may not exist and morals may or may not be absolute and that they have a right to do whatever they want.

I am not so simplistic as to lay the blame at the door of the school system. Most of these kids aren’t getting taught any values at home, either. So it’s a bigger problem, and you commenters who noted that are to be commended for your insight. But those of you who are quick to defend the current public school system might be wise to consider how strongly you want to defend a system that is attempting to educate kids apart from a knowledge of their Creator. Education is not value-less. It is holistic. And when Truth is removed, failure is to be expected.

Some commenters spoke passionately about being advocates for minority and low-income children. And that’s exactly what’s driving my questions regarding this issue. If we really care to educate underprivileged kids, it might be time to consider starting a holistic charter school for inner-city kids. Or an after-school program to supplement their classroom learning. Or a host of other initiatives. I am asking: for the good of the underprivileged and for the glory of God and for the passionate pursuit of mission, are public schools the best we can do? Or could we dream of a better way – not for the sake of separating ourselves from the neediest kids, but for the sake of serving them? Let’s not make this a public vs. private or public vs. homeschool debate. Let’s simply ask: how can we give kids – ours or someone else’s – the best education possible?

Finally, may I urge a note of humility in the whole conversation. Some of the responses seemed overly sharp, and others seemed to exude a sort of ‘missional righteousness’ unbecoming of Christ-centered people. It would do well for all of us to remember that our first and most important responsibility in mission is to our own children. If we are not teaching them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves, then it doesn’t matter how we might be succeeding in other aspects of mission. Those of us who are parents must be driven by that calling first and foremost. This certainly means exposing them to all sorts of poverty and messiness and tension; but it does not necessarily mean exposing them to those things in math class.


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  1. To avoid repeating what was so well put by Victoria and Michelle, I will try to cover some of the fallacies raised in the article that appeared in the World magazine and other thoughts often brought up when educational reform is discussed. Having read the Time magazine article “Dropout Nation” that is referenced by Joel Belz in his article, I am left wondering if he subscribes to the same Time magazine I do. Even though I have not read an issue of World magazine, I am under the impression that the publishers have a very biased viewpoint from which they write about public education. Belz is pulling small details from the article to back up his argument, but the problem is that he misses the point. Time magazine is not trying to say that the schools are failing our children, but rather that society has created a system that is not working for all our children. In my mind, the problem is not the schools themselves, but society.
    Instead of asking why schools are failing a third of the students, let’s look at which students are failing and why. Like Victoria and Michelle, “Dropout Nation” points out that the family background has the biggest influence on the success of children. If education is not emphasized at home (regardless of whether it is purposeful or a product of the environment) a child will come to school far behind the “average” student. It has been proven that the number one indicator of whether a child will succeed in school is their socio-economic status. These lower income students usually come from single-family households without a positive, male role model.
    Then there are the millions of immigrant children in our public school system. These children start even further behind because they most often don’t speak English. Not as a fault of there own, but rather a product of their family situation. This raises the even bigger question. Why do we have so many low income and immigrant children in the United States in the first place? A big reason, which is pointed out in the “Dropout Nation” article, is a lack of good paying blue-collar jobs. Most of those types of jobs have been shipped over seas. What are left are menial jobs that are usually snatched up by immigrants willing to work for less than a living wage. Thus, poverty is continually perpetuated from generation to generation…with the gap only widening.
    So is this the fault of our school system? Of course not, it is what our American Society has become. Don’t get me wrong; by no means do I think the schools are completely innocent. I have long thought there should be more vocational training for the students who aren’t planning on going to college (another point brought up in “Dropout Nation”). There seems to be an unfair expectation that all of our students have to go to college if they want to be successful, but this is simply not true. Until we stop looking down on this idea, the dropout rate will never improve.
    But thinking that private schools do a better job of educating kids isn’t looking at the larger picture. Of course these schools have better scores. The kids that are able to afford private school come from higher socio-economic backgrounds. These homes tend to put an emphasis on education that lower socio-economic homes usually do not. These kids come to school better prepared to learn. Instead of trying to take a Chevy Cavalier and turning it into a luxury car, you are taking a Mercedes and just maintaining it until graduation. How is this a fair comparison? How can we look at public schools and compare them to private? You can’t, there are too many other factors that contribute to this “failing” grade that public schools are getting from the federal government. Which brings me to every educator’s favorite topic…NCLB.
    No Child Left Behind has done little to help matters. This unfunded mandate sets an impossible bar that will eventually lead to the collapse of the public school system (which is probably the goal behind the law). The excellently named law states that no matter what baggage a student comes to school with, they must be educated to the same level as all the other students. In theory this is a worthy charge to the schools, however, how the plan is laid out is horrendous. To prove this is being done, schools must administer many standardized tests to all their students. Schools must then make adequate yearly progress. In other words they must improve their test scores every year. If schools don’t raise scores, then funding is cut until they do raise scores, that is if teachers don’t end up spending most of their class time is spent teaching exclusively to the test. Is this really what we want our kids learning…how to take a test? The best analogy to better understand this law is to imagine you have 10 people running a race. They must all come in first place and if they don’t, their running shoes are taken away and they are expected to run again and get first place. If they are again can’t get first place the runner gets one more chance to get first place (again, with no shoes). If the runner is unsuccessful, they are not allowed to race again. The fact is, these schools need more funding, not less. What happens next, is what will lead to the collapse of public schools. If you have a “failing” school, then those students are allowed to leave for more successful schools. These “passing” schools will then be inundated with students that were the cause of the failing schools. Thus those schools will fail and more “failing” students will move on to passing schools. There will be a domino effect until all schools have “failed” at educating our kids. The NCLB mandate has not worked in Texas, and it won’t work for the rest of the country. This is precisely why the state of Utah is suing the Federal government over the issue.
    So, to answer your question Bob, 1) schools are not failing our kids. It is society that is failing our kids and our poor families. It is a lack of jobs and opportunities. A lack of funding for programs that help the underprivileged. It is a lack of after-school programs. In fact, it is a lack of God’s love from His people to the neediest of people in our community. So, maybe the real question should be how should we as Christians be reforming our churches to reach these people? If you look at our churches, I would say well over one third are “failing” at showing the love of Christ. Does that mean we should start closing churches because they are failing our community? Absolutely not. Sometimes they are the soul glimmer of hope in a dark world, but to say that our schools are failing kids is also not true, and shutting down schools is not the answer.
    And to your second question, Christian kids can get an excellent education in public schools. On top of learning what it takes to succeed financially, they learn what it takes to succeed in a diverse global economy. They learn how to interact with the other kids of different backgrounds…poor, rich, white, black, Hispanic, saved and non-saved alike. Taking our Christian children out of the schools is not only robbing them of this powerful learning opportunity, but it is robbing the other kids of learning about the truth of Christians and the love of Christ. You and I both know they won’t learn that from the schools.

  2. I think “the numbers don’t lie,” comment is oversimplistic. I don’t think you can look at 67% and say, without backing it up, that it is a failing system or that the titanic is sinking. In baseball, 30% will get you into the hall of fame, whereas a 99% success rate in DNA replication of the germ cell line will give leave your kids with debilitating diseases. As you can see, sometimes high success percentages indicate failure and sometimes very low success rates will make people famous. I don’t say this to say that 67% isn’t a failing grade, but only to say that you can’t look at a number like this and immediately judge the school system based upon it. I’m not sure that you can say that the schools are a failure, but I do think it is valid to say that there are large pockets of impoverished people that need some extra help. Maybe some after school programs would be useful, but I’m not sure if a school system revolution.

  3. Nathan… thanks for your viewpoint. But with all due respect… you have simply spun the argument in a way that’s favorable to your point of view. So fine, let’s blame society, not the schools; that doesn’t solve the problem that kids are not getting educated. If the whole reason schools exist is to EDUCATE, then they must be held to that standard regardless of what raw material they start with!

    Setting up the private vs. public debate as an issue of rich vs. poor is a good debate tactic, but the facts don’t support it. Many Christian private schools are set up to scholarship lower income kids in mass quantities, because those who started those schools believe in the biblical mandate to help the poor. The facts are that private schools consistently outperform public, no matter how you slice the data. Are you saying this is SIMPLY because they tend to draw kids from stronger families?

    I wish most strongly to take issue with how you have defined success in education. You wrote: “Christian kids can get an excellent education in public schools. On top of learning what it takes to succeed financially, they learn what it takes to succeed in a diverse global economy. They learn how to interact with the other kids of different backgrounds…” If this is your definition of SUCCESS in education, then we have a lot of work to do, brother! I don’t want my kids to be financially successful, I want them to learn to THINK. I don’t send them to school to help them learn to interact with kids of different backgrounds – they can do that in the neighborhood or on a baseball team or by serving the poor in a missional endeavor alongside me. I want them to be taught to read and write and think and question and reason… and that is exactly what public schools are failing to teach them.

    Are the reasons for this complex? Sure. But is pointing the finger back at society really an answer?

  4. In my haste, I may have overgeneralized without making the connection to what I was getting at. To the vast majority of society, the goal of education is to become financially successful. To me, these are the three R’s of education. The other part of that comes from critically thinking within a diverse environment. I think we are both arguing the same point.
    What I was getting at though, was that with NCLB and the standardized testing, all thinking is being taken out of schools. Kids are being taught to take a test, not to think critically of the world around them. This is what school reform has brought about. The one thing that you want your kids to learn from the schools, is the one thing that is being sacrificed. Is that going to solve the problem?

  5. I agree that private schools (mainly Christian) are offering scholarships to the more needy, but the fact is, these schools are not held to the same standard as public schools. Private schools do not feel the effects of NCLB (except for the voucher money) because they are not mandated to make AYP. In fact, private schools do not take the same standardized tests, nor does their curriculum follow the same state standards as public schools. I would even beg to differ that private schools provide a better education.
    If you look at Westside Community Schools, their students beat out all other students on one common assessment…the ACT. The only way to compare public and private is to look at a common assessment. Right now the ACT and SAT is the only way to do that and they beat all other public and private institutions with their scores. So are they failing their kids?

  6. My two cents:

    With all due respect to those teachers fighting the good fight, and much respect is certainly due, I think this debate isn’t going anywhere because no one is asking or answering the right questions.

    Also, thanks Derrick for your comment on statistics and their malleability. What the number means depends heavily on context, and that should be taken into account. However, if it is indeed the case that 2 out of 3 competent children is the best the current system can do, I think a long, hard look at said system is warranted.

    To Nathan, Bob is right on when he says blaming society isn’t constructive to this debate. The schools of today must take the imperfections of our society into account in its structure. We’re not talking about utopia, we’re discussing a. whether the school system is satisfactory, b. are the shortfalls of the current system systemic, and c. can we do better? I think the answer to all three questions is yes.

    And answering yes to those questions doesn’t mean I’m in favor of homeschool, or private school, or the NCLB, or that the poor are inconsequential- it means I think the current system is the problem and I think we can build a better one.

    My sharpest criticism is reserved for the bureaucracy that has grown up and choked off any room for change or growth within the public school system. If the public school system had built into its structure the capacity to abandon the old and unsuccessful and reinvent itself and its practices, there wouldn’t be such an outflow of students to private and home schools (perhaps I give people too much credit here, given Omaha’s recent egregious and shameful racism). The public school system, and the immensely influential teacher’s union (to the extent this body engages in such practices) have only themselves to blame for asinine legislation and policy like NCLB, for in engaging in obstructionism instead of leading the calls for change, they become part of the problem instead of the architects of the solution.

    So my last question for the present forum is what would a school that succeeds where the current system fails be, in structure, in operation, and in accountability?

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