Failing Grade (Education: Part 1)

Quite a few members of the Coram Deo community are educators: teachers and administrators and such. So any debate about education is bound to be… well… interesting. Honoring the faithful, Christ-glorifying efforts of our teachers while condemning the systematic weaknesses of American public education is a daunting challenge. But hey, what are blogs for?

In a recent editorial in World Magazine, Joel Belz asks the question: “What other institution can fail one-third of the time and survive?” That’s the failure rate of American high schools. Only two out of three students who enter high school in America graduate. A recent Time magazine cover story called that statistic “astonishing.” And it begs the question: what is our role as Christians in bringing reform? Certainly we need teachers and administrators who care to improve the state of education in America. But at some point, in a free-market system, shouldn’t we also be pushing for vouchers and tax incentives to allow parents to vote with their dollars for better educational options? My wife and I have chosen to homeschool our kids, not out of some isolationist desire to “protect them from the world,” but simply from a conviction that we can provide a better education than our local public school.

In no way do I wish to denigrate the excellent work of teachers. I simply wish to raise the question: with many of the young families in Coram Deo facing school decisions, what do our public schools have to offer? In a system with a one-third failure rate, can we really hope that our kids will be trained to read and write and think so they can make an impact in the world?

Educators, read the World article and then weigh in. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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  1. Well, I am not an educator yet, and I don’t go to Coram Deo, but here’s my two cents.

    Let me start off the discussion by reminding us that the educational system in our country is one that is (supposed to be) controlled by the state and local governments. The No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) is, in my opinion and that of most educators I know, a direct violation of Tenth Amendment. The federal government should have no direct say as to what local schools do (if they give grants and stuff for specific reasons, that is one thing, but the kind of testing that NCLB requires is overstepping the bounds of where the federal government should be involved. Let them worry about protecting the homeland and foreign affairs.

    That being said, it does need to fall on the people and the local/state governments to ensure that their children are getting educated. Nebraska and Iowa rank in the top 5 (Nebraska is tied for fifth, Iowa is fourth). But neither state graduates more than 85% of its children, and no state makes it to 90%. Personally, I wouldn’t fly an airline that had a 90% success rate. Also of note, Nebraska has the lowest graduation rate for Native American/Indian students at 40%. (Stats from September of 2003,

    But I do not think that macro-management is the answer. What does the federal government (Bush, Education Secretary Spellings, also from Texas) know about rural schools in Nebraska? Should the same expectations be held for a rural school with a high Native American population as an urban school in Spanish Harlem? Obviously these schools will focus on different things and should focus on different things.

    Still the question remains “What can we do HERE, in our community to improve children’s education?” Bob, I completely respect your decision to home school your children, and quite frankly for a genius like Parker, he probably would be better off learning from you guys than from a young teacher like me who has 20 other kids to worry about. And your tax dollars are going to the schools without any resources being used up because of your decision. But my fear is that so many Christians decide to home school or use private schools to educate their children for whatever reason, be it a valid one like yours or an idiotic one like trying to “protect them from the world.” We have become disillusioned and have pulled out. Why, then, would school boards and communities listen to what we have to say? As a community member and a taxpayer, you do have a right to say where the money goes, but I think that school boards are more apt to listen to the people whose children are in their schools (Again, I do respect your decision to home school because you made it with knowledge and right motives, and because you and Leigh are smart cookies.)

    So currently at the local level is the now defunct “One City, One School District” plan. The question we should be looking at is whether or not fractionalization of our district is better than combining with others. It’s an issue of money vs. policy making.

    Okay, that may have been a little more than two cents worth. Sorry for the length, I am not good with words.

  2. Patrick, you make good points. I think an eye-opening solution would be: give EVERY taxpayer total discretion over the education portion of their taxes. Give them the right to choose which school their education tax dollars go to. Then see how quickly public schools would get their problems figured out! As long as schools continue to get funded for mediocrity, there’s nothing to move them to fix things. If they actually had to COMPETE for resources with Catholic schools or with my wife’s excellent teaching, they’d get good fast… or be extinct.

  3. One more thought: I really believe this is a moral issue, not a pragmatic or economic one. Belz writes that the current crisis in education amounts to “an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual raping of our nation’s young.” I think he’s right.

  4. While also Respecting the Pastor’s decision to homeschool, I’m going to go a little farther than the above poster. It is still our responsibtility as parents to “guide” the education of our children, even when the attend Public School. My wife and I are choosing public schools with all of the benefits (ex.caricular activities, social, etc. . . )while still monitoring on a daily basis what our daughter is learning and helping her with it. I feel like sometimes the attitude is “it’s their job to do that, it’s what I”m paying for”. . .no, it’s our job as parents to take responsibility for the education of our children, . . there are alot of ways to go about that. I’m choosing to stay in the public schools and be a reform agent therein by helping to produce a succesfully educated child. No knock against any other method, though, I actully was homeschooled for a while as a kid.

  5. Hi Bob,
    Figured I’d weigh in on this one, . . . I agree that it’s a moral issue, but it’s a moral issue at home. Let’s not hold government accountable until we’ve held ourselves accountable at home for the education of our children. Many successful people have been educated in the public school system,. . . but not without extensive parental involvement, which is what God calls us to anyway, I would think. I totally respect your decision to homeschool, I was homeschooled as a kid for part of my education, . . . I think both work.

  6. Good thoughts, y’all… let’s not turn this into a homeschool vs. public school debate. That’s not really what I’m going for.

    Props to Aaron and “anonymous” for affirming the importance of parental involvement. Amen.

    Aaron, I don’t agree that we should “not hold the government accountable until we’ve held ourselves accountable.” It’s not linear. As parents, it’s OUR job to be responsible for the education of our kids… and that means holding our schools (and our government) accountable. It’s not the kids with good homes who are failing… it’s the kids WITHOUT good homes. That’s why I say it’s a moral issue.

  7. Great topic to mix things up, Bob. I totally agree that a free-market approach to education would be a postive thing. Competition with the threat of shutting down schools would put a whole new kind of pressure for excellence on school systems. It’s a complex issue, but clearly something has to change. I’m finding that isn’t a popular opinion among the educator types who are teaching my classes, though.

    Patrick brought up the No Child Left Behind issue and his belief that it oversteps the boundaries of federal government. Normally, I’d be tempted to agree given my bias for limited government. NCLB certainly has its flaws, but it is the federal government’s attempt to create accountability for failing state systems. If we have a moral responsibility to educate our children well, and education has failed under the states’ watch, then doesn’t the federal government have a responsiblity to, in essence, protect our nation’s children from the inadequacy of the states?

  8. You may be right Suzanne. But the NCLB plan which was adapted from Bush’s state plan for Texas has proven unsuccessful (Texas is right at the national average, 67% for graduation). And national based testing is not the way to go. One good part of NCLB is the requirement that all teacher’s be “highly qualified” but I think that that statement is too general. It doesn’t go far enough. Perhaps one practical thing would be national accredidation. Some professional teacher organizations have begun to take this responsibility on themselves, offering high standards for national accredation.

    The current legislation causes teachers to teach only to the standards and gives little room for us to teach based on individual needs. And test scores are merely numbers. If I was to tell you the score of a basketball or football game, it would simply tell you who won. You would have no idea how the offense performed, how they did defensively, what kind of penalties there were or any of those important facts to get the whole picture.

    It definitely is a moral problem. And it typically is the children that come from broken homes. Kids who have nurturing parents do well because their parents go the extra mile. So how do we fix broken homes and how do we encourage children and parents of broken homes that education has to be taken seriously? Not by making them take more tests and having nationwide standards. But by giving teachers time and freedom to truly interact with the families and children they teach. It is my hope (and I know this is somewhat a dream that won’t happen in reality) that when I teach, I will be able to visit the homes of some of my children and develop relationships with the families so they can see how much I care about their children’s education. It is hard to do that while trying to meet all the rules that the feds say give the children a good education.

  9. I want to start by saying that statistics can be used to support many motives, accurate and inaccurate, but we need to look at all the facts before making a judgment based on one statistic. Here are some statistics that help to give the big picture as to what our educational system faces every day.

    Before we take that statistics of 1/3 of a failure rate as gold, we need to understand that 58% of the 73 million children living in America are living in poverty. (National Center for Children in Poverty) These numbers have been rising since 2000. What does this mean? In training I attended last spring we were faced with the fact that children of poverty come to school with a vocabulary of 10,000 words or less. Compare this to children like ours who come to school with 40,000 + words and there is automatically a gap in achievement. So, we have 58% of public school children coming to school with little to no (if they are English Language Learners, as 72% of my students are) language acquisition. For many low-income children, early vocabulary delays are associated with ongoing language deficit social/emotional difficulties, and later academic failure (Richman, Stevenson, & Graham, 1982).

    So, here we have 58% of students that are coming to school with a huge disadvantage and the school system gets blamed. What is the failure rate at Millard High School? My guess is it’s pretty low, as is the poverty and minority percentage. There is a direct correlation between poverty, family involvement, and education. To reward only the education system for the success of schools and to blame only the education system for failure is doing so without much knowledge about the matter. This excerpt is from a research paper of mine, “Life circumstances affect a child’s ability to learn. Parents who are under stress from these or other life situations (living in a community plagued by violence, economic status, job demands) do not always have the emotional energy or physical resources to provide nurturing care for their children – sometimes even to meet their children’s most basic needs” (Dodge, D, 2002). I see this day in and day out. These parents DO care but their life situation does not allow for a family dinner where they are talking about life and learning something new every day. As middle class citizens we can work with our children at home because we are educated, we do not live a life of poverty, and we have the necessary tools to teach our children.

    Saying that the school system is failing based on that one statistic is very one sided. Would I say that Coram Deo is failing if we had 114 people at church on Easter and only one accepted Christ? Of course not, because God worked there and He is still working in public education. We would not put a pastor in the spotlight and say that he’s not teaching effectively if only 2/3 of visitors have made the decision to follow Christ. There is more that matters, it’s the journey and small changes that are being made. I feel public education will continue to suffer because of the exodus of parents withdrawing their students, input, and no longer being a part of the educational community. I feel that now more then ever we need involved parents who understand the value of education integrating with parents who may not have that same mindset or the ability to help their children (essentially, helping the poor).

    Vouchers are great, for people with money. What about the poor? They deserve the same educational opportunities but they wouldn’t get them if vouchers were in place because they wouldn’t be able to afford what is needed to get them out of their neighborhood school (transportation, etc). Also, examine the option enrollment opportunity in Lexington, NE. White students with access to transportation (which many families of poverty do not have) are opting into rural schools to avoid having to go to school with Latino students. Socially, is that a beneficial result? I hope that nobody actually thinks it is. I also know that no one at Coram Deo would actually send their child to school expecting the teachers to teach them 100% how to read, write, and think. That is because it is not only the job of educators. School was meant to be a partnership with parents; teachers teaching at school what is developmentally appropriate for every grade level and parents reinforcing the concepts at home. That is idealistic but I’m sure the parents of Coram Deo would say that they do reinforce school concepts at home, or plan to, because that is the WISE thing to do.

    Why will James and I send our children to a public school? More importantly why will we send them to our neighborhood school of Bancroft with 52% Hispanic, 41% Caucasian, 4% African American, 2.6% Native American, and .5% Asian located at 7th and Bancroft? We will because now more than ever, with the vision of Coram Deo, we need Christ followers in our schools to live a mission oriented life. This includes our children. Also, as a parent that plans to be involved in my child’s education, I will have ample opportunity to interact with other students and families and support the educators. The opportunity to serve in this type of environment will be endless. Where most parents work 2 jobs, they need assistance. Maybe it’s picking up their child from school and keeping them for a couple of hours. Maybe it’s taking their children to school. Right there, the child is able to see a home environment where Christ is the center and they may have exposure to Christ for the first time.

    I know that James and I will do all we need to do to teach our children to read, write, and think. As a Christian, even more important than that is teaching our children how to love those around them, this comes with experience. Not just those around them that are exactly like them but also those who are a different race, speak a different language, live in poverty, and don’t know Christ, this is the world we live in. I know my passion comes from being an educator of poor children and I invite anybody to come down to Liberty and see what amazing things are happening here. I will throw the challenge out there to not make any decisions about public school education until you visit my school and see for yourself what’s really happening here, learning and progress is taking place. The issue here goes much deeper than whether or not to home school or send your child to public school. Home school or public education, we cannot say one is right or wrong. I believe public education does have many more challenges and dynamics to deal with. It’s important to consider the facts and the realities of what public school education faces (poverty, English Language Learners, diversity, busy parents that are unable to be involved) before formulating an opinion. Each family has different needs, wants, and desires and ultimately they have to do what is best for them.

  10. Victoria… thanks for the stats, for your passion, and for your missional approach to teaching. I have no doubt the world (and the public schools) will be better because of your leadership!!! May your tribe increase!

    I vote that you and Patrick and Suzanne come up with a new approach to schooling – a holistic school, targeting underprivileged kids, that combines classroom education with some sort of involvement in the family life of the kids. Then we’ll get Claire to raise money for it and Brent to offer counseling to the parents… dang, that could be SWEEET!!!

    BTW… I agree with your concern for the gap between rich and poor in educational choice. It’s just that I don’t trust the government to fix the problem. So I am halfway serious when I suggest that perhaps part of our missional calling as Coram Deo could be to provide some new form of education for the kids you speak of!

  11. Hey Bob… I know you guys are trying to be a culturally relevant church. and since we are talking about education, I was just curious if you guys were doing anything with Embrace Teachers? And maybe when i start coming to Coram Deo, Victoria Suzanne and i will sit down and talk about your hollistic school. sounds like a sweet place if ya ask me. i would work there.

  12. Victoria, thanks for all your thoughts. You make great points and I agree with your concern for kids in poverty and the all-around challenge that poses. When I look at our education system, I’m not only looking at the graduation failure statistics that largely come out of low SES areas, but also the poorly educated kids that DO graduate. As a country, we are way behind, and I don’t pretend to have the answers, I just think something has to change. Setting all that aside, I want to give you props for what you do. Guys, I’ve seen her at work in her classroom, and what she does is amazing, missional work. I wish that every school had teachers like her–we might not be having this discussion if that were the case.

  13. Huge props to Victoria!

    Again, her research and personal experience show (as well as two teachers in my family) that the family environment is essential, no one’s arguing against that. I just don’t want to say “It’s the government’s job to educate my children, and since they aren’t doing a good job, let’s pull the kids to a school of our choice, rewarded by excellence”. I don’t think that’s “holding the school acountable”. I think Victoria’s point is well made, that an “excellent” school is too often a “middle class” school economically. I’m all for you guys trying to reform the local school system, . . I think we should all be about this work, one family at a time.

    And by the way, out here in Colorado, we are jealous of the Nebraska school system (of which I am a product), . . it’s alot worse here.

  14. I have been sitting in front of my computer for over 20 minutes, now, staring at the screen and wondering about how I was going to start this. Anytime that the issue of public schooling arises, my thoughts immediately return to South Africa. I am a product of forced, safe, white, private schools. I am a product of a legal and certainly educational system that catered to those who were white. This same system took those who were already disadvantaged and racially diverse and created a world for them in which they could further spiral downward in their educational, relational, financial and intellectual poverty. I am a product of a country that exalted one “side of the tracks” and tried desperately to pretend that the other side did not exist. Now South Africa is in a mess. A beautiful country with abundant resources is being governed and run by some men and women who have not even met what would be the equivalent requirements for an American G.E.D. exam. Whose fault is this? Can we as white, educated South Africans really blame these members of government when they make uneducated decisions?
    This issue is one that is so deep and complex that I am sure a blog entry will not suffice to bring much of it to the surface. However, I can speak from experience, both as a woman who grew up in the apartheid era and as a public high school teacher whose clientele lives at or below the poverty line, that removing ourselves from these situations of poverty is not the answer to the problem…especially as Christians.
    In an article titled: Advocating for better furtures for all students, Reece House and Particia Martin explain that:
    “Closing the achievement gap between poor and minority children and their more advantaged peers is the primary goal of every [educator] …The need to influence and raise academic achievement in our schools is paramount. The achievement gap exists because we systematically expect less of minority and low-income children.” (American Association for Higher Education [AAHE], 1992).
    There is much more from this article that can be quoted, but as I read this and other resources that explore the issue of advocating for minority and low-income children, I can’t help but be reminded of portions of scripture that call us as Christians to exactly this lifestyle. Too many of us are concerned with having the best of all that we can afford, (including the best schools and the best programs for our children) rather than being best that we can be, with what we can afford; that is, the hope of Christ that we carry within us.
    It is unneccessary for me to repeat anything that Victoria has already stated, but I could not agree more with her comments on the blog. I am not as ecucated as she is about the statistics involved with poverty vs. advantaged students. But all statistics aside, I think that on a basic level, when we remove our children from these pockets of society we communicate something to those who are left. We communicate that we are better. The Bible is clear that we have nothing in which we can boast, outside of Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. And even then, the glory goes to Him, not to us. Why, then, would we consider not taking that message, which is the only hope and light that some of these children in poverty may have, and share this with them?
    JD and I were talking just last night about the corrupt and certainly “poor” worldview that so many of my students have of everything from marriage, parenting, relationships, education, authority and I could go on. We have to remember that poverty is not just about dollars and cents. It is, as Matthew Smith shared with us, about so much more. As a teacher in a poverty-ridden society, I have the opportunity, everyday when I walk into my classroom, to model a “rich” life for my students. I have a joy (even when I am exhausted) and a hope (even if I am in a bad mood) that they do not see in the hallways and probably do not see when they return home at night. I am able to talk to girls in my classroom about purity and about parenting and about my marriage that will not end because “I don’t feel like working at it anymore.” I can talk to the boys in my classroom about what it means to be a husband, what it means, as a possible future provider, to finish school and take the opprtunity of scholarships to college.
    Praise God for his grace and mercy that come through when I am not acting like a child of hope and joy, and I thank Him for His strength that means I can get though some weeks that are more brutal than others. But, this is a battle for souls, and hearts. I have seen first-hand in my homeland the effects of separating those who are better than the rest and elevating this to the point of fostering an ideology that has created a country of people who are suspicious of eachother and who exploit much of what is good.
    Certianly, as Victoria most elequoently stated, this is not just an influence that public school teachers can have. Anyone who is a parent has the choice and opportunity to be this advocate. I am sure that as someone who does not yet have children, my perspective may be somewhat different than those of you who do. I acknowledge that. Therefore, it is important to debate this issue from a common ground – the common ground of mission, which each of us in Coram Deo would usggest is important, and which has been made one of our 5 core values. The context in which we have discussed mission, thus far, has suggested that mission requires us to accept that we will be uncomfortable (perhaps this means not having the best of everything) and that we embrace being uncomfortable for the message of the cross as more important than our comfort. Perhaps sending your children to a public school means that you have to do some “educating” at home, too, but it also means that you can be a volunteer in that school, go on field trips as a sponsor, be on the PTA and endless other opportunities to bring Christ into what can sometimes be a very dark world. This debate is not one that is just for those of us in Coram Deo who are teachers or administrators, it is for anyone of who is a follower of Christ and has been called to make disciples of all nations.
    In a country that has been torn apart by racial segragation and will forever need to be in place of healing and restoration, my own father is someone who stands out in my memory as a man who didn’t choose safe and comfortable over missional. My dad has devoted his life to teaching men how to disciple other men, regarldess of their position in life. As kids, we had natives from countries all over war-torn Africa in our home, we had meals with people off the streets, we celebrated Christmas and Easter and other holidays with people who had no family for whatever reason; people from shanty towns and migrant workers from Russia whose ships were docked in Cape Town for a period of time. Why did my father do this? Not because he is any more special or capable than any of us in Coram Deo. He did this and taught us, his children, to embrace this, because he understood that this is what life is about. It’s not about material possession, it’s not about being safe and secure and “taken care of” in the future…it’s about war. And if we are not fighting and advocating for those who cannot fight and advocate for themselves…then what are we doing? Why are we here? As the people of Coram Deo who have everthing that we need and then some, who have a God who supplies our every need and then some…why would we choose safe and secure over the adventure? The adventure of giving the precious gift of hope and life to those who do not have it? Talk about education…that’s the only “education” that will last an eternity. The knowledge of the saving love of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be the Glory.

  15. Hmm… okay, you guys have made some good points, but I also feel that suddenly this has become a debate about poverty instead of one about education. Mission WITHIN the public education system is important (a point well made by Victoria and Michele). Change OF the public education system is also important. That was the issue I was trying to raise. Spinning the debate in the direction of class warfare will not improve the system and result in a better education for poor children, will it?

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