Ask a random group of people, “How do we improve our public schools?” and you’re apt to get divergent, passionate answers. Christians, like other citizens, have different opinions on how to heal what’s hurting in our education system. What we can share is a belief that all children are truly precious in God’s sight and an understanding that public education is a key component of the common good—that a healthy school system has the potential to bring opportunity and uplift to children regardless of their economic status. Jan Resseger is the minister for public education and witness with the national Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. She spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in June.
Sojourners: Why is public education a commitment for the United Church of Christ?
Jan Resseger: The commitment to education is a long tradition for us. Our pilgrim forebears brought community schooling and higher education to the New England colonies—New England congregationalism is one of our denominational roots. Another root is the American Missionary Association (AMA), an abolitionist society that grew out of the defense committee for the Africans on the slave ship Amistad. The AMA founded schools for freed slaves as a path to citizenship across the South during and after the Civil War.
Several denominations came together as the UCC in 1957, and our general synods since then have taken stands on issues such as the protection of the First Amendment in public schools and supporting school desegregation through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. From 1958 to the present, we have spoken to institutional and structural racism and classism in schools. We also have addressed privatization, because we’ve been strong supporters for many, many years of public schools as key to the strength of our society and democracy.
What do you see as the key causes of troubled schools?
Sean Reardon from Stanford finds that the achievement gap due to income inequality is now nearly twice as large as the racial (black-white) achievement gap. If you compare the children of families in the top 10 percent by wealth and the bottom 10 percent by wealth, the gap is 30 to 40 percent wider among children born in 2001 compared to those born in 1975.
Between 2000 and 2007, residential segregation by income grew significantly. In 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that were either predominantly wealthy or predominantly poor; today 31 percent live in those communities. Fewer people live in mixed-income communities.
We also have a 22 percent child poverty rate in the U.S., which is larger than in any other industrialized country. If you overlay the lowest-scoring schools identified by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act on an income map, you’ll find there’s a high correlation. The schools that are struggling most heavily are the schools in America’s neighborhoods with the most poverty.
NCLB has put huge attention on outcomes—on test scores—and demanded that teachers raise those scores somehow, but it hasn’t put enough emphasis on inputs, i.e. funding. It did not deliver the funding that was promised when it was passed. It has shifted the attention away from the kinds of things that were the subject of the school equity lawsuits for 40 years. We don’t talk about our responsibility as a society and as citizens to be getting adequate funding to the poorest schools. We just talk about test scores. So you have this growing inequality in the society reinforced by growing inequality of capacity in public schools.
All children need a quality pre-K education, but now we have places cutting even kindergarten because of the financial crisis. We need incentives to draw the best-qualified teachers into the cities. We need strong curricula everywhere. We need equitable instructional resources. These are opportunity gaps that exist in the poorest communities, between what’s available for children there and what’s available in wealthier school districts. But we’re not talking about that. And then we blame teachers because they’re not solving this problem for us.
In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, she talks about “disaster capitalism,” where we use natural catastrophes as an excuse to privatize things. Her big example is the privatization of the schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There’s been no natural disaster to public education, but NCLB created a sense of crisis. You read articles by people who will reference off the cuff that we have massively failing schools. People will talk about providing escapes for children trapped in those failing schools. That’s not a constructive conversation. That’s a destructive conversation. We need to support and help our struggling schools and communities where the schools are overwhelmed by challenges. That’s our responsibility as citizens.
Is part of the problem that NCLB requirements weren’t adequately funded?
Sen. Ted Kennedy lost faith in the bill, which he’d promoted, because it was inadequately funded. It took a little while for people to realize “Oh my gosh, we did not get what we thought we were getting at all. We’ve got huge collateral damage from this law.”
Wealthy places put vast amounts of money in schools and poorer places can’t, and our states aren’t equalizing it. Title I is a federal program created in 1965 to distribute money to schools serving children in places with either lots of poor children or high concentrations of poor children. Funds for Title I have been insufficient for some time.
But what’s truly alarming to me, from a philosophical standpoint, is that the last two federal budgets have furthered the policies of Race to the Top [a U.S. Department of Education contest created to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education] that have made funding competitive. Title I funding to many districts has been frozen while money is put into these competitions. “Winning” states get money while elsewhere children who are poor aren’t getting the federal aid they need, limited as it was to begin with.
We’ve chased a lifeboat strategy. We’re going to create special places where children can escape from the schools we’ve defined as failing, but we’re not talking about how to improve schools for everybody. Public schools serve 50 million students on a scale that’s very difficult for most people to understand. So we’re creating a few lifeboats, but we’re not addressing the need to improve the schools that are going to continue to serve the mass of America’s children.
A variety of factors contribute to underperforming schools. How do we deal with one of those elements, individual teachers who might be ill-suited for the job?
Ideally, there is due process set up when new teachers come into the classroom. Good administrators work those processes—we need to make sure administrators are counseling, educating, and forming teachers who are able and qualified to do what they need to do. The teachers’ unions and the administrator groups all support strong mentoring programs for new teachers. Those programs ought to be in place everywhere. They aren’t, because they’re expensive and they get cut when funding is low, but they’re very important programs. New teachers need to be able to get help from experienced mentors.
The teachers’ unions (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association) both promote strong peer review programs, where groups of peers come in and work with teachers. If teachers are not working out, they help counsel them out. Other teachers aren’t supportive of rotten teachers. They know that their profession needs to be strong.
A lot of this comes back to funding. For example, if class size is reasonable, a teacher has a much better chance to be a good teacher. That’s an expensive reform. The most expensive, actually, and I think the most important. A kindergarten with 32 children is too large for the teacher to be effective. No matter how good the teacher is, it’s just not going to work right.
What is the bottom line when talking about education reform?
Much of the education reform conversation today is about reforming schools one at a time, creating a model or best practice that perhaps could be replicated. But public schooling in the U.S. is an enormous endeavor. There are 90,000 public schools, with 50 million children being educated in them. In the UCC, we’re committed to looking for systemic justice. The laws and institutions of a society—including public schools, one of our primary institutions—can be a tool for the distribution of opportunity for all children.
To quote a National Council of Churches pastoral letter sent to President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in May 2010: “As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”
That’s a really important concept. School choice appeals to individuals; it assumes each parent is an independent member of the market. Public education has been understood historically in this country as a public endeavor. Justice is an aspect of the public; it’s communal. Our narrative in the church isn’t about rugged individualism. It’s a narrative about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Public education is one way we can systemically do that, if we use the system and work for justice in the system, instead of small changes here and there. Because even if they can be replicated, unless they’re made systemic, they don’t really do what we need.