The Common Good

Beyond 'Superman'

Sojomail - August 23, 2012

 GUEST COMMENTARY by Nicole Baker Fulgham

Beyond 'Superman'

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I've been involved in public education for more than 15 years—as an urban public school teacher, a researcher and policy analyst, a teacher trainer, a parent, and an advocate. I never dreamed I’d live to witness such raucous and juicy debates about how to improve our nation’s lowest-performing public schools. Throughout my career, public education garnered the occasional feel-good story about a phenomenal, mythical “inner city teacher” and, more often, the litany of stories about how urban and rural schools are in complete disarray.

But during the last few years—oh my! We’ve witnessed the onslaught of message-laden documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, which are celebrated by many and derided as teacher-bashing propaganda by others. The birth of the “education reform” movement has generated such groups as Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, and Stand For Children. Again, lauded by many, these groups are vigorously criticized by others because of the way they push against policies, structures, and institutions in public education.

Regardless of what side of the education reform debate we may choose, most Americans agree on one thing: Public schools must improve. The academic achievement gap between wealthy white students and low-income students of color must be eliminated. It’s unconscionable that 50 percent of kids growing up in poverty drop out of high school. How do we allow a system to exist where poor children in the fourth grade are already performing three grade levels behind children in wealthier neighborhoods? What future do we anticipate poor and minority children will have with these academic outcomes?

As a Christian, like many other people of faith, I’m propelled by my religious convictions to work on behalf of the most disenfranchised children. My biblical beliefs about poverty and inequity cause me to try and fix systems that perpetuate the inequities we see in public education. People of faith should be prophetic voices to lift up examples of what’s possible in the face of seeming impossibility. Our Christian beliefs compel us to view all children as made in God’s image and likeness—and there’s no plausible way that God would give all of the academic skills and intellect to wealthy, white suburban children.

At first glance, this all seems like fairly benign stuff. The system isn’t ensuring that all children fulfill their God-given academic potential. So why is today’s public education reform so emotional and complex? What’s happening with public education reform in this country, and how can faith communities play a role in bringing about much-needed change? Do we even dare to step into the debate? Unequivocally—yes. We must get involved; standing on the sidelines is no longer an option.

I believe we need to focus on two concepts in order to develop a faithful vision for public education reform: The What and The How.

The What

The best way to identify what we need to reform in public education is to take lessons from highly successful teachers, schools, and school districts. Where is the achievement gap closing? Where do we see teachers, schools, and communities producing scholars who perform at incredibly high levels even when they’re growing up in poverty? Those examples have to be our nation’s blueprint for change because they’re achieving success in the face of enormous challenge.

Fortunately, when we look across the nation we can find a growing number of outstanding low-income public schools that defy the odds every day. And they share several key traits: ...

Finish reading Nicole Baker Fulgham's powerful magazine article HERE.

Nicole Baker Fulgham is founder and president of The Expectations Project (, which mobilizes people of faith to help close the academic achievement gap in public schools.

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