What’s Wrong with Education in America and What Can We Do About It? — A Christian Perspective
Tonight I am joined by my son, Oswin, and a friend and colleague, Zachary Herrmann.
Given L’Abri’s community, mission, and legacy, it is an honor and a delight to be with you.
When was the last time you saw a high school senior running down the hallway, high-fiving his classmates about schoolwork?
I witnessed this last year, where I was principal in Atlanta. Students worked in groups and used learning from all their classes to address limited land or water issues, real-world problems they’d had a hand in organizing together to solve.
This particular senior was engaged despite being a few months short of graduating.
I share this brief story up front for the sake of our imagination…
What if school, or teaching, or learning, or education, or whatever we’d like to call it, what if it connected deeply with young people?
One dimension of my own experience reading the Bible is that some stories are stickier than others. They are easier than others to remember, and also they go deep. Usually because they help me make more sense of the world.
Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares is one of these sticky stories.
After explaining that a particular field was full of both wheat, planted by a man, and weeds or tares, planted by the man’s enemy, Jesus tells his audience — a large crowd by the lake — that upon realizing what the enemy had done, the man’s servants asked him about the tares, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ …
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together…until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
While there is much to discuss from this story, one takeaway that many Christians, myself included, have supposed is that wheat, growing alongside tares, suggests that while one day things will be sorted out, for now things are both getting better and also getting worse.
Charles Dickens, the English novelist, echoed this theme when he wrote,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
For this lecture, I have chosen this framing of things at once getting better and also getting worse because that is my understanding of what is going on in the education sector in the United States.
After taking a look at both sides, I will explore what Christians can do about it.
First, the tares.
The first of three tares is the existence of inequity within the education system.
The numbers would suggest that demography is destiny in the United States.
The Achievement Gap is not a new phenomenon and is probably well known to you. For decades there have been persistent achievement gaps between black and Latino students (both boys and girls) and their white and Asian counterparts. We start seeing this gap between the races in the Kindergarten years and we see it get worse over time. We see the gap in GPAs, state test scores, enrollment of rigorous courses, special education numbers, gifted programs, and behavioral indicators like dropouts and suspensions. We see it show up from K to college. We see it across all academic skills and content areas. We even see it show up even when we compare our country with schools internationally where U.S. achievement broadly falls in the middle of the pack.
After several Supreme Court decisions like Brown v the Board of Education I & II, national acts like Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX Act of 1962, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and several iterations of college access programs focused on equal education opportunity, students of color, low-income, and English- language learners continue to occupy the “underrepresented” category across the high school to college pipeline. These students often attend our most underserved, underfunded, and low-quality schools, and end up underperforming their peers.
Looking at the data, one might say one of two things are true: Either black and Latino children are less likely to succeed in school. Or there is something wrong with the way the system is educating young people.
There is no simple answer to why this is the case. Broad generalizations are not helpful at best and offensive at worst. Instead, professionals in the field cite a number of confounding factors, such low expectations of some students, ill-prepared teachers and schools, zones of concentrated poverty, degrees of racial and socioeconomic segregation than have endured since and despite of the Brown ruling, and funding disparities that we see not just between districts, which are caused by differences in tax rates and how states distribute their aid, but also we see unequal school finance within districts, between states, and between different parts of the education sector, especially charter and public.
Another dimension of inequity is that rural schools are often excluded from today’s education reform conversations. Twenty percent of students in the U.S. attend rural schools; that’s nearly 10 million students. That amount is equal to the 20% of U.S. students in urban schools, where most of the reform work is focused. But rural education is infrequently discussed, and investments in rural reform are even more rarely considered. On average, rural students perform better in high school, and graduate at a higher rate than students in big cities, but they are less likely to attend college and far less likely to enroll in graduate and professional programs in their post college years.
One way of looking at this is that there are a number of cultural factors that account for the inequity we see in schooling. But another way of looking at it is that the U.S. education system, which was founded in the 1st 20 years of the 20th century — and in many ways looks similar today — is actually doing what it is designed to do.
All this simply means it has been and it remains really tough for some people to have access to good schools. This is happening right now in many parts of the United States.
This point [about inequity] is closely linked to the second tare, which is…
There is a high degree of variability in the quality of teaching and learning throughout the education system.
After college, I studied Christian theology and ministry, became ordained, and worked as a minister at a local church in Atlanta. In 2007, I transitioned as a mid-career into the teaching profession. Others have called this mid-career move a mid-crisis. But when I made this switch, I looked hard for something that I was sad to discover didn’t actually exist: …The tooth fairy.
In seriousness, I was looking for some kind of a list or playbook that detailed the very best teaching strategies. Though I had taught for nearly a decade in non-traditional environments, something about becoming a public school teacher compelled me not just to make sure I was ready for the interview with my principal, but to make sure I was fully prepared for the classroom. I looked online and found nothing of the sort. I looked in libraries and found nothing. More disheartening, I spoke with veteran teachers. Each one had never heard of such a thing. In the end, I made do with an award winning list my school district had put together in an effort to summarize best practices from education research. Even still, over the years as I grew as a teacher and became more familiar with research and proven practice, I found that list and other ones like it to be woefully insufficient.
No list of teaching strategies.
Consider this reality compared to other fields. In medicine, drugs, medical devices, and medical technologies, are patentable and therefore patented; but the procedures are not. Presumably because graduates of medical school master our most proven methods and, via research, keep an eye on updates and improvements for the rest of their careers.
In law, I won’t say it’s impossible, but it is very difficult, to be a lawyer and not be keenly familiar with the law as well as updates or amendments made to laws by state and federal legislative bodies.
In medicine and law, though imperfect, there is some codified understanding of expert knowledge. And professionals in those fields attend to that understanding as they prepare to enter and continue to navigate their field.
But a codified system for quality teaching in this country does not exist.
And professionals in education vary greatly in their interest and in their willingness to attend to both evidenced-based and emerging instructional strategies.
In education, in truth, there is much we have learned from randomized control trials, from quasi-experimental studies. And as a country we are investing more into these kinds of studies every year. But too few of our teachers pay attention to this.
Some would say the incentive structures are to blame. Others, inadequate preparation. Still others, inadequate recruitment, poor professional development, a lack of accountability, poor leadership, and other factors.
What does all this mean for young people?
If I’m a student, it means a whole lot is riding on what teacher I get. Or what school I attend.
Parents feel this deeply when they have school age children, when they consider, “Where are we going to put our kids in school? Is this a good school? Will [our kids] get a good teacher?” And we hope they do. Some families who are able will move to another place for this reason.
This variability in the quality of teaching of learning that feels so normal to us in the United States is not the norm everywhere else in the world.
And despite decades of education reform, beginning in earnest with the 1986 report A Nation at Risk, and continuing on with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and others, we actually have little to show in terms of student outcomes, which have progressed only incrementally and unevenly.
The third and final tare is we are void of common purpose in U.S. education.
Right now, the vast majority of U.S. schools make use of a subject-centered approach to education, where emphasis is on gaining content knowledge, developing skills within disciplines, and advancing academic levels. In this view of learning, having young people master math, science, English, and other material theoretically equips them for life’s next steps. But while most schools make use of this approach, we do not agree on why we are doing what we are doing, on why we educate.
At the moment, there are basically 6 camps for purpose in education. In which camp are you? Take your pick.
- One camp is Basic Skills and Core Knowledge. People in this camp like facts. They argue that knowledge layers on top of knowledge in order to enrich learning into the future. For that reason, academic or study strategies alone are not enough to ensure academic success of students. Rather, knowledge is crucial for all future acquisition of knowledge. ED Hirsch champions this idea in the literature and argues that we as a nation have an “extreme curricular localism [that] produces an unproductive and highly discriminatory system whose gravest victims are the poorest and most nomadic elements of our population.” For Hirsch and others, standards are critical ways we can reach agreement among parents and teachers on minimal goals of knowledge grade by grade. That’s camp one. Now, I say this with love for Ed Hirsch, you might notice already these aren’t listed in order of my favorites. Nor Oswin’s.
- Camp two is commonly called 21st century skills. This group asks what are the true skills students must develop to find economic success and be good citizens in the 21st century? Harvard’s Tony Wagner is major proponent and asserts that there is a mismatch between the skills desired by the 21st century economy and what schools currently provide. The true 21st century skills for students are asking the right questions, working well in teams, and learning quickly what you don’t know; not a focus on content knowledge. Wagner offers up “Seven survival skills to thrive in the new world of work.” And I encourage you to read them if you haven’t. Lest you be at risk!
- The third camp is Student Engagement. People in this camp are fired up about the fact that students grow increasingly disengaged with school as they grow older, and that a disturbing proportion of students — seven out of 10 in some national studies — is uninterested in school, primarily from lack of perceived relevance. Students should be captivated by the learning process. So, this camp focuses on what schools can do to engage (or reengage) adolescents in learning. They cite psychological components — like students’ beliefs about their own competence, their motivation, and their social connectedness — as critical variables that impact both behaviors and emotions, and ultimately direct them towards learning, understanding, and developing new skills. How does that one sound to you?
- Camp four is the Equity camp. The purpose of education in the US should be to close the Achievement Gap. While many adults claim that the reasons are because of poverty, families, and cultures (which are real factors), people in this camp demonstrate that some students are receiving a lower level education. And, “since and experience research show that what schools do matters greatly,” they believe there are things schools can do to change this, like raising standards, giving challenging curriculum, offering extra help, and building the highest quality teaching force. People in this camp call for “a relentless focus on the academic core.”
- Camp five is Character, or in some circles Grit. Schools & educators in this camp are trying to embed Character or Grit education into schools because they believe it is the strongest predictor of long-term student success & should be the focus of education. They enunciate skills and qualities like: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Young people can develop these through failing forward, by undergoing a little hardship, some challenges, difficult moments, and even suffering. In the end, character is what’s important as it is the strongest predictor of long-term success and happiness in life.
- Finally, camp six is Religious education, which can be found in independent and home schools in this country. Christian education would fall under this bucket. This camp integrates spiritual instruction, moral education, knowledge of sacred texts, and places a high value on understanding God, or ultimate reality, and on a fully integrated worldview with deep purpose for the believer.
Those are the six. Which are your favorites?
But not for you personally. Or even for your children. Rather, for a national system? Which is most appropriate for a nation? Maybe some combo of two or more?
We don’t agree on this.
The hope in our current system, based on how it’s currently organized at scale, is essentially this: young people who command the disciplines will be “educated,” so that they…
…and we don’t agree.
These are the tares.
“But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then how does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
They are not only the worst of times. They are also the best of times.
The first wheat is what I will call Improvement, which represents the literally countless ways in which teachers and leaders are making deeper and wider use of existing knowledge about good teaching and learning and the supports needed for them. Compelling models are emerging around early childhood, summer learning, integrated and wraparound services, leadership, professional development, and other areas that are helping improve educational outcomes across many schools.
Results are promising. Despite the existence of an Achievement Gap, the Gap is narrowing, there is a greater concern with equality both from within the sector and as evidenced in federal policy, and for students of color there are abundant examples of historical and present prosperity, progress, and intellectual success. Today 4.5 million African-Americans possess bachelor’s degrees or higher. In 2012, African-American women enrolled in college at higher rates than any other racial group, male or female. More people in general, and a greater percentage of people than ever, are graduating from U.S. high schools. And over the past 40 years, African American, White, Latino, high-income, and low-income students have increased their college-going rates.
There is also a growth of alternate providers of education, such as home schools, deregulatory models (like Teach for America), and charter schools, which began in Minnesota in the early 1990s to provide fertile ground for experimenting with new school models. Charters have independent governance boards and additional autonomy, which represents a significant shift in public school management and has given charter schools the flexibility to experiment with curriculum, hiring practices, and resource allocation.
In March of last year, the U.S. Department of Education announced a $134 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant competition, which awards money to district or school projects that create solutions to common problems. Not quite the tooth fairy, but a nice gift from the feds. A feds fairy of sorts. This is a promising policy moment for U.S. education, because it encourages transformation at the school and local level and provides an entry point to those often left out of the reform conversation.
I haven’t said anything yet about technology. Have any of you ever visited Mooresville, North Carolina?
In the Mooresville Graded School District, all public school students in grades 3 through 12 have Internet access for the entire school day via laptops they can take home with them after school. Over lemonade and cookies at the local civic center, before the first student laptop was ever issued, Mooresville’s superintendent Dr. Mark Edwards met with tech CEOs, national directors of ed tech nonprofits, community leaders, and almost 1,000 parents to discuss a Digital Conversion Master Plan that would gradually eliminate textbooks from the classroom and position students for deep learning via 1-to-1 computing and safe, high-speed internet access. To ramp up both school- and at-home web access simultaneously, the local Internet provider that serviced the district stepped up and offered high speed broadband for a $20 per year fee to families of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, which is presently half of the Mooresville student population.
Widespread Internet use has enhanced teaching and learning in the district, which has enjoyed pervasive academic achievement gains since the conversion. Right now Mooresville is tied for third place in North Carolina in overall academic achievement. The district grabbed the top spot in North Carolina for meeting the state’s Annual Measurable Objectives. And Mooresville 3rd graders ranked number one in the state on reading and math assessments, they boast, a full 10 points ahead of Chapel Hill. Edwards was named the Superintendent of the Year in 2013 by the American Association of School Administrators, and is really just one of many examples of improvement leadership we are seeing in the sector.
The second wheat I’m calling Innovation, and it represents the many examples of communities who are offering drastically different learning environments to meet the rapidly shifting demands of the economy and workforce.
Let’s play “what if” for a second.
What if schools used real-world scenarios to teach? What if learning was tied to complex problem solving? What if students graduated from high school knowing how to negotiate peace treaties, stimulate depressed economies, and reduce obesity rates in America?
Now imagine a school where students and teachers decided collaboratively that the future of energy, the problem of drinking water, and genetically modified organisms were among the topics of study.
In this model, students would be taught to use skills and knowledge from the traditional disciplines — math, science, English, social studies, etc. — to take steps towards scaling and solving aspects of these complex issues. Teachers would work together, leveraging their content expertise in service of a problem. Students would navigate complex, unpredictable situations using a multitude of educational resources. This real-world problem-solving approach would partner with expert field practitioners, community members, research scientists, political leaders, and business owners, all showing students ways of addressing pressing problems that face the world, from the local to the global.
The emerging trend to move beyond teaching facts and more fully integrate complex thinking and contemporary marketplace skills into our nation’s classrooms is not a silver bullet to fix schools but a sea change in how and for what reasons we educate in an information age.
The industrial era structure of our public school system matched the economic period for which it was producing workers. Students more or less needed to exit the system with basic literacy and numeracy skills, and the ability to function in low- or medium-skilled jobs. Today the system confronts a more challenging task: Preparing highly dynamic workers for highly skilled jobs in the knowledge economy.
In 1973, near the peak of U.S. manufacturing, less than a third of jobs required any postsecondary training. In 2020, it is projected that two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary ed.
The fastest growing occupational clusters will be in healthcare and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) where 90% of jobs will require some sort of postsecondary education, and the lowest rate of growth will be in blue-collar occupations. If these skill and knowledge gaps are not addressed, McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2020 the U.S. could be facing a shortage of up to 95 million high-and medium-skilled workers.
The good news, the wheat, is there are a number of leading educators reevaluating the capacity of our current system, making strides to update the approach, and allowing others to learn from their learning.
When we consider their innovation type, we might organize them around one or more of the following five orientations.
- The first is pedagogical. Schools in this modality closely link success with robust delivery of some particular innovative pedagogy, like problem-based learning, design-based learning, place-based learning, or something else.
- The second is a capstone orientation where students participate in substantial projects, often self-directed and with public presentations, that require them to draw upon, demonstrate mastery of, and apply content learned in traditional classes to solve a problem, make an argument, defend a thesis, or make a product.
- Third is the personalization model, which is often competency-based and students learn at their own pace and may even pursue their own interests;
- Fourth is career-based where real-world internships are integral components of the school week;
- And fifth is curricular where schools self-organize around relevant themes, like global competitiveness, social justice, the environment, or many others — and incorporate these themes into every part of the learning experience
Schools like this can be found in all sectors (public, private, and charter), in all regions (urban, suburban, and rural), and serve a full range of students, including those who have been historically underserved such as English-language learners, special education, and low-income minority students. There are thousands of brave educators today pioneering relevant learning who have found ways that captivate and prepare young people better than what most schools do now; and they have the numbers to prove it.
Some would argue, all that is needed now is for us to resolve those ways are scalable, and to update our approach.
The final wheat, which I won’t discuss for long, is the burgeoning Professionalization of Teaching.
Here I just want to enunciate that my point earlier about variability, and my point now about professionalization, doesn’t have to do with teachers but teaching. We need to get rid of bad teaching. But we need to keep our teachers.
Teacher turnover is higher than ever. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers move or leave the profession each year. That’s a turnover rate of about 20 percent, compared to 9 percent in 2009.
At the same time, there is a growing movement to codify the profession, to make professional development have stronger effects on teaching practice and student learning, to clarify a knowledge base, to make the pathway from recruitment to preparation to support coherent, attractive, and at least as professional as other respected professions.
And multiple actors are working on the front line and behind the scenes to uplift the profession.
In fact, just last week, I was privileged to be a part of a convening at Harvard, led by my advisor [Dr. Jal Mehta], at which senior leaders from top organizations around the country came together to explore ways forward and together take concrete actions to move the ball forward in building a system for quality teaching. Organizations included the US Dept. of Education, the Gates, Carnegie, and Hewlett Foundations, Teach for America, the two largest teacher unions in the U.S., multiple teachers’ colleges and universities, and many others. Collectively, the group has been eating their Wheaties, if you know what I mean. That said, we are not so bold as to say we are causing or will cause this change. But in terms of timing and also who is interested and for what reasons, and if I could borrow some Gladwell language, it does feel like a tipping point.
These are the wheat and these are the tares, as best as I see them. Existing simultaneously. In an imperfect system.
I submit them to you for our consideration and for our discussion a little bit later.
I’ll never forget the first time I told my two oldest children about the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree for not having fruit. At first they didn’t believe me; they thought I was joking. Jesus wouldn’t do that to a tree, they told me. I had to open up the Bible and show them the actual words to convince them. They still didn’t understand why Jesus would kill a tree just because it didn’t bear any fruit.
One of the things that sets apart L’Abri, besides the beauty of the land, the occasional quirky concert, and of course Friday tea and treats, is the posture of thinking Christianly, and publicly, about the intersection of faith and public life. For this final part of my lecture, that is what I hope to do.
I want to offer up a sacrificial proposal of both what the state of education in the United States means for Christians and also, and especially, what the Christian might do about it. So as to bear fruit. I am nearly certain you will disagree with some of them, and so I welcome your feedback.
And two caveats before I launch in. The first: The complexity of the education system compels me to offer up a more complicated, multi-faceted response than if we were talking about a handful of ideas. It strikes me that different things are required or possible for Christians in this complex reality. For that reason, I have chosen as a template, like a good educator might do, Ecclesiastes chapter — There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. Sometimes in life, for example, it’s appropriate to tear something down, to destroy it. Sometimes it’s right to build. These action words in Ecclesiastes, I believe, can help orient us to think about the intersection of educational philosophy and faith.
But don’t worry; I’m not going to address each and every component of this passage. Just the last 40%.
There is…a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate…
The second caveat is: Despite the complexity I’m aiming for, the ways forward I propose will not fit the problem. Because I have described the problem at the system level. And the solutions I will share for your consideration reside at the individual level. So, the systemic issues, and things we might do about them, do not fit particularly well. But I’ve done this intentionally. One, for relevance, but more importantly because we do have agency in this. It is a particularly Christian notion to partner with God in the restorative work of making the world a better place.
“For,” as Paul writes to the Colossians…
“…it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Christ, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
So, let’s jump in with…
There is a time to embrace.
I would offer up that as Christians we need to fully and rapidly embrace…technology in education.
When in Genesis, God critiqued the people who built the tower of Babel, He did not critique their innovation of the day, the brick — the first ever combination of straw, mud, and water. Rather, He critiqued their use of the brick. They used it to make a name for themselves.
Right now schools in the US are educating young people at a moment in history that is in limbo between the Internet’s initial creation and an age when, as the Pew Research Center and Elon University predict for 2025, the Internet will be like electricity: “omnipresent and less visible.” Navigating the middle of this evolution is awkward for both students and educators because the education sector has fallen drastically behind the business sector. While an estimated 96% of non-union employees have for the past five years had solid Internet access and made daily use of the Internet in conducting business, currently only 37% of our nation’s schools have even sufficient bandwidth, much less devices, training, or comfort, for robust one-to-one digital learning. We have emerging evidence that Internet integration can help narrow achievement gaps, but we don’t have consensus about Internet integration in our schools. But every year young people attend school without fully integrated Internet access, we uphold uneven learning levels and advance a cohort of graduates with too little practice in skills they need for an increasingly interconnected society.
Christians can help lead the way in advocating for safe, high-speed Internet access for the entirety of the school day to every student in their community. We can do this right now by helping mobilize funding, infrastructure, security, training, and support towards full broadband access for all students so that from the earliest grades, they can practice finding, analyzing, and evaluating information from the Internet, effectively using this information to solve problems, and ultimately growing to be the solution-seekers, innovators, collaborators, and servant leaders we hope to graduate.
There is also time to refrain from embracing.
I would submit to you that now is the time for us to stop embracing some content knowledge. I would argue that students do not need to know the same content that most of us in this room learned in school.
Proverbs 24 reads,
“Through wisdom a house is built; by understanding its walls are established; And by knowledge its rooms are filled with precious and pleasant riches.”
In this analogy, the most critical thing here, the foundation…is wisdom, which begins with fearing God. Next is understanding, which is usually understood as applying what we know. What is least crucial in this proverb, or more interchangeable if you will, is knowledge, which is depicted as furniture that fills rooms and can be replaced.
There is great potential in subtracting the amount of content knowledge we are asking our graduates to retain and replacing it with more relevant knowledge. For one, there are enough benchmarks in most schools to require an additional ten years of secondary education. No one is going to benefit from being overwhelmed with content they can’t absorb. The Internet is also a game-changer. Information is universally available for anyone able to access, understand, and discern content’s bias, quality, and extraneous information — effectively, learning how to learn.
This act of letting go can be challenging. Emotions, customs, and teaching routines create inertia. But if we do not subtract what content we expect our young ones to know, the trade off is we will not have made time to integrate knowledge and skills that are relevant for today.
For some, switching out beloved furniture can be a difficult process, but an important one. You may be asking what knowledge is not interchangeable? The Psalmist and others help us here, when they write…
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past — stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders (Psalm 78).
There is a time for searching out.
I would submit now is an opportune time for Christians to search out systems of institutional oppression and inequity and ally with others to tear those systems down and raise up the oppressed.
We all have resources. But exactly how and for what reasons we should be generous is not always clear and might depend on our circumstances.
Sometimes it makes sense for us to close our eyes to the interests and welfare of others and simply treat people the same. Sometimes it makes sense to assess many options and go for the option that helps the most. Sometimes it makes sense to pay close attention to people’s interests and welfare and make nuanced decisions about distributing resources.
But the three scenarios I just mentioned have limits; they usually work best when the average welfare for all is fairly high. Often things aren’t average. And I have tried to show how this is case in U.S. education today. And so sometimes it makes sense to maximize the welfare of the disadvantaged, of those receive the minimum share.
Here is where Christians can shine. Here is where Christians benefit from the exemplary generosity of a cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, who have given freely to the oppressed. Here is where Christians today can closely align with Jesus’ ministry of making himself of no reputation, and of encouraging and elevating the downtrodden.
Now is a time that is ripe for searching out such opportunity.
There is also a time for giving up.
In particular, now is the time for giving up on the idea of education…as the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer to all our woes.
For one, the system is incapable of achieving this. Formal learning in schools is but a fraction compared to the informal learning students experience on a daily basis.
Former Massachusetts State Education Secretary Paul Reville writes,
“It’s time to face up to the fact that the school system is just too weak an engine to drive the results America needs if we are to remain prosperous.”
But more importantly, some of what schools measure is not important, and not all that is important is measured in schools. My son Oswin enjoys public school and has great success. His older sister cannot be bothered with school, as she struggles to see the relevance. Mastering what schools want students to know and be able to do is useful. But ultimately, prospering for the Christian…is abiding in Christ, in whom all of human history finds its center.
There is a time to keep.
I have already mentioned but I will say it again, now is the time to keep our teachers. And develop an expert workforce.
Teaching today involves a more complex set of roles and responsibilities than before. The skills, knowledge, and agility required to successfully engage and prepare students for a 21st century marketplace define how teachers operate as professionals.
…How might we support our teachers?
There is also a time to throw away.
I’m going to show more of my cards now, and of course I welcome your feedback in the discussion. But now is a time to throw away the current approach to education. The way most of our system is currently designed, most young people are flat out bored; and far too many are ill prepared for life’s next steps.
There is, right now, a growing gap between the number of job applicants with the necessary entry-level skills and the number of college graduates who cannot find work. Today, the ability to use whatever it takes to solve multifaceted problems is an essential ingredient for employment, yet our current educational philosophy and structures, which are disturbingly similar to the education system designed in our country 100 years ago, get in the way of this. Remember the purpose camps from earlier? The current system is not delivering particularly well on any one of these.
The absence of relevant learning in our schools should concern us. Employers are asking for it. Parents are demanding it. The international community recognizes the need for it. Students are, on the whole, disengaged with school as is. And even when we have wanted to, historically, we are slow at changing our schools to make them relevant.
To move towards new learning environments, we must revisit how students and teachers spend their days and weeks, how school and system leaders allocate resources, how we measure and celebrate what students are knowing and doing in an information age, which is different from the academic standards of the past.
There is a time to tear.
If we are to take the Psalmist seriously about passing on to the next generation, then it would seem there are times to tear, to un-do, to destroy some of what school teaches. In particular, things that would challenge the supremacy of Christ.
Having travelled to many countries, it is a sense of pride for me, that my family and I live in a country that, in theory and rhetoric, seeks to welcome and mutually benefit people from all over the world, from all walks of life. Now we struggle greatly with this; not all people agree, and certainly that is not the experience of everyone. But the aspiration is, in my experience, less prominent elsewhere in the world.
And because this inclusive aspiration exists in the United States, what God’s Word says about life and living, and what decisions or policies or laws make most sense in a democracy are different questions with responses that sometimes align and sometimes compete.
My oldest child is finishing out her 4th grade year not far from here in Arlington. My son, his 2nd grade year. There have not been many times, but there have been occasions where it has been right for my wife and me to un-do, to tear an idea they have learned, and to remind them that “in our house, we will serve the Lord.”
There is a time to mend.
Right now in education, there is abundant opportunity to mend the relationship between communities and their schools.
Nearly all of the frameworks that are currently being used by today’s education leaders fail to include empathy as a critical step in the decision making process. Almost all of the models, the schemas, the processes educators use to make choices about the learning environment are missing a crucial first step of understanding context as a means to co-create solutions that leverage community strengths and honor their challenges.
Jesus Himself was sensitive to others’ feelings. Once, when he healed a deaf man, he took him aside, maybe so his recovery would not embarrass him. When Jesus saw a widow about to bury her only son, he sensed her pain, approached the funeral, and resurrected the young man. In another place, Matthew tells us how Jesus…
…“went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. And when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them (Matthew 9).”
Student and parent voice is largely absent from the decision making process in education today.
As ministers of reconciliation, Christians can help.
As agents of change who understand that all people are created in God’s image — and therefore have feelings that reveal values, an intellect that yields important thoughts, and a will that creates hopes and dreams — Christians can mediate the relationship between schools and communities.
This is actually linked to my next point about there being…
A time for silence.
When we talk about education there is a temptation to closely link academic achievement with jobs or economic capacity and gains. I have done as much in this lecture. There is a similar, complementary temptation to embrace a fiscal understanding of poverty, that is, to think about poverty in terms of access to dollars. And understandably so. We live in the United States, where the American Dream is usually described in financial terms. But in what ways might advancing a financial understanding of poverty impede our goals, and actually make it more difficult for us to achieve equity and excellence in teaching and learning?
Critical race theory is an academic discipline that has emerged in recent decades in US law schools, and that critically examines the intersection of race, law, and power. Among other aims, the movement hopes to subvert popular narratives by shifting focus away from a deficit view of communities as places full of disadvantages, and instead focusing on and learning from the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged.
This outlook lessens the importance of possessions, and takes a much broader conception of wealth. In doing so, I wonder, does it possibly open up conversations about spirituality and Christ in ways that are more natural than when success is framed merely in financial terms?
There are communities in this country who are poor in dollars but are rich in culture.
When Christians speak in the public sphere, what if we, too, were more silent about the connection between education and fiscal wealth? What if we were more careful about what communities we call impoverished and for what reasons? Would not this position us to share about the One who best modeled that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions?
There is a time to speak up.
There is a time to speak up about purpose in education. About why we educate.
We began tonight with the cultural mandate — to fill and subdue the earth. Building off that exercise, I believe we are at a moment where reframing educational purpose, which is a popular conversation today, can closely align with the Christian worldview in a unique way.
We are all complexly related, to the earth and to each other, and these relationships are inescapable, inherently valuable, and increasingly interconnected. We would benefit from framing educational purpose around how we might improve the social (our relationships with each other) and natural (our relationship with the earth) worlds. An educational purpose that enunciates relationships with others and that includes, but ultimately rises above, the traditional academic disciplines and highlights the relationships between them — a relationship-centered approach — is, I believe, the unequivocal way forward.
What this purpose statement lacks of course is mention of our relationship with God, the foundation of all.
But what if framing educational purpose around our relationships with one another and the natural world — God’s creation — provided the critical intersection in the public sphere between the content and reasons around why we educate and the advancement of God’s restorative work on the earth?
Two final thoughts.
There is a time to love.
Who ultimately holds the responsibility for making sure that all of the youth in a city are prepared for life’s next steps? Leaders at the school and district levels are strapped for resources. Mayors have goals that are broader than education alone. Philanthropic organizations focus narrowly on expected outcomes for segmented populations. And due to various complex pressures, families — historically the basic unit for raising children — vary in their willingness and capacity to equip children for life’s next steps.
The result is that too many kids are falling through the cracks with not enough support. Some children suffer from a poverty of isolation.
Public, charter, private, and home schools urgently need partnerships to maximize student outcomes, and students desperately need strong relationships with adults to navigate their youth. By knitting together, training, coordinating, and supporting volunteers from the community we can fill in the gaps.
Jesus has called us to make disciples. How might we reach out to young people and establish a wealth of human connection linked by unconditional love and support?
There is a time to hate.
Christians should, according to the Bible, have a hate life…that includes hating lying, evil, vain thoughts, empty rituals, and various others things.
But here I would like to encourage us to hate an evil heart against our neighbors, which Zechariah tells us, is among the things the Lord hates.
Zechariah 8.17 — “And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbor; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the Lord.”
I hope you have enjoyed at least parts of this talk. I know I addressed topics related to both leadership and learning, and I tried to strike the right balance between the two. I wonder if the talk was too practical and not enough philosophical or contemplative, and I welcome your input.
I am not a farmer, but as I understand it wheat and tares do not grow evenly. And while trying to pull out the tares amidst the wheat is unwise, there is the potential for the wheat to grow quickly enough so as to choke out the tares. And sometimes the tares grow quickly and do get ahead of the wheat.
It is my genuine hope and prayer that in education, which is something familiar to us all, we as Christians might find the good, grow it, and thank God in advance for the day when the tares will be no more.
At this point, I want to open it up for questions and discussion.