Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids
Reviewed by Jillian Lederhouse, Education, Wheaton College
Former Teach for America vice president of faith community relations and current founder of The Expectations Project, Nicole Baker Fulgham writes how her TFA experience and Christian faith have influenced her to advocate for education reform through a national platform. Although educational inequity has been a long-standing concern for American Christians of color, and providing quality education to low-income students has been a long-standing mission of Roman Catholic and Lutheran denominations, she contends that white middle-class Evangelicals have largely ignored this issue. In writing her book, Fulgham seeks to educate Evangelicals on their collective responsibility for our nation’s low-income children and persuade the evangelical church to work for conditions which eliminate the academic achievement gap within local, state, and national contexts.
In reading her autobiography, I discovered many similarities in our life stories. We both grew up in large cities, attending Lutheran elementary schools and public high schools. After college we both taught in urban elementary schools situated in low-income neighborhoods, hers in Compton, California and mine on the west side of Chicago. More importantly we both are passionate about erasing the achievement gap in public education – a social justice issue that permeates our life’s work.
As an African American growing up in a declining Detroit neighborhood, Fulgham writes of her own parents’ struggle to provide their children with a quality education. Because of limited local public school options, they enrolled both Nicole and her brother in a small Missouri Synod Lutheran elementary school and were fortunate later to have both children accepted at a selective enrollment public high school. Fulgham relates the positive impact these choices made on her academic preparation for college and how she began, at that time, to question why a similar high-quality K-12 education was not available to her neighborhood friends. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Fulgham taught fifth grade in the greater Los Angeles area through Teach for America, where she experienced the academic achievement gap firsthand. Nearly all of her students were over three years below grade level in reading and mathematics.
This experience serves as the backdrop for Fulgham’s description of two public school systems, one for middle-class children and youth and one for those living in poverty. These distinct systems offer markedly different levels of expectations which perpetuate and often increase the academic achievement gap between social classes. She then outlines why the evangelical church should care about this matter, using Christ’s own regard for children and his call for believers to fix broken systems and restore what has been lost or allowed to decay (20) as key components of her justification.
To help the lay community better understand the issues surrounding the achievement gap, Fulgham offers several root causes and systemic factors as well as dispels a few myths. Here she briefly describes the correlation between socio-economic success and academic achievement. She targets the lack of adequate, developmentally appropriate preschool education for low-income families. Her most compelling statistic addresses the result of inferior K-12 schooling: in the top 130 colleges and universities, only 9% of freshmen come from the lower half of the nation’s household income distribution (24). Post-secondary education is academically, as well as economically, out of reach for the overwhelming majority of low-income high school graduates. The relationship of adequate health care to school achievement and both the historical and current educational challenges faced by ethnically and linguistically diverse cultures are two of the systemic factors she briefly explores. Finally, the most significant myth she discredits is that low-income parents do not care about their children’s education.
After highlighting the historical role of Christians in establishing public schools, Fulgham seeks to explain why this issue appears to be off the radar of most Evangelicals today. Middle-class Evangelicals’ investment in public education began to erode in the 1960s when schools became more secularized due to litigation and legislation resulting from a more diverse student population (83-84). She sympathizes with Evangelicals’ disenfranchisement over the loss of valued practices such as Bible reading and prayer, but she reminds them of the greater loss of potential in the lives of the children who have no alternative to inferior public schools. She understands but does not excuse. Nor does she shy away from identifying the racism demonstrated by Evangelicals in the South and other regions when federally imposed integration in the ’60s largely triggered their exodus from public schools and a resulting proliferation of segregated religious K-12 schools (85).
One of the best features of the work is that it moves beyond the reasons why all Christians should care about this issue. Fulgham outlines several concrete steps as to how individuals in local churches can improve public education from the neighborhood school to national education policy. Without these steps the reader might conclude that the problem is too huge to be resolved and certainly could not be helped by one individual or one lone church’s involvement. These steps of inviting members of the public school community into one’s church, partnering with them in providing materials and services, and praying for them are just a few of the key roles Fulgham offers that Christians can play on the local level. Key to her description of healthy school-church partnerships is the important step of churches asking schools what they need rather than merely telling them what they intend to provide. Holding discussions with invited education experts and advocating for state and federal legislation are two of her suggestions for engaging in educational improvement on a wider scale. She also provides an appendix of print, video, and organizational resources to assist congregations in this process.
Though statistically helpful, the book is not designed to be a scholarly work. It is written in an informal style for those outside of the academy and, in particular, those unfamiliar with the field of education. I would not recommend it for education students as there are works that go into far more depth in describing this national phenomenon through the lenses of faith and social class.1 But Fulgham is to be commended for her goal of helping Evangelicals see the issue from a broader perspective than race and economics without resorting to blame or guilt.
Although I believe her book can help the lay evangelical community better understand the relationship of the educational achievement gap and poverty, I found one factor noticeably absent from her discussion of its root causes. One of the greatest challenges for creating high-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods is developing and sustaining a highly effective, experienced teaching force. Teacher turnover in many low-income urban schools is over 30% within three years and nearly 50% in five years2 due to a variety of working conditions. Contrary to the media’s frequent depiction of veteran, tenured, lazy teachers as the primary source of low achievement in the poorest urban schools, it is more accurately influenced by a continuous stream of first-year teachers who are in the process of learning their craft. Many of these teachers can become highly effective, but they need a variety of resources, including professional mentors and adequate teaching materials.
Although traditional teacher education has not done exceptionally well in helping their graduates remain past the five-year mark in such schools, Teach for America requires only a two-year commitment. This perpetuates the revolving-door phenomenon experienced in so many underperforming schools. One of the greatest factors in reducing the academic achievement gap is developing highly effective career teachers.
All Christians need to advocate for conditions that will enable strong teachers to remain in their positions in low-income schools. In addition to excellent and thorough teacher preparation, these include a strong network of school services for children, access to technology and other key resources, leadership that seeks teachers’ professional input in the decision-making process, as well as adequate compensation. Like Fulgham I believe Christ will hold us accountable for the way we have educated the poor as well as how we have fed and clothed them. We all need to get to work to see educational equity become a reality; the lives of too many children depend on us.