The achievement gap between rich and poor is divided along both socioeconomic and racial lines, and too many of our children are receiving less help instead of more despite the given hurdles they face growing up in poverty.
This is more than just a broken systems issue; this is a moral issue. We need to do better for our kids both because it will benefit society in the long run but even more so because it’s the right thing to do.
Growing up, I believed that if you worked hard in school, you could do anything – go to college, get a good job, and provide for your family. I believed this throughout most of college, and even when I learned about bad schools I still thought it was really your own personal effort and will to succeed that would determine your future life prospects in this country. I believed this because of the ideals we stand for as a nation – equality, opportunity, and social mobility. I was certain that social stratification was more choice than chance.
The day I became a school teacher on the South Side of Chicago, however, changed all this.
I knew some schools were worse than others, but I had no idea what I was in for when I started teaching elementary school in Little Village. I witnessed long-standing structural inequities working against my students. I saw kids who had it in them to do anything, and to be anything, but who were forced to fight near impossible odds when it came to graduating from high school and going to college. Out of my 30 students, if two graduate from college, the class will surpass the norm for Chicago Public Schools. If more than half graduate from high school, my class will beat their current odds, even though those graduates are likely to perform at an eighth grade level despite meeting 12th grade requirements.
As I think about this, and I think about the incredible disparities in educational opportunity between children born into poverty and those born into middle- and upper-class society, I’m struck with incredulity at what this means not only for the resumes and professional careers of my students, but what it means for them as people – people with dignity – and what it means for society as a whole. Because for me, my public education didn’t just get me into college, and my college education didn’t just get me a good job. These experiences helped shape my values, taught me discipline, and proved incredibly formative in my own understanding of self (what I’m passionate about, what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I want to contribute to society).
A good education is critical for the prosperous futures and careers of our youth, to be sure, but it’s also imperative for their development as people. Education plays an important social role as it helps people learn decision-making skills and provides hope for a prosperous future. The more educated people are, the less likely they are to get involved in gangs and go to prison; the more likely they are to do community service and vote. By offering our low-income – our least advantaged persons – a sub-par education, we are pulling the rug of dignity out from underneath them and plaguing not only their futures, but our own as well.
Fortunately, the issue of educational injustice is starting to gain greater national attention. Recently, Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton teamed up with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on a road trip across America discussing the dire need to improve our schools. Building on these efforts, this fall NBC launched “Education Nation,” a series of programs and discussions aimed at drawing attention to the slipping quality of education in the US (which now ranks 25th in math and 21st in science among developed nations) and the urgent need to address the problem now. Moreover, movies like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman are bringing light to the sad fact that for too many low-income families, their children’s future depends on luck.
This is great to see, but it will be meaningless if nothing changes. And that’s where I believe the faith community comes at. As the backbone of social movements from abolition to women’s suffrage to civil rights, people of faith have brought the conviction, determination, and manpower necessary to make positive change happen in this country. My faith as a Christian is why I chose to teach in a low-income school, and why I continue to work for educational justice today. With 300,000 congregations in our country, we have the people and the will to make mighty things happen. What will we do to ensure our children – God’s children – get the opportunities they deserve to become the people they were created to be? What will we do to ensure the promise of hope and a future for those who, by luck of the draw, are born with less, and stare at many more obstacles to reaching their potential?
I believe this is a critical moment, and opportunity, for Christians and the faith community to say we will not wait for change to happen. We will not merely hope for it – we will be its arbiters. As Jesus revolutionized society through service, we have a moral imperative to serve rather than be served; to use our own opportunities to open the doors of opportunity for others.
My optimism is stoked by gatherings such as the White House convening of faith leaders to discuss partnerships with low-income schools and efforts of the Waiting for Superman film to engage people of faith in this issue. I am heartened to read about the importance of educational equity in Christianity Today, World Magazine, and other media forums. The call is certainly out there. It’s up to us to respond.
We have the people. We have the will. The question is: what will we do?