Educating all our children: Ecumenical gathering revisits No Child Left Behind

Educating all our children: Ecumenical gathering revisits No Child Left Behind

March 23, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

John Jackson speaks at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.
Photo Claudette J. Spence.

John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, was one of several impassioned advocates for equality in childhood education who spoke to and interacted with a group of representatives at the Transforming No Child Left Behind event during the National Council of Churches' Ecumenical Advocacy Days, March 13 in Washington, D.C.

Jackson compared the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, as told in John 6, to the idea that John's version of feeding the many does not mention what Jesus preached about. He intoned that our children will not remember what we say about providing quality education for them; rather it is what we do to ensure equal access to quality education for all that they will remember.

"Scripture," Jackson said, "provides the revelation, context and action plan for our current reality. Just as Jesus broke bread, sometimes things need to be broken… and in brokenness comes opportunity."

He referred to the brokenness in the public education system supported by results from the No Child Left Behind Act. He said rural and urban schools, and disproportionally African American, Latino and poor communities, receive insufficient resources to afford qualified teachers, books, computers, bathrooms and classrooms designed for teaching and learning. In this environment, students are being taught to take and pass tests that prosper the testing enterprise at the expense of not delivering to our students in public schools a broad-based comprehensive education so they can become well-informed citizens who are competitive on a global scale.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, President of the National Council of Churches, opened the gathering saying, "I want to bless you for the work you are doing for humanity." He went on to say that education advocates' work resonates with Scripture because the word "teach" appears 30 times in the gospel – twice as many times as the words "justice" and "compassion."

A panel consisting of Joel Packer (National Education Association,) Judith Browne (Advancement Project,) Molly Hunter (Education Justice at the Education Law Center) and Monty Neill (National Center for Fair and Open Testing) delivered their insights and answered questions from the audience.

Hunter shared that resource disparities exist and inequities abound in public education. She reported that many high schools in California do not offer the curriculum required for college entry. In New York, students need science courses to graduate, yet there are schools without science labs.

But Hunter doesn't see the outlook for the entire public education system as doom and gloom. She reported that some states, such as New Jersey, the achievement gap is narrowing as more funding is directed to urban districts.

Neil encouraged the inclusion of parents as partners in education and greater scrutiny of the quality of testing. He noted that test failure, and subsequently children being held back in school, has been a pipeline to prison in school districts with a majority of African American and Latino children.

Packer highlighted the $100 billion present in the economic stimulus package designated for public education and allotted to states based on the proportional share of the population. He offered the opinion that in places like California and Florida there would not be adequate funds in the stimulus plan to effectively counter cuts already being made by the schools.

Packer spoke regarding President Obama's commitment to advancing education, including the expansion of early childhood education, improving teacher quality, rewarding teachers who excel, providing research-based interventions to support low-performing schools and supporting innovations such as expanding charter schools.

Browne, in her opening statement, said, "Education is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement." She went on to say, "All southern states have a graduation rate of less than 50 percent for African Americans (except Virginia.)"

Brown reported that students, parents and teachers do not like the current testing system, but use it because education has been hijacked by politics. She added that the "justice system is used as the disciplinary arm of schools," evidenced by the presence of law enforcement in schools and the number of school-aged children who are incarcerated with African Americans and Latinos being disproportionately represented. She urged the group to "organize and advocate for our children as it is important to our democracy."

David Johns of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee reminded the gathering that when they call on their elected officials to educate them on issues they must bring evidence to support their causes and that evidence can also be anecdotal, and they must continuously follow up with their representatives.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, livened the gathering in the early afternoon saying, "Children can be a pain. Each and every child is the most precious resource, an amazing gift from our God."

The goal of education, Kinnamon said, should be "not only how children perform in English and math, but for the maturing of children, spiritual and moral formation, integrity, compassion and civic responsibility." He continued, "Education can not be viewed in isolation, but seen in wider context – poverty, health care, housing, extra curricula activities."

Carol Brown, a UCC member and president of United Black Christians, said at the end of the gathering, "I am thinking of ways I can bring this back to our community so we can improve the quality education we offer to our children."

The Schott Foundation for Public Education is an advocate of education as a federal right to guarantee all children to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn that makes grants available to the New York State and Massachusetts for them to adopt a resource accountability model in the Opportunity to Learn campaign.

The event was sponsored by the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy. 

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