Reflection on The Role of the Church in Advocacy for Justice in Public Education

“Transforming No Child Left Behind” Conference

March 13, 2009

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary, National Council of Churches



I want to begin with a truth on which we can all agree:  Children are often a pain!  Our youngest daughter, Leah, who turns twenty-one next week, is a case in point.  Leah’s childhood years were a perpetual state of disarray, set to very loud music.  Let me put it this way:  If the Israelites had needed to escape from Egypt by way of Leah’s room, it would have taken divine intervention for them to find a path!  I once found a sack of chicken bones in there, because (I learned) every time she got the long end of the wishbone, she kept it as a trophy.


In order to keep Leah engaged in the worship service (no easy task), I used to write her questions to answer, or things to think about, during the sermon.  One time, when she was seven or eight, I asked her to draw a picture of “something that sticks out in the sanctuary.” I expected a cross or a chalice, but she handed me back two big half circles.  I wrote her a note:  “What are these?”  She wrote back:  “Your ears.”


You see what I mean about being a pain.  One more story.  When Leah and her friends at Midway Christian Church, in Midway, Kentucky, were preparing for baptism (about fifth grade), my wife, Katherine, who was the pastor, asked me to do a session with them on Disciples history.  I told them, “I’m going to spend ten minutes talking about who we are as Disciples, and then I want us to talk about what I’ve said.”  So I finished my excellent introduction and asked them, “What did you learn that you didn’t know before?”  Silence.  “Come on,” I said, ‘what did you learn that you didn’t know before?”  Finally Leah raised her hand.  “I didn’t know,” she said, “that ten minutes is such a long time.”


So, my first truth:  Children are often a pain.


Now, let me suggest another truth on which I hope we all agree:  Children, each and every child, is the earth’s most precious resource, an amazing gift from God.  This, of course, is not how they were regarded in Roman culture at the time of Jesus, which is why some of the stories found in the gospels would have been utterly shocking to the original audience.  My favorite is from Mark 9:  “Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them.  And taking the child in his arms, he said to them [the disciples], ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me – and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One who sent me.’”


Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that they should be like this child.  I’m sure he also knew they can be a pain!  No, the lesson is not about imitating children, it is about receiving them.  Little children, we are told, are the representatives, the ambassadors, of Jesus and, thus, of God!  They are to be welcomed, cared for, because of their special relationship with our Lord.


We may nod at this idea, but I doubt it is how we actually think.  What might say: Whoever welcomes a scholar learned in scripture welcomes Jesus.  Whoever welcomes one who has done good deeds.… Whoever welcomes Mother Teresa … But that is not what the early church remembered Jesus saying.  Whoever welcomes Leah Kinnamon, welcomes me.  This is part of the eschatological reversal of scripture:   Greatness is redefined as caring for, as receiving, the most vulnerable among us.


Do you feel the profound irony of it?  Each week, many of us ascend pulpits or stand up in classrooms to teach the faith, and all the while the very representatives of our Lord fidget there in the pews, folding bulletins and munching skittles  And they are his representatives not because they are “good children” or “bright children” or “cute children” but because they are children.  Not because they are “our children” but because they are God’s.


* * *


Why have I started this way? The National Council of Churches’ policy statement on “The Churches and the Public Schools,” adopted in 1999, gives the answer:  “At a time when public education has become a political battleground, we call on our member churches and nation to remember first and foremost our children.  The well-being of children, all children, is our central concern.”  And we who have gathered here today know that quality education, quality public education, is a major way of contributing to the well-being of children. 


This needs to be said carefully.  Someone without much formal education is still an infinitely-valued child of God, who may well live a full and compassionate life.  Meanwhile, people with Ph.D.s helped devise Nazi death camps.  So education is not a guarantee of anything.  But it is an opportunity to appreciate more of God’s astonishing creation; it can expand the world, opening up possibilities for experiencing life in greater depth and breadth.  And, thus, we affirm, in the words of the NCC’s 2004 policy statement on “The Church and Children,” that “all children have a right to quality public education [that is, quality affordable education] that fosters their intellectual, social, emotional, physical, cultural, and creative development.”


There is no single Christian philosophy of education, but there are principles that Christians commonly endorse with regard to public education.  I want to name five that are found throughout the NCC’s policy statements and public declarations, and which are also consistent with the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” that I and others have called for.


  1. Each child is unique, a special and sacred person with particular gifts that need to be nurtured.  Christians, I take it, are not opposed to rigorous educational standards (the 1999 policy statement calls for them as part of educational reform); but we are opposed to standardization which treats children more as products to be tested and managed than as unique expressions of God with different capacities to learn and different strengths to be discovered and encouraged.
  2. While each child is unique, all children are precious – which means that an educational system in which some children have access to excellent instruction and while others do not is simply unacceptable.  The problem with No Child Left Behind is not so much that it mandates testing, but that it does so without equalizing funding – thus truly leaving some behind, usually children of color and poor children in our inner cities and remote rural areas.   (These first two principles also underscore the moral necessity of quality education for children with disabilities.  Each child has particular gifts.  All children are precious.)
  3. The goal of education is not simply proficiency in reading and math (important as those are) but nurture of the whole child.  Churches (synagogues, mosques), of course, have a vital role in forming children spiritually and morally; but it is not an abdication of our proper role to insist that public education should nurture qualities that enable mature contribution to society, including artistic sensitivity, personal integrity and compassion, civic awareness, an ability to appreciate diversity, and a thirst for life-long learning.
  4. Education cannot be viewed in isolation but must been seen in its wider social context.  Standards-based reform can be effective only if the government also addresses those conditions that have correlated with low student achievement:  poverty; lack of adequate health care, nutrition and housing; lack of access to early-childhood programs and extra-curricular activities.  For this reason I certainly applaud the commitment to improve the quality of early childhood education set forth by President Obama on Tuesday.  We cannot improve public schools by concentrating on the schools alone, not in a society so powerfully determined by inequalities of race and class.
  5. Studies repeatedly show that good teachers are key to effective education.  Good teachers can bring out the distinctive gifts of those they teach, and make provision for those who learn in different ways.  Good teachers know how to assess genuine progress without simply teaching to the test.  And, thus, as Nicholas Kristof put it in a recent oped piece for the New York Times, "one of the greatest injustices is that America's best teachers overwhelmingly teach America's most privileged students."  We need to support teachers commensurate with their true value, making it possible for them to teach in districts now seen as less desirable.

As I said, all this, though grounded in Christian claims, is consistent with the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” which I was privileged to endorse, along with such folks as Julian Bond, former surgeon general, Richard Carmona, Arne Duncan, Joycelyn Elders, Milt Goldberg, former Director of the Office of Research of the US Department of Education, Karen Lashman of the Children Defense Fund, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Janet Reno, Michael Smith, former dean of the School of Education at Stanford, and Alan Wolfe, Director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston University.  That approach has four pillars:


  • Pursue an aggressive school improvement strategy (smaller classes, especially for disadvantaged children, attracting high-quality teachers to hard-to-staff schools, etc.).
  • Provide high-quality early childhood education, especially for low-income children.
  • Address children’s health, minimizing the health problems that impede school success.
  • Improve the quality of out-of-school time, which can provide cultural, athletic, and academic enrichment, especially for low-income students.

The NCC has prepared a bulletin insert on this approach to education reform, and has commended its use by our member communions.


I want to end by returning to Leah.  She is, I will tell you, African-American; and with that in mind, I volunteered to be on the Achievement Gap committee at her high school in the area of St. Louis where we lived during her high school years.  I would like to think I might have volunteered in any case, but self-interest is often the stimulus to involvement.


Anyway, I went to the first meeting and began by suggesting that we take the awards our school had recently won for academic excellence off the wall until it was addressing the needs of all its students, including the low-income students who were brought in from the inner city to meet diversity goals.  This, I argued, would ensure that administrators made this a top priority – after which I didn’t get the notice for the next meeting.


What struck me throughout that experience (I did get back on the list) was the tone of fearfulness.  There didn’t seem to be a desire to remedy the situation so much as a desire to make sure that these students didn’t mess up the reputation of the rest of us.  What I fear is that the wider system of education reinforces such fearfulness.  It needs a new approach – and I am thankful for your commitment toward that end.