Book Review: Schools in Crisis (Barna FRAME Book)
Title: Schools in Crisis
Author: Nicole Baker Fulgham
FRAMES on Twitter: @barnaframes
[WE BELIEVE building strong community means making sure kids and schools thrive. Be|Undivided is churches investing time and effort year-round in students and schools. Whatever the need. And without agenda or strings attached. It’s that simple, and that powerful.–From the Be: Undivided website]
[I am required to inform my readers that I have been provided with a free copy of this book. All I am required to do is write and post an unbiased review of this book. You can also find this review at http://www.goodreads.com and http://www.amazon.com, both helpful places to find books; although, I'd prefer you just read them here at my blog.]
I should let you know at the outset of this review that I am a Christian, a former church pastor, and a (current) public school teacher. I am licensed to teach moderate/intensive special education (k-12) and I do so in a rural, public, elementary school. This is, primarily, the reason I chose this book for review.
I was a little surprised at the dimensions of the book. It is rather small and will be difficult to place properly on my bookshelf and manages to live up to the FRAMES motto: read less and know more. This doesn't really inspire me, but they at least live up to their ideal. The book is heavy on graphics and colorful charts. The writing is sparse and the paragraphs have large spaces between them. It took me about an hour to read this book, but I'm not really sure that I know more after having read it.
Of course, after reading, I know all sorts of Barna statistics and and the book is nice and colorful, but what the author told us really isn't a surprise, isn't really shocking, isn't front page news, and isn't altogether that crisis laden. Are there bad schools in America where children are getting the short end of educational outcomes? Yes. Should we be doing more to help 'fix' these problems? Yes. Are there concrete, real world solutions to these problems? Yes. Should the church be involved in these solutions, a part of the solution, the solution? Depends on who you ask. Here's why I say it this way.
On page 23, the author quotes a rather startling statistic: 'Barna polling shows that nearly half of the nation's public educators are practicing Christians, meaning people who attend church at least monthly and who say their faith is very important to them.' This bothers me a lot–and I'm one of them. She goes on: "More than seven out of ten of the nation's primary and secondary public school students affiliate with Christianity, and millions of those are actively involved in church, confirmation classes, and youth groups." (23-24) This should give anyone reading this book pause. It seems to me that if this number of people in the schools are already Jesus followers, then something should be changing about our schools from the inside. And yet we are constantly told that schools are in crisis, standards are on the decline, and that children are the ones suffering the outcomes of white privilege (see p.70; 'white privilege' always seems to be a part of the problem, but given that this book was published during the 2nd term of a black president, I find it terribly difficult to sympathize with this sort of racially charged, irresponsible, statement especially when there is no evidence or footnotes pointing to evidence to support the charge.)
So why aren't they? I have drawn my own conclusions, but they are tangential to the point I'm making about this phenomenon which is, simply, that if so many Christians are already a working part of the public school system, then why are things going as poorly as they are and as they have? This is a problem that is not significantly, if at all, answered in the book. But I think the underlying current is this: Christians have, historically, been as much a part of the problem as the rest of the population and not a significant part of the solution. Perhaps this FRAME book can help bring about some changes, but I suspect that the wrong people will read it. Teachers who are Christians need to read it and I suspect that not enough will, and until Christian teachers realize that they have become part of the problem (for various reasons which I will not catalog here) I don't see church volunteerism being a significant part of the solution.
I realize that FRAME Books are written for a niche audience and that they are unlikely to branch too far outside of those confines. This is unfortunate because there is a real sense (at least to me) that if the 'right' people were reading this book (i.e., teachers in public education arena) that maybe we could accomplish something or bring about the changes that are necessary. I'm not one who happens to think, however, that these changes need to start from the outside and work their way inside as seems to be the point the author is making. It's a great thing to donate time to making school buildings in urban areas look pretty, it's a great thing to donate school supplies to needy children, and it's a super thing to volunteer time as after-school tutors. But the fundamental problem, as the authors point out, is that children are coming out of schools ill-prepared in various areas of literacy and mathematics. A pretty building is not going to fix that problem when the students still go home at the end of the day to homes that are full of violence, drugs, little food, or no parents.
Indeed, as the Barna research notes in answer to the question, "What do Americans think will improve lower-performing schools?" 76% said greater family and parental involvement. (Running a close second was 'more high quality teachers' at 70%. Frankly, I'm not sure most Americans know what 'high quality' really means. I know teachers, and the rigors we are put through in order to become teachers and stay teachers are excruciating at times. There really are not many 'low quality' teachers in schools.) But back to the point, more parental involvement is key because I firmly believe that that education starts at home–which is why I could not disagree more with the author's contention that we need to 'educate early and often' (41ff). Academically, there is point and counterpoint as to whether or not early education benefits students. I necessarily lean towards it being mostly unhelpful because young children are simply not developmentally prepared for the rigors of education.
In this scenario, the school becomes little more than a babysitting service. We are given some nice anecdotes about sending 'babies on to the local public elementary school' and seeing them fail. We are told about how the these remarkable children made great progress in pre-school only to see it 'erased in their elementary years' (42; see also page 68). My thought is, 'of course they failed. The local school is not the same as a small church run preschool.' The problem is that we are not given compelling evidence-based reasons for why, aside from such heart-wrenching anecdotes, early education is necessary or that it prepares students for anything (aside from their own surveys and 'research' there is no research to speak of supporting this work–at least none that is reported in a resource list or peer-reviewed evidence, etc.). In fact, a quick google search shows there is actually a mounting body of evidence to the contrary–that is, we probably send kids to school too early in life when they are not developmentally ready for the day in-day out rigors of a school day. (A related point, is the idea that we need to extend the school day or school year so that 'children will have more time to learn' (73). I disagree. Children need more time at home, with their parents and siblings, to play and live and make memories about their childhood–memories that do not involve drill and practice in the alphabet and counting.)
I do agree with the author on another point though. She writes, "Literacy affects every aspect of a person's life. And, as Christians, we should care deeply about the kind of life people are equipped to lead. But, as Christians, literacy resonates with us at an even deeper level as well. We are a community that centers itself on a book of truth, so literacy is essential for spiritual education." (50) And she is correct. This is compelling enough reason for people, Christian people, to be concerned about the schools that educate children on a daily basis. There are, as the author well points out, a lot of reasons why we should be concerned that children, people, know how to read. To this end, I think that Christians should do a great deal more to help our public schools, but again I must point out that that I believe this is should be centrifugal in nature and not centripetal. That is, it should start with that nearly 50% of teachers who self-identify with the Christian faith and work its way outward.
If this book finds itself in the right hands, I think it will be dangerous (in a good sort of way) and might prompt a small revolution in the way things are done in schools. If, however, it remains among the niche audience, it will merely be, proverbially speaking, preaching to the choir.