February was a bad month for the Philadelphia Public School System. Feelings were already running high when tables were released ranking schools in categories such as attendance, class size, math and reading. Everyone agrees that schools need to be held accountable, but not everyone agreed that the ranking system was fair, or even helpful.
Now two Philadelphia high schools are facing a major shake-up. In the eyes of the school board, Olney and Audenreid high schools are not making the grade. Seventy-five percent of their faculty are scheduled to be transferred to other schools. They are not losing their jobs, but they are angry about being moved around like so many pawns on the educational chess board. Some of their students are not happy to see them go, either. Students at Olney High went on strike for three days to protest the decision.
Everyone agrees our school system is in trouble. The Philadelphia Education Summit was held this week, and there was a consensus that something has to be done. Truancy and dropout rates are high. Violent incidents are on the rise. Only 1 elementary student in 10 meets district standards in reading, and only 1 in 20 in mathematics.
Although everyone agrees there is a problem, no one knows for sure how to fix it, or even whom to blame. There is plenty of blame to go around. Teachers blame an administration that does not include them in the decision-making process. They also blame parents—at least indirectly—when they complain about the social conditions that make some students harder to teach than others. The administration blames teachers for failing to show up or to teach students what they need to know to meet academic standards. Parents blame teachers, or administrators, or both. They are not satisfied with the kind of education their children are getting.
The result of all this finger-pointing is that the school system is surrounded by what one teacher calls “a culture of blame.” Actually, we all live in a culture of blame. Blaming is part of fallen human nature. It began with the sin of our first parents. Adam said, “The woman you put her with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Gen. 3:12). Whenever there is a problem it is always someone else’s fault.
The trouble with blaming is that it divides people, and the trouble with division is that unity is always necessary to solve serious problems. A school district “divided against itself cannot stand” (Luke 11:17; KJV). The Philadelphia School District is an educated mess, and in some cases, an uneducated mess. What should Christians be doing about it?
Reformation Christians have always placed a high value on education. Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed “that in the sight of God none among the outward sins so heavily burdens the world and merits such severe punishment as this very sin which we commit against the children by not educating them” (1524). Part of his urgency came from his desire for everyone to read and understand the Bible. The Reformers thus insisted on universal education.
Like everything else, education was to begin at home. On the basis of Deuteronomy 32:7 (Ask your father and he will tell you), Luther argued that parents were responsible for the education of their children. In his Sermon on the Estate of Marriage, he reminded them “that they please God, Christendom, the entire world, themselves and their children in no better way than by educating their children.”
Education is not just for the good of the family, it is for the good of society. Luther taught that “you can serve your (prince) or your city better by training children than by building him castles and cities and gathering the treasures of the whole world” (1529). Education is a civic responsibility. On the other hand, failure to educate is a civic disaster. In A Sermon on Keeping Children in School (1530) Luther developed the following argument: “No schools, no Christianity. No schools, no good rulers. No Christianity and no good rulers, utter chaos and heathenism in Germany.” The principle holds for any society, which is why Philadelphia’s future depends upon its schools.
Today many parents fulfill their Christian responsibilities by home schooling or by placing their children in private schools. Often those are wise choices, both spiritually and academically. But even if our children attend elsewhere, it would be a mistake not to do whatever we can to strengthen the public schools. It would also be selfish. We must love all the children of this city.
One place to begin is to pray for the school in your neighborhood, even if you do not have children who attend there. Pray that biblical values would be upheld in the staff room, the classroom and on the playground. Pray for Christians who teach in the public schools. Their work is valuable to the city and honorable in the sight of God. Pray that the Lord will give them grace to work with their administrators and endurance to care for their students. Pray for their physical safety. Pray that they will be able to teach well and love the unlovely.
There are also plenty of ways to volunteer in education. Christians should go to school board meetings, not to blame, but to speak persuasively on behalf of the children of the city. Help students learn by tutoring at ADVANCE on Tuesday nights, or by reading in your local school. Welcome children into your home, taking every opportunity to speak to them about spiritual things.
We do not know how to get out of this educated mess any more than the mayor, or the superintendent, or the school board, or the teachers’ union, or the PTA, but we must do as much as we can.
[Citations from Luther come from Mark A. Noll, “The Earliest Protestants and the Reformation of Education,” Westminster Theological Journal, 43.1, pp. 97-131. Some of the suggestions for involvement come from two of Tenth’s educators: Ms. Dorothy Boersma and Ms. Susan Lucasse].
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org