You wouldn’t think that the governance of the nation’s Baptist churches would offer a direction on how to revamp American public education and make parents lead decision-makers in schools. But a closer look at how congregations run their own churches shows why families can — and must — be trusted with information needed to make smart decisions for their children.
This observation comes courtesy of a sermon on the fundamental aspects of the Baptist faith given yesterday by Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, one of the nation’s most-prominent African-American religious institutions. Part of a series he is giving on the underlying reasons why Baptists conduct religious services and pursue evangelism as they do, Wesley focused on why Baptist churches “elect” pastors, don’t have (and aren’t supposed to have) bishops that govern their affairs, and operate autonomously (save for their affiliations with a particular convention, or group of Baptist churches) at the direction of the membership. This autonomy differs greatly from the episcopal hierarchies of priests, bishops, and prelates that dominate Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Presbyterian denominations.
At the heart of the differences is the interpretation of Matthew 16: 13-19, in which Jesus singles out the Apostle Peter for saying what his other colleagues did not: That Jesus is the Son of God and our Lord and Savior. Among Catholics and other hierarchy-dominated denominations, the interpretation of that scripture suggests that Jesus chose Peter to be the “rock” or the leader of the church on earth. In turn, every cleric claims to be Peter’s successor and has a special relationship with God and Christ that others do not. As a result, the average person can only have, at best, something of a personal relationship with God; even in many Protestant faiths, they must go through intermediaries as part of their worship. And, in turn, the hierarchies of clerics are in charge of churches; congregations can’t choose their own pastors or govern their churches without intercession from the array of bishops and other clerics in the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral.
But among Baptists, whose denomination is shaped by the strict reading of the Bible (along with its birth as a reaction of English Separatists to the Church of England’s continued embrace of Catholic hierarchical structures), the scripture reads differently. It wasn’t that Jesus singled out Peter, but singled out his confession of faith in God and belief in Christ’s role as savior. In short, one’s status as being born again is not based on hierarchy, but on one’s own faith in the Creator and His Son alone. More importantly, because Jesus alone is leader of the church on earth, there can be no priestly hierarchy. Essentially, Baptists believe that anyone can have a personal relationship God and don’t need to access priestly intermediaries. And because every Baptist can know God and only needs to confess their faith (both through baptism and their testimony), every member can be trusted with governing the church on behalf of Jesus Christ.
What results is a different and, what Wesley implies, a more mature form of religious faith. Members are responsible for keeping their churches on an even keel, from developing the structure of leadership within churches (outside of the Biblical-mandated pastor and deacons ordained by the church from the congregation), to determining which ministers should be ordained and, thus, allowed to be the servant leaders of other churches. Pastors must interview for their positions instead of being brought in by an outside hierarchy; they retain their jobs at the pleasure of the congregations they lead. Congregants can split off from each other if they disagree on the direction of the church. And being a Baptist is no birthright; unlike in other faiths, in which babies are baptized soon from birth, Baptists only allow those children and adults who have chosen to confess their faith in God to do so.
Ultimately implicit in Baptist doctrine is trust in the ability of congregants to continually develop in the walk with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit; constantly improve their understanding of the Bible; and participate in shaping decisions within their congregations. A pastor may be highly respected (and in African-American communities, where racial bigotry has made leadership roles outside of church a rarity, almost elevated to the level of cultish adoration); but he is no more an expert on understanding the Bible (even when he has a doctorate before his title) than the average congregant in the pews. This trust and inherent liberty is one of the reasons why the Baptist denomination is the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination (claiming 15 percent of all church-going Americans); and one of the few denominations that has resisted declines in congregants — and has actually experienced growth in the past three decades. It is also why the Baptist denomination remains the most-prominent among African-Americans regardless of economic status.
And this trust in congregants to master their understanding of their faith is the kind of f trust American public education must show when it comes to the role of families as lead decisionmakers in education.
One of the most- fascinating aspects of the latest discussions over releasing teacher performance data — especially the release of Value-Added data on some 18,000 teachers released by last week by New York City’s Department of Education — is that education traditionalists, education commentators, and even many school reformers essentially think that families can’t possibly use thoughtful judgement in reading results and don’t even have the ability to master it. From where they sit, such data should be restricted to experts such as themselves, who have the higher education credentials and other expertise as education players to think things through. In short, they look at parents as being no different than their children: Infantile and incapable of smart decision-making even when given good guidance.
This isn’t surprising. Education has long been the most expert-driven sector in education, with ed school professors, teachers, and principals share the conceit that only they have the knowledge needed to run schools. In fact, as much of traditional structure of district-run schools and centralized bureaucracies that has been at the heart of American public education since the 1840s is driven by an inherent distrust of families (especially Irish Catholic immigrant households of the 1840s, and black, Latino, and other minority and immigrant families of the last century) as by the desire to create a Unitarian-driven civic religion. Instead, families are supposed to trust the experts because they have some secret knowledge about education that parents can’t learn. It is one reason why Zip Code Education practices such as zoned schooling remain in place, why ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model remain popular among so-called experts, and why teachers and guidance counselors (using such tools as IQ tests) are the gatekeepers to gifted-and-talented programs. It is also a key reason why so many school leaders and teachers’ unions oppose all forms of school choice (except in the form of magnet schools which are mostly-geared toward satisfying desegregation orders and thus, choice is still restricted).
This expertise conceit can be seen every day in the way families –especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — are treated in schools. From inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences, to the lack of meaningful communication about student progress until it is far too late to help kids succeed, to the battling between families and gatekeepers over whether kids can take A.P. courses needed to prepare for success in college, far too many teachers and school leaders do so much to disengage families from playing active roles in education (even as they complain about a lack of “parental involvement”). As grassroots school reformers such as Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, AJ Kern in Minnesota, and the legendary Virginia Walden Ford can attest, this disdain becomes hostile opposition once parents step up and advocate on behalf of their child.
Such condescending thinking fails to consider the reality that the “experts” really don’t know what they are doing. After all, it is the decision by experts to push ability-tracking and the comprehensive that have led to the low-quality teaching and curricula to poor and minority students that is a culprit behind the nation’s education crisis. It is the work of experts that has led to such practices as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, and the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems). Thanks to experts, we have a system of teacher training that, as both former Teachers College President Arthur Levine and others have pointed out, has been ineffective in recruiting and preparing aspiring teachers for classrooms. And because of so-called experts, families in cities such as Detroit and even the toniest suburban communities are stuck sending their kids to abysmal and mediocre schools.
Meanwhile the expertise mentality fails to consider the reality that it will take more than experts in American public education to transform it from its sclerotic, child-damaging state. This means that families are key to expanding opportunities for high-quality education for all children — especially their own. It was Ford who forced the reforms that are slowly improving D.C.’s traditional public school system and bringing high-quality options into the poorest neighborhoods; while it was Latino parents in Los Angeles, aided by Green Dot founder Steve Barr that has led L.A. Unified to undergo its (albeit fitful) overhaul. And it is the work of parent-led reform groups on the ground — including Parent Power activists in Buffalo, N.Y., and states such as Connecticut — that are making the strong pushes for reform that allow for other reformers to successfully advocate for their own solutions.
The reality is that families can and should no longer just trust the “experts” behind districts and schools that are failing their children and have failed at least two previous generations. Instead, they must become active players in shaping education for their children. They must ask tough, thoughtful questions about what is being taught in classrooms, demand information on the quality of the teachers working in classrooms, play stronger roles in shaping the overhauls of traditional district schools (and in the operations of charter schools serving their kids), and even start their own schools and literacy programs.
As in understanding Biblical scriptures, learning how to be powerful players in education isn’t an insurmountable activity. If families are given high-quality information, offered some guidance, and allowed to actually exercise choice and power, they can serve as powerful players in transforming failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity into cultures of genius that serve all children well. This can be seen from the slow, fitful expansion of school choice. As it turns out, choice begets engagement, action, and expansion of knowledge. Why? Because choice implies both power and responsibility. As James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out, the only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. At the same time, this choice and power requires families to think through their decisions carefully, which means weighing all available information.
When families exercise power and responsibility, they can do plenty for their children. University of Michigan researcher Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgen of Brigham Young University noted in their 2005 study, minority families and parents in high-poverty districts were more likely than middle-class parents to request a teacher for their child based on how teachers improved student achievement. Meanwhile a report on the open enrollment effort in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s school district released last October by the National Bureau of Economic Research also shows that parents with school choice options are quite capable of steering their kids to the kinds of school options that help them succeed in school and in life.
We must stop treating parents as if they are incapable of making smart decisions in education. Instead we must trust them with all the information needed to understand and solve the problems within public education. This means publishing teacher performance data and offering guides on how to analyze those numbers. It means giving them the power to choose high-quality school options and working with them to shut down and overhaul failure mills. And it includes improving data systems, and starting family information centers where they can seek out information and assistance in decision-making.
Essentially, American public education must become more like Baptist churches and ditch Catholic-style hierarchical and paternal thinking. It would do all of our children much good.