Teaching Profession Opinion

It’s Hard to Pray for Public Education ... But I Do It Anyway

By Marilyn Rhames — April 30, 2014 3 min read
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The National Day of Prayer falls on every first Thursday in May, and tomorrow I will lead the prayer for education at a prayer breakfast in downtown Chicago. While I’m honored to have been asked, this role comes with great responsibility.

Some school districts in America are doing exceedingly well on the education front, while the sky is falling in other urban and rural communities. Some educators and parents boast that a failing public school system is just a myth, while others grapple daily with functioning illiteracy among their adolescent students. And depending on who you talk to, entities like charter schools, Teach for America, and the Gates Foundation are either a part of the problem or the solution.

So how should I pray? What should I pray for? I’m given three-to-four minutes for my public petition, and I want it to represent the true needs of educators and students in this country. You might think I’m over-thinking this, but I take my approach to God very seriously.

Two days ago in Chicago, a 14-year-old girl shot and killed another other 14-year-old girl over a Facebook dispute about a boy.

Last Friday, a boy in Milford, Conn., stabbed and killed his classmate because she turned him down for the prom.

My friend who was subbing in L.A. told me that her school just went into lockdown because a middle school boy brought his father’s gun to school, hoping to kill his teacher.

Ending the violence in school is high on my prayer list. When danger reaches our door step, we realize just how deceiving our perception of safety is.

Last month, for example, there was a technical mishap at my school and administrators worried that an intruder had entered the building. We went on lockdown and the police went into each classroom with their guns drawn. Thankfully it was just a false alarm.

Beyond the violence, I want to pray for unity. A diversity of educational philosophies is one thing, but why must we spew vitriol as we debate school policy? Why poison any hope of reaching common ground? We may demonize organizations we do not agree with when, truth be told, all of us have blood on our hands.

If public schools were meeting the needs of all students, there would have never been a need to start charter schools as incubators of innovation. If experienced teachers were lining up to work in low-income inner-city schools, then Teach for America would have gone out of business a long time ago. If the public funding for education was abundant and equitable, then we could tell Bill Gates to direct his philanthropy toward saving the whales.

My prayer is for God to help us see how politics is damaging education. When we put ourselves—and not our students—at the center of the debate, we make a mockery of the very image we are trying so hard to protect.

I firmly believe that even educators—the population of the knowledge dispensers—don’t know how to pick up the educational pieces and put them back together again. Case in point: half of us might argue that the system is not really broken at all!

So how do I pray for an unbroken educational system? Pray that things continue the way they are going? Or pray that they grow at the trajectory where they are now? I cannot do that.

I could pray for the end of standardized testing. The constant barrage of tests is consuming valuable instructional time, narrowing what is taught, and pushing out valuable programs like the arts, foreign language, and physical education. I agree with all of that to a great extent, except that I am always very interested in the test scores when I’m considering enrolling my daughters into a new school.

Those scores are a very helpful tool for me as a parent to judge the overall effectiveness of the academic program at an unfamiliar school. And I’ve seen the even staunchest opponents of testing boast of their school’s high test scores during the debate over which schools in Chicago should close. If the tests don’t really mean anything, then why are you using your high scores as evidence that your school is a good school?

I’m not trying to polarize. I know that there’s way more to a school than its test scores. I know that charters are not intrinsically better than traditional district schools. I know that most schools will never experience a murder of a student or teacher. But when I accepted the invitation to publically pray I didn’t realize how tricky it would be not to offend the people listening.

So from my mouth to God’s ears, I’m just going to speak from my heart. After all, even with hundreds of people in the room, all that really matters is my audience of One.

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