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An Educational Version of IJM

Over the holidays, Andy Crouch of Christianity Today posted an op-ed honoring the International Justice Mission (IJM) for its faithful and amazingly successful work in combating various kinds of slavery around the world. He progressed to suggesting the need for a Christian organization to form around reforming the American education system, which he cited as being broken as much, if not more than those of other nations. I waited several weeks to discuss it here so that school would be back in session and perhaps more folks would be able to join in the conversation.

I have a mixed reaction to him comparing our educational system, even obliquely, to the social justice systems of nations that allow for sex slavery and other abominations to occur under their noses.

Does our education system contain injustices? Yes. We also need to address them. I am confident that Andy (whom I’ve met and like personally) was trying to highlight the dynamic creativity, multilateral expertise and profound effectiveness of IJM, and wanting to build that kind of a team to address domestic education. In that, I heartily agree. As an educator, and a Christian one at that, it did rankle a bit to have my profession/industry even incidentally be compared to Third World pimps. I know that wasn’t what he was trying to say, so I’ll move on to what he was trying to address.

His justifiable concern is how education is more accessible to the rich than the poor. I have a bunch of mixed reactions to that as well. This is because it is such a complicated problem. Week old spaghetti is easier to untangle than the threads tangling our education system. I will list a number of them here and in the following days, tackle them in turn.

Issues affecting the “justice” of our educational system:
1)      (I have to get this one out of the way, even though it is unpopular.) Like it or not, money is the key resource that enables action in this world system. It is the most logical thing that more money should have the best opportunity for the best education, at least partly because the wealthy have the freedom of time and other resources to search out the best education.
2)      People believe that more money thrown at the problem equals solving it.
3)      People don’t demand the accountability for those dollars, trusting administrators to use it for improving the education.
4)      Similarly, people associate more technology with better education, and that is just as fallacious as #2 and for the same reason—dollars and technology are both mindless tools—just having more of them doesn’t get the work done faster or better. They have to be used well.
5)      In a strange way, this is almost paradoxically opposite to some of the above, but still true—because we view education as a right, instead of a privilege, we seem to have a sense of entitlement about it and therefore shouldn’t have to pay for it.
6)      There is a disconnect between the amount of money thrown at the schools and the salaries offered to the teachers who do the educating.
7)      Many schools of education (those that teach teachers) have the lowest entry and graduation requirements of any other field at their universities.
8)      On top of that, most teachers are not required to be experts in their subjects, but in educational theory and psychology.
9)      Teachers are shuffled to different subjects year to year, often with little notice to prepare expertise in new subjects or even given subjects in which they have either personal or professional interests (ie the football coach teaching physics syndrome).
10)   Many education administrators feel a certain arrogance that since they are the ‘educational professionals,’ they know better than the parents what is best for the students, and thus are condescending to parents and/or shut them out of the process, bypassing them to deal preferentially with social services agencies when issues arise.
11)   Teachers are given lots of responsibility and many areas of accountability, but without the authority to handle those situations, leading to breakdowns in discipline and the quality of the learning environment.
12)   Similarly, as the one in direct contact with students daily, every little word and action is met with the deepest scrutiny by the administration, parents and public.
13)   Because of the last four or five reasons, teachers are often defensive, lack confidence, overwhelmed, and therefore even less effective and even afraid of innovation because someone may complain or be offended.
14)   The obsession with student self-esteem means that we must second guess how every criticism might possibly be interpreted and it becomes a milquetoast critique of mediocrity.
15)   Furthermore, everyone must be rewarded equally, so it is difficult to truly reward excellence.
16)   Thus, the excellent students become demotivated to continue in excellence.
17)   In concert with reason 10, many parents abdicate the duty of being responsible for their child’s education to the school system, which due to numbers is akin to a mill churning out diplomas.
18)   We have lost track of what “education” is. What is the goal of going to school? What is the purpose of education? What will an educated person look like? Is it competency or mastery of certain subjects or is it an attitude? What does it mean to be a citizen? Are we wanting graduates who can think and function as vigilant citizens or as good employees and followers? Often we say we want the former, but we design curricula that create the latter, because it is easier and because some want people easy to lead in groupthink rather than someone to challenge paradigms.
19)   We tend to only recognize one type of intelligence (academic intelligence) and try to make everyone fit into that mold. There are many kinds of intelligence:  musical, manual, mechanical, athletic, entrepreneurial and so on. While there is a basic toolkit of fundamental knowledge required to successfully function as citizens, college is not for everyone, so we shouldn’t try to prepare everyone for it. We should value vocational and other alternative educational streams and the contributions they make to a smoothly functioning society.
20)   Even though we claim to try to prepare ‘everyone’ for college, we do such a poor job of even the fundamental citizen stuff that college becomes a necessity to get close to what they should have mastered somewhere between 8th and 12th grade. The problem is so bad that educational researchers now refer to a basic education as K-16 instead of K-12 (with the Bachelor’s degree being grades 13-16).
21)   At the same time that kids are being forced to go to school, they are being socialized to hate it as boring, irrelevant, drudgery, and so on.
22)   For financial reasons, many parents in the ‘wrong’ neighborhoods are prevented administratively from sending their kids to better schools and are literally charged with crimes if they seek ways around those restrictions. (There are often valid reasons for both the restrictions and the efforts to get around them, but putting them through the criminal courts???)
23)   As a society, we value individuality, yet bureaucratically try to treat everyone the same, which is a big bit different than treating them equally. In math, it is acceptable to define ‘same’ and ‘equal’ the same, but not when talking about humans. Human beings have equal worth, but not the same set of talents/gifts/abilities/interests. However, a secular society believes in human equality, but doesn’t really have a philosophical basis for that belief, apart from the idea that all protoplasm has value because it is alive. This is a cliff into a deep discussion worth having but gets somewhat away from the topic du jour.
24)   Similarly, we set academic standards and metrics that can easily be expressed numerically, graphically and/or in sound bites that can be mass produced, but are (at best) two-dimensional and don’t really mean anything, but look really good (or bad) on a 30 second news item.
25)   We view education as a ‘product’ of which students, parents and the public are ‘consumers’, rather than as a process or investment.

There are potentially many more reasons. All I’m coming up with right now are permutations of the above. What reasons for problems in education do you see missing from this list?

In order to have an effective educational IJM-type group, strategies must be developed for tackling each of these in concert. Because communities, states and the nation have all of these tangled together, it seems the idea is to start philosophically defining ‘education,’ its goals, and so on. When we see the diversity that exists in educational philosophy, the likely conclusion will be that we need to create at least several concurrent educational systems, and allow people to send their kids to the system that matches their philosophy. The problem is that there is an entrenched bureaucracy and industry that thinks in monolithic terms but speaks with flowery nothings, and resents anyone challenging their ‘earned’ place of authority to decide the educational fate of the country.

A tall order…and maybe not all that different than tackling the various threads of corruption, desperation, apathy, and economics driving the global slave trade. Anyone else dealing with a suddenly bad taste in their mouths?



  1. IJM looks for clear wrongs and works to rescue individuals and train them to meet their basic needs with dignity. After school tutoring programs seem like the first step that follows this pattern.

    1. Carl--That is a very good, simple, low-cost way to start. Similarly, parents can volunteer in their child's classes, and local citizens can volunteer in numerous ways in the school, though they may need to allow a background check to be performed. Get on the school board, or at least get informed and vote in school board elections. Thanks for sparking the conversation in this direction!