I have been meaning to share this book review I did for the Christian Education Journal. It was published this fall. Educational equity is an issue I am passionate about, both for children and adults, and Dr. Fulgham’s challenge is important reading!
Educating all God’s children: What Christians can—and should—do to improve public education for low-income kids. By Nicole Baker Fulgham. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2013. 235 pp. $18.00. paper.
Review by Cynthia Macleay Campbell, Principal Consultant, Gold Apple Services; Former Literacy Services Director, Baltimore Reads, Inc.
In this book, Nicole Baker Fulgham makes a case that “Christians have a collective responsibility to ensure that children from low-income communities have the same opportunities for educational success that wealthier children experience” (19). In chapter 1, the author describes the educational disparity in America using examples from her own upbringing in Detroit, Michigan, and her teaching experience in Compton, California. In Detroit, she attended a prestigious, selective public school while her best friend went to the local high school. The differences became clear one day when the author mentioned concerns about her SAT scores, to which the friend replied, “What is an SAT?” (10). Later, while teaching in an urban school in Comp- ton, she told her students that they were smart. One student countered, “Aw c’mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we’re smart. If they did, they wouldn’t give us this broken-down school and these ratty old books” (12). Along with these personal examples, Dr. Fulgham cites some staggering figures including four- year high school graduation rates: 83% for Asian American, 78% for Whites, but 57% for African Americans and Latino/Hispanic students (15). Further- more, the average skills of a person graduating from a low-income public high school only equal those of an eighth grader from a wealthier area public school (16).
Chapter 2 explores the challenges facing public schools in low-income areas including the effects of poverty; hunger and malnutrition; and lack of access to early childhood education, quality health care, and supplemental resources such as tutoring. The author also gives an overview of the historic challenges faced by African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics in accessing quality public education including segregation and lack of re- sources to meet language needs. Dr. Fulgham also addresses the difficulties that low-income parents have in being actively involved in their children’s education, such as working hourly wage jobs and multiple jobs that do not allow them much free time. The author relates how as a teacher she had to adjust her approach to parent/teacher conferences for parents who could not afford to take time off from hourly jobs. Instead of the traditional daytime in- person meetings, she held evening and phone appointments to connect with the parents (38–39).
However, despite these challenges, chapter 3 expresses hope. The author contends that low-income children can succeed academically when given enough support. This support includes strategic teaching with the objective of achievement in mind along with supplemental tutoring. She cites her own experiences of working hard to help her students move from having below grade-level skills to meeting or exceeding grade-level standards by the end of the school year. Chapter 4 discusses how public schools have mostly encountered indifference or political agendas in their interaction with churches. The author contrasts this current state with the history of William Wilberforce and Robert Raikes, who worked to educate low-income children; the Protestant Christian influence on early public education; and the Roman Catholics and Lutherans who established urban schools.
Chapter 5 lays out a biblical framework for Christians to commit to educating low-income children: “1. God’s concern for children, 2. God’s focus on the poor and disenfranchised, and 3. God’s heart for justice” (95). Scripture passages referenced include Matthew 18:2–7, Deuteronomy 15, John 4:1–42, and others. Chapter 6 relates accounts of some Christians who teach in low- income public schools out of their Christ-centered convictions.
Chapter 7 begins the section on what Christians can do to help. The author suggests three general categories: “be a vision caster, become a laborer, and provide faith-based advocacy” (130). Being a vision caster means get- ting the message out that low-income public school students are behind academically but that these students can achieve, and we should ask ourselves as Christians how we can help (135). Clergy can also teach and preach about these concepts: “Jesus as the ultimate teacher,” “education and justice,” “vocation in every sector,” and “a call to serve” (138). Chapter 8 explores how Christians can be laborers in the field. The author writes about how people can become teachers, assist with the training and support of teachers, help start and maintain charter schools, and engage in church-school partner- ships. Key in building church-school partnerships is spending time listening to principals and teachers about what they need to help students succeed rather than arriving with an agenda.
Chapter 9 discusses the rationale and ways for Christians to be involved in education policy advocacy such as teacher evaluation and support, parent awareness and engagement, increasing access to early childhood education, expanding school options for children, and revisiting school funding formulas. She also mentions her own organization, the Expectations Project, which works at engaging churches in educational reform.
Chapter 10 reminds readers that children in low-income neighborhoods often have no options but their local public schools, and these children need help in not being left behind academically and economically. The appendix lists helpful resources to explore further how to support academic achievement in low-income public schools.
With her training and experience, this author brings a thorough understanding of the myriad challenges facing low-income public schools, especially in the urban areas, along with a Christ-based commitment to being part of the solution. She describes how the educational divide is a multi-faceted problem, but also how students from low-income backgrounds are capable of achieving academically and are worth the investment. Furthermore, Dr. Fulgham understands what works and is willing to take political risks by ex- pressing potentially divisive solutions such as school choice and results-based teacher evaluation. However, these ideas are also augmented by her writing about the importance of teacher preparation and continuing support as they work in the schools.
In this book, Dr. Fulgham issues a clarion call to the church to address the educational needs of our nation as part of our call to care about children. This book delivers an important message: low-income children across this county can succeed, and as Christians we should endeavor to see that their potential not be wasted. Furthermore, the author reminds us how Christians have been involved in education and provides some practical applications for churches and individual Christians to consider. Finally, Dr. Fulgham notes that there are 322,000 churches and 44,500 high poverty schools, which indicates the potential for impact if churches respond to this call (160).
While this book presents an important message for Christians to hear, the argument in the book could have been made more compelling for evangelicals. While the author does engage Scripture, the treatment is not very deep exegetically and tends to rely on The Message as the Bible version. While The Message has much to recommend it, using a Bible translation rather than a paraphrase and providing more exposition would have strengthened the author’s case. Furthermore, while the author touches on the history of Christians’ involvement in education, bringing in missions history would also have brought in more examples to which evangelicals could relate. The history of missions has many examples of people being reached for Christ through the provision of a strong academic education.
One question that evangelicals may have with her approach is her emphasis on the fact that a church and school partnership cannot be a platform for proselytization (166). While there are good reasons for this concern, what the author does not address is how this partnership is meant to support the work of the Great Commission. Evangelicals may conclude that this effort is merely social gospel and disengage from this call. It would have helped to explore more deeply how this work can go beyond the social justice aspect and also dovetail into evangelistic work of the church. Along with supporting the school itself, churches can also reach low-income children with afterschool programs where children can receive supplemental tutoring, help with home- work and meals, and teaching on the gospel. With youth, the church might also sponsor programs like Young Life. Along with helping parents know about how to support their children in school, churches can provide adult literacy classes and tutoring in settings with freedom to present the gospel or give invitations to Alpha programs.
Finally, there are two supplemental notes to make about the coverage of the educational inequality issue in this country. First, while the author tends to emphasize the problem from the urban standpoint, one must remember that educational challenges affect rural areas as well. Those ministering in rural areas should consider best ways to support their schools. Second, contributing to the educational divide is the still existing digital divide where one out of five people in the United States cannot access or use the Internet, which hits particularly hard in both rural and urban areas (www.proliteracy. org/the-crisis/the-us-crisis). With digital literacy becoming increasingly important for accessing jobs and education, this part of the educational divide needs attention also.
In conclusion, while this book does not provide a particularly deep theological coverage of the issue, nonetheless it issues a call that Christians should take seriously. Dr. Fulgham’s book is a worthwhile, important read for children’s ministers, Christian educators, professors of Christian education, faculty of education in Christian colleges and universities, and pastors serving high poverty areas. Historically, education has been part of the mission of the church. Exploring how to engage in that mission today is always worth doing.