As Congress moves toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the problem is not that the Department of Education is not doing enough but that it suffers from an acute case of what psychologists call “organizational narcissism.” If they really wish to address America’s inner-city public school crisis, federal education officials must look beyond the boundaries of their own agencies and recognize the crucial role of churches.
Steven Churchill, of the Center for Organizational Design, explains that organizations can have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an inflated judgment of their own accomplishments, leading to “an unreal, self-defeating preoccupation with the company’s own image.” For example, even with overwhelming evidence that, other than family support, church involvement is the most consistent predictor of academic success for inner-city children, the organizational narcissism of the education industry prevents it from tapping into the resources of black and Latino churches.
In 2008, President Obama rightly acknowledged, “There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one.” This is an indisputable truth. What should baffle every American citizen is that the role of inner-city ethnic churches is oddly missing from the Obama administration’s education reform vision.
A series of 2010 studies in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education (JNE), one of America’s oldest continuous academic journals focusing on black people, reported how church involvement increases education success in inner-cities. In “Faith in the Inner City: The Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Dr. Brian Barrett, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, describes the unique contributions black churches play in cultivating successful students in the inner-cities. He observed that “religious socialization reinforces attitudes, outlooks, behaviors, and practices … particularly through individuals’ commitment to and adoption of the goals and expectations of the group” that are conducive to “positive educational outcomes.” In fact, back in 2009 Barrett reported that for black inner-city youth who reported attending religious services often, the black/white achievement gap “was eliminated.”
Barrett reports that one of the most important advantages of inner-city churches is that they provide “a community where black students are valued, both for their academic success and, more broadly, as human beings and members of society with promise, with talents to contribute, and from whom success is to be expected.” Churches also affirm inner-city youth as trusted members of a community that celebrates academic success, and the practices that produce it, which overrides the low expectations communicated at school. Additionally, Barrett highlights the ways in which black churches, because they are equipped to deal with families, are effective at sustaining and encouraging parental educational involvement from the heart as well as providing contexts where youth can have regular contact with other adults for role-modeling and mentoring.
Barrett is not alone. In another JNE study of 4,273 black students titled, “How Religious, Social, and Cultural Capital Factors Influence Educational Aspirations of African American Adolescents,” Hussain Al-Fadhli and Thomas Kersen, sociology professors at Jackson State University, report that “family and religious social capital are the most potent predictors for positive student college aspirations.” These scholars explain that “students who attend church and believe religion is important may be more likely to interact with more adults who can help them with their school work and even provide guidance about their futures goals and plans.” The authors conclude that students with an “active religious life, involved parents, and active social life have greater opportunities and choices in the future.”
Since W.E.B. DuBois wrote in the 1890s about the black church, dozens of studies confirm this truth: Low-income black kids will not achieve academic success without strong families and the church. Strengthening these institutions, however, is beyond the expertise of any government agency or education program or policy. Using President Obama’s phrasing, if parents need to be involved in a child’s education from day one, in the inner-city the church must be involved beginning on day two. Without thriving and healthy inner-city churches, low-performing schools are simply cultivating the next generation of crime and welfare statistics. We owe it to children to place them in contexts that are sustainable and effective.