Acton Commentary

Great Expectations: Parents Hold Big City Schools Accountable


The Roman philosopher Epictetus, in his second-century A.D. work Discourses , echoed the words of Christ when he said, “Only the educated are free.” Lord Acton once described liberty as “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty.” Duty being learned rather than inborn, Acton’s aphorism, too, implies a tight link between education and freedom.

Given the continual decline of government schools in the last few decades, these statements could be seen as deeply troubling for the future of freedom in America, and indeed, in the world. They might also be viewed as clarion calls to parents, educators, and the public at large, alerting us to the primary importance of education in forming the characters and the minds of the next generation, and in safeguarding liberty for all.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 61 of the nation’s largest urban government school systems, recently released a study titled Beating the Odds IV: A City-By-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gap on State Assessments . ( http://www.cgcs.org/reports/beat_the_oddsIV.html ) This study is telling, since it gives clear evidence that both the No Child Left Behind Act and the recent attention being paid to government schools are, at least partially, responsible for an increase in student achievement in the large urban school districts. “The public reminded educators—particular[ly] those in cities—why they were in business in the first place and what they were being held responsible for delivering,” the report notes.

The report finds that 93 percent of urban government school districts demonstrated an increase in math scores in more than half the grades tested, and that 85 percent of all grades tested showed gains in math scores. More than 83 percent of districts increased reading scores in more than half the grades tested; 72 percent of all grades tested in the Great City Schools posted increases in reading scores. While the study also indicates that reading and math scores in urban schools are still below the national average and that there remains much work to do, it also showed that the schools are making strides in the right direction.

For many years, government school educators have usurped, and parents have neglected, the fundamental right of parents to educate their children. This led to a great downward spiral in the quality of education provided by government schools and, thus, in the academic performance of students in those schools. Although the No Child Left Behind Act did not completely reverse this trend, it gave teeth to the rights of parents to educate their children and to expect and demand that the quality of this education be as excellent as possible. The results of the Beating the Odds IV study indicate that parents are exercising their right and that urban public school teachers are rising to the level of educational quality demanded by parents.

Increases in educational performance and achievement are key, not only for the future of our nation in an academic, political, or material way, but also, and most importantly, for the spiritual future of our nation. Christ’s claim that the “truth will set you free” posits a connection between knowledge and freedom. This knowledge is not just an understanding of mathematics and physical science (methods by which students can first apprehend the truth by reason), reading and language (tools by which people can comprehend the truth), history and social sciences (means by which people can appreciate how the truth was made manifest in the past in various places and times). The knowledge that the Lord speaks about is the ultimate Truth: Himself. Knowledge of matters historical, physical, mathematical, and social is important as a first step to apprehension of the One Who Is. The final steps of coming to know the Truth must be taken in faith. Thus it is that government schools, as they exist today, can never fully meet the needs of their students.

If, as Our Lord promised, knowing the truth will set us free, then the increases in student performance in urban government schools indicated by the Beating the Odds IV study is excellent news. It is cause for both celebration and a recommitment to continuing these trends of improvement in student achievement. It is also a sign of what is lacking in government—or any—schools wherein the teaching of “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic” is the final goal.