Staring at the Achievement Gap: Religious Education in Low-Income Schools

As a seminarian, I attended courses with two refugees from Myanmar preparing to return and serve their persecuted communities. Their literacy skills were dramatically low for the graduate level texts and writing that was expected. All our professors provided remarkable modifications and were generous in their evaluations…except one.  Witnessing the challenge this professor’s courses presented my classmates, I met with him to advocate for similar modifications. He refused, arguing that my classmates did not have the time or resources to waste receiving a weak education. This professor had come from a similar experience. Although it appeared cruel, by the second semester I was going to these two students for assistance. I mention this anecdote, and will present another later, due to a parallel I wish to suggest.

I have worked with “at-risk” teenagers my entire career. I have always had a problem with that term for the simple reason that by virtue of being 13-19 years old, all teens are at risk of something. However, there is a distinct experience that for a variety of reasons applies to low-income students – often students of color. Having worked in true alternative public schools and Cristo Rey Catholic schools in New York City, Boston and Portland, OR, I have looked directly into the faces and hearts of the achievement gap.

As many educators know, young Black students exemplify the risks and deficits involved with the achievement gap. Young Black men in particular score below their counterparts when it comes to literacy rates and college preparedness but higher in suspensions from school.[1] Half of all minority and low-income students do not graduate high school.[2] Students of color and other low-income and low-skilled students are virtually locked out higher education and vocational opportunities. Educational theorists as far back as the 16th century have noted the connection between the lack of options and crime.[3] Our current prison statistics confirm their concern. So what do we do? Clearly providing more funding to schools that serve low-income students is important. However, I do not think this is enough. I believe we have to be severely honest with our students and ourselves. They do not have the time or the resources to waste.

This important discussion has come up in every low-income school I have worked in, but never actually happens. Everyone stops short. At one school, an African-American female colleague presented it so profoundly and, to some, offensively that we sat in silence for thirty seconds before the conversation was dismissed.

“We have to be real about what our goal is. We are teaching them to act white.”

The context of her comment was a typical staff meeting addressing the failure of the school’s culture and instruction to improve behavior and academic performance. I believe what she meant was that we are preparing students to participate in the dominant culture. As soon as we start teaching English grammar (let alone cursive) we must admit as much. However, the well-intentioned and culturally humble teachers and administrators serving low-income students recognize the tension here. It is a dominant culture that often devalues the cultures and lives of minority and low-income students. We know the playing field is not level and we are trying to level it by loving our students for who they are. However, it is the first time in my life that I feel compassion may obstruct justice.

My first job out of seminary and as a Franciscan was running an educational and retreat program for a 50-bed shelter in Harlem NYC for 18-25 year old men. All my students were formerly homeless, aging out of foster care and/or transitioning out of incarceration.  They were tough young men who had none of the advantages I grew up with. I was the youngest and only white man on an all male staff. My colleagues quickly coached me into the reality of the work: “Unless you plan on holding their hands after they leave here, you better stop now. Letting them experience success they have not earned does not serve them.” Lowering the bar within our programs does not change the expectations and competition students will face when they leave. They do not have the time or the resources to waste developing a sense of entitlement. Further, young people, young men especially, do not trust what comes too easily and cheaply. What teachers and administrators are giving without substance is self-confidence. If the confidence we try to instill is not earned, our students will not trust themselves outside of our cheap grace.  However, the paradox of this profession remains: healthy human development requires both conditional and unconditional love

Unconditional positive regard establishes self-worth and trust in the world. Conditional affirmation and reward develops the knowledge and abilities to participate in the world as adults.  Low-income and ‘at-risk’ students are at risk precisely because they have often lacked both.  Most alternative schools focus on unconditional love at the expense of the equally essential conditional positive affirmation because it feels better for us. This is why this work is so difficult.  To serve our students we must do both simultaneously. We are working to truly affirm the minority cultures our students come from, their experiences and who they are. We are also encouraging them to set goals to participate in a dominant culture where if they are not prepared, they will struggle. We are actually preparing them to live into two worlds. Religious education provides a unique opportunity and ability to do this.

Existing research reveals that consistent standards, smaller classes and student engagement in core subjects are necessary to close the achievement gap.[4] However, as I have mentioned, students have other needs.  Religious education represents a discipline where low-skilled students can practice the hard skills from their core courses and also develop an essential skill and sense of self worth. I have found that teaching ethics, scripture and spirituality in low-income schools offers a unique time out of standards-based academic disciplines to speak honestly about individual and collective life challenges within the context of shared symbols and stories. My students have proven much more willing to be honest about their precarious position and challenges than my colleagues and myself. Both the most tragically honest and authentically redemptive work I have seen come from students has come from written work that asks students to utilize an existing narrative, whether it be the Exodus, the Paschal Mystery or the life of heroes and saints to re-envision their very real struggles, fears and faith. These stories invariably involve the tension of participating in the culture their goals and teachers are taking them, and those who love them for exactly who they are.

The goal of religious education, if it is delivered in a meaningful and effective manner, is honest reflection, self and social awareness and a theological imagination where success and confidence come from a student’s own ability to make meaning. Religious education can offer teachers and administrators a space and method to provide unconditional positive regard and essential skill building alongside the necessarily standardized core curriculum and conditional experiences of success.

[1] Penn Child Research Center. The Educational Well-Being of African American Boys. 2009. See also Dept. Education’s National Center For Educational Statistics. Achievement Gaps. 2009

[2] National Assessment of Educational Progress (2005) The Nation’s Report Card

[3] Van Giecken, George. (2011). To Touch Hearts: Pedagogical Spirituality and John Baptiste De La Salle.  FSC Publishing

[4] American Educational Research Association [AERA]. (2004). Closing the Gap: High achievement for students of color. Research Points: Essential Informationfor Education Policy. Washington, DC.& Ainley, M. (1993). Styles of engagement with learning: Multidimensional assessment of their relationship with strategy use and school achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(3),

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