Public policy is like the white ball you use to knock the other balls on the pool table into the holes on the side. I admit that’s about all I know about pool, but I use the analogy to describe in a very rudimentary fashion how public policy works. We come up with some plan that will have some impact on a policy problem we are trying to resolve.
Education is one example. We have been inundated with news concerning the not so pristine state of American education. Americans are not that excited about what our educational system is delivering. According to the Pew Research Council, six out of ten Americans believe the U.S. education system needs an overhaul. The sentiment cuts across major demographic segments of the U.S. population and the issue is not divided among partisan lines as roughly two-thirds of Republicans, Democrats, and independents share the sentiment that the educational system can do better.
When it comes to educational attainment, specifically the preparation of students for the rigors of college and beyond, the United States has a way to go. A 2011 Pew Research survey of 1,000 college presidents found that 19% of them believed that the U.S. higher education system was the best in the world, while seven percent of those surveyed believed the U.S. system would be the best in the world ten years from now. In addition, 52% of college presidents believed that today’s college student studies less than the college students of a decade ago.
The United States is doing about average when it comes to performance in the classroom, according to a study by the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The U.S. ranked 26 in mathematics out of 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations. The U.S. ranked 17th in reading and 21st in science. In addition, 15% of the variance in American student performance had to do with their socio-economic backgrounds, according to the PISA study.
A daunting challenge to policy makers that want to promote education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is student attitudes toward crunching the numbers. PISA reported that 50% of students surveyed showed an interest in learning mathematics.
What’s the response by Christian conservatives to all this? Put “God” back in schools by requiring prayer and presenting creationism as an alternative to the study of science in the classroom. For example, David Lane of the American Renewal Project, would like “to put God, prayer, and the Bible back into public schools as a principal component of education.” Mr. Lane has no preference for how best to get this done; whether it’s a constitutional amendment, 50% plus vote, or an act of Congress, it doesn’t matter to him.
What should matter to Mr. Lane is that if he wants to use “God” as policy, is first to define “God”; Then he has to operationalize (measure) God so that we can determine whether his policy, putting God back into the schools, is really working. What may help Mr. Lane is getting from behind the broad concept of God and being more definitive.
For example, he could say that we plan to introduce the teachings of Jesus Christ into the schools in order to better improve the performance of students in the classroom. We could measure classroom performance by attendance or grades, but I would expect a significant portion of variance in those variables to be explained by other factors such as parental discipline, peer pressure, and competitive desire on the part of the student.
The teachings of Christ part would be a challenge. I did a cursory review of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and found that Jesus, who is referred to as “Teacher” in the book of Matthew, says nothing about educating children. It’s difficult to identify a policy prescription as presented by the Messiah when he says absolutely nothing about teaching kids.
I suspect that most pastors would come up with what Jesus might have said about education by constructing some prenumberance of Bible verses to defend their view as to what God in the classroom is supposed to mean. Christians tend to hide behind the word God when they wish to expand a narrative that Jesus himself never presented. The irony of being a follower of Christ is abandoning the teachings of Christ whenever it’s convenient.
For example, take Mr. Lane’s position on where knowledge begins; it starts with the fear of the Lord. Two problems here. One, you have to define who the “Lord” is. Second, and more importantly, knowledge actually begins with a question, a query. If bringing God, the Lord, Jesus, etc., into the classroom means eliminating the first step in inquiry and observation, then what’s the point of pursuing the basis and basics of education: knowledge.
The only impact Mr. Lane and his American Renewal Project wants to see is the Christian culture being spread to the youth of America in a place where they are the most captive audience: school. In their billiard game, they don’t care if kids are knocked into the dark holes of ignorance by the white ball, as long as the ball has the name Jesus on it.