An Interview with Pam Costain
The Collegeville Institute Fellows met recently to discuss public education and the achievement gap in Minnesota schools. Former Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain spoke to the cohort of faith leaders about her experiences advocating for equality in local schools. Stina Kielsmeier-Cook interviewed Costain about why she believes public education is a moral issue, the problem with the term “achievement gap,” and what faith communities can do to promote equity in education.
What do you wish that people of faith knew about public schools?
I believe that public education is one of the most important moral issues of our time. If we intend to build a more inclusive society, which I think most people of faith would say is a goal, then we have to start with our public schools. Unless people are in a faith community that’s integrated or live in a neighborhood that’s integrated, it’s really only in our schools that kids will meet people different from them and begin to create community out of diverse groups of people. If our children learn these lessons well, that will hopefully extend to the decisions they make as adults.
I can personally say that my own kids, having gone to Minneapolis public schools, are completely comfortable with people of all races. They have friends and they have interests across cultural and racial groups, and I think that’s because of their experience in Minneapolis public schools.
Do you think the faith community is missing that understanding of schools being an inclusive environment?
In general I think that public education is not given sufficient attention in our society by people of faith or others. There are so many issues pulling at us that many of us take public schools for granted. Yet public education is in crisis, and to solve it we need the support of people of faith. We need a moral perspective about the achievement and opportunity gaps as well as the sufficient resources to address the issues.
And here is the rub: people can have all kinds of social concerns, but when it comes to what they do with their own children those commitments tend to go out the window. What I want people in faith communities to do is to ask themselves why they don’t put their children in public schools, if they don’t already. I’m asking folks to examine the distance between their beliefs in racial equity and integration and the personal choices they make. Some individuals would still make the same decision about which school is right for their child, while others might ask themselves, “Could I be part of the solution? Could I better align my words and my deeds? Could I see my child and other people’s children having the same right to a high-quality education?”
I think that conversation isn’t happening in a lot of places.
I think we see the decisions we make about our kids and which school they will attend as simply a private decision, but when it comes to challenges in public education, we don’t connect the dots and see how our personal choices affect the whole system.
In your presentation to the Collegeville Institute Fellows, you spoke about how the achievement gap as a general term isn’t helpful. Why is it important to go into more detail when you’re explaining the problem?
The language of achievement gap puts the problem on the kid who is not doing well in school and not on the structures that create the problem. We tend to talk about how poorly children of color are doing in our schools, as opposed to looking at the many systemic factors that create that deficit.
It starts absolutely in a child’s earliest years. Generally, middle class kids have access to quality early childhood experiences. While early education is a challenge for nearly all parents of young children, middle class families at least have better choices. Low income families really don’t have many options and so their kids are already behind when they enter kindergarten. This has nothing to do with the kids, their capacity or their ability to learn. It has everything to do with whether children have been in literacy-rich environments when they were young. Were there books in their home? Were people talking to them and reading to them at an early age? Were their childcare experiences high quality or did they involve hours of babysitting by the TV? These gaps do begin early and have an enormous impact on future academic success.
In your presentation, you talked about additional gaps like the early childhood education gap you just mentioned. You also spoke about gaps in relationship to time, teachers, leadership, and beliefs. Tell us more about the belief gap.
Yes, there are numerous gaps. In general low income children need more time in school, they need excellent teachers and the strongest principals, and they need the adults in their life to truly believe in them. The belief gap may be the most important of all.
If we do not sincerely believe that all children can learn, I can guarantee you they won’t. When adults do not believe in the capacity of kids to learn, it can have an impact throughout a child’s life. One person might say, “Oh, those kids just aren’t smart. They can’t learn the same as my child.” While another person might say, “Isn’t it a shame those children are so poor. Their poverty means they just can’t learn as well as others.” In reality both of these rationales are bad for children. We have to challenge the mindset that children can’t learn, whatever reason is given, and instead work to overcome the barriers to learning.
I have seen many schools serving high poverty communities — overwhelmingly kids of color — that function well and get good results. I know that it can be done. It’s up to adults to make that happen. It’s not the kids’ responsibility; and if it doesn’t happen, it’s not their fault.
It seems that people of faith and Christians in particular are choosing to tackle the education issue by creating their own separate institutions. At the Fellows meeting you said that faith leaders have an important role in creating a kind of moral framework in the conversation around public schools. What can faith communities do?
Faith leaders can play a role in challenging us as a society to truly understand that all children are our children and that we have a responsibility to proceed from that understanding. This means the task of educating all children well is a moral issue and the solution belongs to all of us. If we believe that all children are capable of learning and that every child deserves the same education I would want for my own child, then we have a foundation to guide our work and advocacy. I would be delighted if faith communities began to lead that conversation and use it to influence individual choices and social commitments. I don’t know where, other than faith communities, the moral dimension of our failure to educate all children can be discussed and lifted up.
Many churches offer volunteer tutoring programs, but those need to be well executed with strong training and consistency. But beyond tutoring, we also need to think about how to influence the societal structures that prevent so many low-income students from having the schools, the teachers, and the leadership they deserve. So that’s where political organizing at the institutional level comes in. But it starts with a conversation and moves from there to commitment.
Are you saying that the moral conversation about public education has to start within congregations?
I know that many churches are grappling with issues of racial equity. They are partnering with other congregations and opening up to difficult dialogue. I think that’s really important.
What we really need is serious civic dialogue in our country right now. We need to talk to one another — across differences of race, income, religious beliefs, and life circumstances. Our country is being pulled in two dramatically different directions: one is a move toward greater inclusion and appreciation of differences and the other is a move toward exclusion and isolation. Faith communities have to be the center of the big choices we must make between inclusion and exclusion. I believe if congregations are interested in building more inclusivity rather than exclusivity, they will inevitably get drawn into thinking about our public schools. Are we building a nation that believes that all people matter, or one that suggests that some people are less worthwhile than others? If we believe all people matter, then we must start paying more attention to what’s happening with children.
In your experience as an advocate, how does your faith or your beliefs motivate or sustain you?
My family and my immediate community are the center of my life and keep me moving forward. My moral foundation was laid in my childhood and through my experiences in the United Church of Christ (UCC) in Minot, North Dakota. Though I am no longer a Christian, I cherish the ethics and values my church imparted to me. I was taught concern for others, care, and compassion in my church.
I have been a Buddhist for over a decade and this is the tradition that now informs and inspires my life. In the Buddhist tradition, the central question always is whether to respond with fear or love. Every time that you chose love, a choice made easier by the practice of meditation, the better it is for you and the world. I think of the choice between inclusion or exclusion as the same as the choice between love or fear. Exclusion stems from fear, and inclusion stems from a heart that is open to differences, to others, and to the world.