Education that Empowers

Pope Francis kisses a child as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, September 2014.

According to international rankings, the U.S. educational system is depressingly mediocre. The United States spends more per student than most nations but produces dismal results in student achievement, especially in math and science. What’s more, students’ socioeconomic status plays a larger role in their educational achievements in the United States than in other countries. Consequently, it is no surprise that educational issues such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher pay, teachers unions, and district budgets cuts are in the news. As policymakers, administrators, teachers, and parents work to decrease gaps in student performance and increase student achievement levels, political and policy differences have led to contentious battles at the local, state, and national levels.

At first glance, education may seem to be more of a policy issue that concerns American citizens than a top priority for the leader of the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis has indicated—both indirectly and directly—that he is deeply concerned about the well-being of young people, the injustices that affect them, and the importance of education in building a more just world. He frequently speaks to young people, encouraging them to be bold and joyful, to resist hopelessness, and to engage more actively in the world. He notes the disproportionate effects of social injustices on young people, particularly unemployment. Pope Francis also speaks regularly on the importance of education, telling personal stories about the effect that teachers have had on him throughout his life.

Investing in a shared future

In the past 18 months, Pope Francis has repeatedly highlighted the importance of education that forms hearts and minds and has insisted that quality education should be available to all students. He has often mentioned the many children living in poverty around the world who lack adequate access to education. Pope Francis not only decries the immediate injustice of that reality but also the future effect it will have: At the welcoming ceremony of his 2013 trip to Brazil, Pope Francis referred to young people as “the window through which the future enters the world” and said that “we have to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development,” including an educational system that allows young people to reach their potential and develop their character.

The pope has spoken about education to a variety of audiences, including students and teachers, sharing his view that schooling is a critical component of addressing a variety of injustices, ranging from environmental degradation to poverty to the disenfranchisement of young people. He highlighted education, along with work and health care, as a foundational element of justice in his November 2013 papal exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium”:

We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data—all treated as being of equal importance—and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.

At a Church for Schools event supporting Catholic schools in Italy, Pope Francis said that he loved school, and he celebrated his first teacher, who he visited until she passed away at age 98.

Advocating for universal access to quality skills instruction and promoting the classroom as a forum for encounter and character building are part of Pope Francis’s vision for a more just society. He sees education as a counter to injustice—a tool to protect human dignity, close gaps in knowledge and power, increase civic and political participation, and build tolerance so all people can live their values free from oppression.

Education for all, not for profit

Pope Francis’s deep sadness at the persistent poverty in the world is well known. He once said, “Poverty in the world is a scandal.” He has specifically cited a lack of education as part of that scandal, saying, “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons.”

Beyond his concern with poverty, he sees access to education as a key to reversing and preventing the damaging effects of economic inequality, which can lead to isolation and loss of dignity. In his 2014 World Peace Day message, the pope called for new educational policies that promote solidarity and ensure that “every person has the opportunity to express and realize his or her life project and can develop fully as a person.”

This understanding of education as a critical component of combating injustice fits within the Catholic tradition, as well as other faith traditions and philosophies. For example, Pope Francis’s support of education and equality resonates clearly with the goals of the U.N. Global Education First Initiative, which identifies education as “a major driving force for human development” and, similar to Pope Francis, connects access to education with other justice issues. Speaking on the initiative, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

It opens doors to the job market, combats inequality, improves maternal health, reduces child mortality, fosters solidarity, and promotes environmental stewardship. Education empowers people with the knowledge, skills and values they need to build a better world.

The initiative’s three priorities also align with Pope Francis’s desired outcomes for educational programs: First, put every child in school; second, improve the quality of learning; and third, use education to foster global citizenship.

In a message to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 2013, Pope Francis said that education is particularly important in our globalized world because it requires our coordinated efforts to safeguard human dignity and promote communities in which individuals are not shunned to the periphery but are instead empowered to live to their full potential. He urged his listeners to make that vision a reality, in part by ensuring “a sound and integral education for the young.”

The belief that quality education can help reduce poverty and inequality comes from a recognition that education is a basic human right—similar to food and shelter—and that it is vital to protecting human dignity. During a visit to Rio de Janeiro last year, the pope visited homes in the Varginha favela and later spoke of education as an essential good and a fundamental pillar of a strong nation.

While many policy discussions about education are filled with cynicism regarding teachers, pay, and job performance, the pope remains unabashedly enthusiastic about his own childhood teachers, and he thanks teachers for being part of the immeasurable contribution Christians make to the world today. At a time when for-profit corporations are expanding into the world of education, the pope has warned against a for-profit educational system that places profits ahead of instruction and student empowerment. Pope Francis’s recognition that education is a tool for justice has led him to criticize the use of education to benefit the already powerful: “[I]ntegral education,” Pope Francis says, “cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit.”

Additionally, even as he promotes education as an essential social good, Pope Francis warns against pretending that education is an all-purpose fix for the social ills that result from inequality. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis wrote, “Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an ‘education’ that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.”

Policies to help students thrive: Bringing Pope Francis’s values to the U.S. education system

As the November midterm elections approach, we would do well to consider the values embedded in the pope’s exhortations on education. Having a clear sense of the elemental truths and priorities in various policies can help guide us at the polls. Which policies can help provide quality education for all? Which policies can transform classrooms from spaces used solely for testing into venues that build character, critical thinking, and compassion? Which policies can create a collaborative effort so that families, teachers, and education policy professionals are working toward a system that educates and empowers students? Voting this November offers an opportunity to support such policies, as well as candidates who connect creative reform ideas with real educational opportunities.

Pope Francis understands that knowledge is power. Thus, education needs to serve all rather than act as another vehicle to increase inequality. Education must be used as an equalizer, building the skills that students need in order to be economically secure and included in society, as a well as helping foster the moral character needed to be compassionate global citizens. In order to ensure all people have access to a high-quality, equitable education, we should seek policies that reduce barriers to early education, address gaps in instructional quality, tackle challenges in affordability, and encourage creative, flexible teacher-training opportunities.

Although barriers to classroom access are more significant problems in other countries—particularly for the very poor and for girls—the United States still faces challenges getting all students into a classroom, especially during their formative early years. Given recent research showing that the stressors of childhood poverty can have a lasting effect on brain development, as well as studies demonstrating that lifetime health outcomes are best predicted by where a child grows up, giving those born without financial security a chance to escape the conditions of poverty must begin with access to quality early education.

Ensuring all children in the United States have access to quality early education opportunities means increasing funding for child care programs and pre-K programs such as Head Start. The effects of economic inequality have a direct impact on educational opportunities for children, as higher-income families are increasing their education spending while lower-income families are unable to do so. Federally funded early education programs increase classroom access for children from low-income families, while also easing the burdens on working parents who struggle to schedule child care. Additionally, increased classroom access is a proven way for communities to invest in their children and their future health, reaping benefits in human capital and economic strength in the future.

Ironically, while one of the benefits of having access to quality early education is a higher likelihood of attending college, a serious barrier to education justice in the United States is the high cost of higher education, which has increased by more than 500 percent in the past 30 years. The cost of attending college is a major burden for already disadvantaged communities, including students of color, first-generation college students, and undocumented students. It is even a concern for the elderly: Student debt is now a cradle-to-grave reality that leads to bankruptcy for some seniors.

A college degree is key to economic opportunity and security. It is wrong to make attaining a college degree such an economic burden that it strangles any advantage it promises. Universities can do their part by promoting access and success for all students through a commitment to need-based financial aid, among other tactics. But the government needs do its part as well, implementing policies to increase the likelihood of students successfully completing college without a lifetime of student debt.

One avenue for Congress to consider is tax code reform. For example, making saving for college easier and eliminating duplicative tax credits by adopting the most generous provision of each will make navigating existing financial supports easier for college students and their families. Additionally, with U.S. student debt approaching $1.2 trillion, students need to be able to refinance their loans. Just as with car and home loans, refinancing student loans can save borrowers enough to help them become more financially stable. The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act would allow 25 million borrowers to refinance their student debt at lower interest rates by increasing taxes on the households that could most afford it.

While access and affordability are important, so is reinvesting in quality instruction and a more holistic vision of education in order to ensure that access to education bears meaningful fruit in students’ lives. At a February 2014 meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Pope Francis highlighted the need to constantly train teachers, especially with tools that make adults effective listeners and communicators and allow them to reach students in ways they understand.

Research supports a need for more effective teacher preparation, since quality teaching is the most significant in-school factor that affects student learning. Teacher-preparation programs that more effectively improve classroom management and instructional skills are another tool to reduce disparities in classroom experiences for both low-income and higher-income students. Pope Francis has acknowledged the importance of teacher preparation as well.

To ensure that educational opportunities are as effective as possible for all students, teachers must have high-quality preparation and ongoing training throughout their careers. Unique challenges in each school district necessitate creativity in discerning and addressing teacher-training needs, but all school communities can benefit from certain reforms, such as investing in high-quality teachers so that they stay in the field, capitalizing on their skills as mentors to younger and newer teachers, and improving effectiveness of all teachers with professional development. Additionally, while these are complicated issues that will need to be addressed differently in various school districts, resisting the urge to politicize educational reform is critical to making positive changes.

Values in the voting booth

Pope Francis’s invitation to build a culture of encounter challenges us to approach educational reform with a creative commitment in order to craft school spaces that engage students, promote better understanding, and build respect for human dignity. Schools need to be institutions where students learn the skills they need to be successful economically, as well as the compassion and magnanimity they need to be fruitful contributors to their communities. According to Pope Francis, schools should broaden “not only your intellectual dimension, but also the human one.” While we can engage students, teachers, parents, and community partners to enrich local schools, we must also ask what systemic changes can be made in order to ensure schools are more accessible and empowering for everyone.

Improving access to education and the quality of instruction will help reverse the damaging effects of inequality that are undercutting our communities. Elections provide opportunities for voters to act on their values and determine where candidates stand on issues of educational justice, such as access to pre-K and the cost of higher education. Access to quality education from an early age through college promotes physical health and economic prospects later in life. It is important to vote our values this November and connect our conscience with our obligation to support policies that benefit everyone.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative will examine three issues that Pope Francis is highlighting in his papacy: work, education, and health care. We will use his statements—and the moral philosophy in which they are grounded—as a lens that reflects on voters’ opportunities to, as Pope Francis says, “be builders of the world, to work for a better world.”

Claire Markham is the Outreach Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.