Social Justice Reconsidered: Report from the Philadelphia Society

I recently sat in on the Philadelphia Society’s annual meeting, an extended examination of the term “social justice.” In some ways, I like the term, given the way it is often used to remind us that every aspect of life is morally significant. At the same time, social justice sometimes serves as a substitute for careful thought, especially about economics. This short essay is my full evaluation and recommendation for the path forward. Do I get it right?

While the phrase “social justice” has been used since the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli coined the term in 1840, Friedrich Hayek never could found a good definition, due to two persistent problems. First, strictly speaking, the concept is incoherent. As Russell Kirk argued in his lecture “The Meaning of Justice,” Aristotle’s definition of justice as the virtue of an individual in “giving every man his due” has shaped Western civilization for millennia. It makes no sense, however, to describe impersonal states of affairs as just or unjust. The second problem is that those who use the term nowadays intentionally leave it undefined. According to Michael Novak, vagueness about what social justice actually is serves the interests of the state, ever-eager to consolidate power by using any god term available. For this reason, conservative critics are much quicker to delineate the idea, e.g., Joseph Johnson in his book The Limits of Government: “social justice is the reduction of social and economic inequality by force of the state.”

At the 49th National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, members and guests reexamined social justice, seeking to discern the extent to which it continues to result in coercion and consolidation, as well as the prospects for articulating a contrast narrative. Joshua Hawley put it well on Sunday when he reminded the assembly of the question the Dutch theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper frequently asked: “What is the soundness of the social order in which we live?” Conservatives have just as much interest in this question as liberals. Novak argues that in his day Hayek himself did not oppose many of the ends of social justice. The term was especially common at the end of the nineteenth century as shorthand for the need to ensure the health of the masses of peasants who uprooted themselves to become urban factory workers. The means, however, often neglected the basic principles that made the English-speaking world great. Novak believes that the best way forward is to redefine social justice as a subspecies of justice itself, dealing with both the skill of cooperating in labor with others and the goal of benefitting a community, not just oneself. As Lee Edwards emphasized on Saturday, the space of civil society between public and private is both enormous and important: “300 billion dollars, 350,000 churches, 1.5 million charitable organizations including 3,800 non-profit hospitals…”

Based on the readings and the presentations, I believe the redefinition of social justice needs to center on three principles.

The freedom of individuals to work and create value must be protected. In his keynote address, Samuel Gregg affirmed the basic goodness of work, grounded in a Judeo-Christian anthropology that understands men and women as stewards of God’s inherently good creation. The free market was birthed in the High Middle Ages as a means of supporting the travel and trade of pilgrims and merchants; it eventually galvanized the development of tremendous wealth and opportunity. Intervention that stifles ingenuity and competition is actually unjust and harms both the common good and the liberty of individuals. As Anne Wortham asked, “Why would anyone consent to the forced redistribution of their property?” Beyond being coercive, centralized planning is also inefficient, an idea addressed by the second principle.

The solution to problems must be local and self-interested. To illustrate this idea, Brian Lee Crowley recounted the accidental discovery of glass-making by Phoenician sailors, who while moored on a sandy beach propped their cooking pots on lumps of nitrum. As the nitrum melted and mixed with sand, a translucent liquid was formed, and the sailors perceived how to make an invaluable new material. Crowley emphasized that glass and many other innovations (electricity, railroads, corporations, automobiles) disrupt the status quo profoundly; any centralized authority would never be able to predict or control such innovations. For this reason, genuine competition and free enterprise are essential for the pursuit of knowledge. In the same session, Roberta Herzberg described how rare it was for aid programs to ask low-income communities what they actually needed, and “solutions” were usually foreign and disempowering. For these reasons, i.e., the limits of both human knowledge and human virtue, matters ought be handled by those closest to them. Catholic social teachers call this notion “subsidiarity,” and it applies to both the state and culture. The breakout panel Helping People Help Themselves provided vivid examples of both the benefits of subsidiarity and the dangers of ignoring it. Jennifer Marshall explained how for 60 years the federal assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children encouraged women to not find jobs and avoid marrying anyone with a job, despite the fact that marriage is a better social safety net than any bureaucracy. Contrast this with B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose charity work focuses on the restoration of the whole person: legally, socially, and vocationally, something possible only through close relationships and accountability. This brings us to the third principle.

Faith and virtue must be preserved within civic society. The glorification of secularism and what John Richard Neuhaus calls the “naked public square” has not helped individuals, families, or the culture. Agreeing with Novak, Samuel Gregg argued that any appropriation of social justice under the larger cardinal virtue of justice must be supported and informed by natural law and divine revelation. Such appropriation would also necessarily resist the consolidation of power by the “value neutral” government, which fails to account for the dignity and moral dimension of persons in its social welfare programs, its education curricula, and its orientation toward charities and non-profit organizations. In conclusion, for social justice to be truly just, it must recognize the liberty of everyone to create, the priority of localized self-interest, and the value of virtue and faith.

Affirmative Action: Too Little, Too Much, and on the Wrong Track

The recent debate in the Supreme Court is reinvigorating analysis of affirmative action; Justices Sotomayor and Thomas have both weighed in on the extent to which they felt their achievements were invalidated by others’ assumptions of unfair advantage. What remains, among other sobering statistics, is an enormous gap in wealth between whites and blacks. In part because of the housing crisis, the median net worth of white households is 20 times that of black households. (The mean net worth of whites is 3.7 times that of blacks.)

That ratio, 20 to 1, has stuck with me. Partly because I currently receive a scholarship that pays all the tuition costs of four years of seminary. I am thankful for what this scholarship allows me to do: I can study long hours without the distraction of needing to find a part-time job, I can preach on Sundays at a nursing home for free, and I can find encouragement in the fact that someone I don’t know supports my goal of becoming a pastor. At my seminary, there are 20 other students receiving this scholarship. All of them are white. 20 to 0.

I’m no expert on the subject, but the broad principles of political liberty and subsidiarity make me suspicious of aggressive governmental intervention on matters of race. At the same time, the heinous and enduring effects of racism in America endure. The most vivid for me are the exploitation of black Chicago homebuyers in 1950-1970 described here, the enduring inability of members of all races to associate the word “good” with images of blacks as compared to whites described here, and the perception toddlers grasp of beauty-as-whiteness portrayed here. Christians, who recognize that every person is made in God’s dignifying image, know that things should be different. Even more than mere acknowledgement of the problem, Christians believe that before any federal and state agency, we ought to be on the vanguard of helping the poor and the marginalized. Many in fact are, bearing living witness to the fact that we were all exiles, far from God, and that we have no attachment to this world beyond its reflection of the one to come—this is not our home. But how to bring about change on more systemic levels? Is affirmative action useful? Is it a dead end?

It’s a small lesson, but while working at Teach For America, I observed an approach I found helpful, at least with respect to staffing. Interviewers and managers were trained to ignore race in hiring decisions. Unconscious bias was acknowledged and actively avoided, but black or Latino candidates received no special advantage in the application process. At the same time, the organization knew that candidates who identified with the background of the students we taught had a unique opportunity for impact, both with their students and as spokespersons for the movement as a whole. More than many other groups, the long-term health of the organization genuinely depended on a diverse staff from top to bottom. So, to increase the likelihood of a diverse team, TFA talent recruiters proactively sought out candidates of color. They devoted resources to finding and attracting them, and they developed promising candidates who weren’t yet ready for a position. For every white candidate considered for a role, at least one candidate of color was also interviewed. And once on staff, TFA monitored each employee’s satisfaction to ensure that retention of employees of color was as high as white employees.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. It eliminates the general suspicion of an unequal standard as well as any temptation to think this or that employee isn’t really qualified for the job. At the same time, this policy takes the fact of inequality of opportunity seriously. Could something like this be instituted by the committee that awards the scholarship I receive? Probably not, given the limited scope and capacity of such a body. For all I know they earnestly wish they could do something like this but can’t.

Whatever the feasibility of individual implementation, for the broader Church to take such an intentional orientation toward race would require a steady and sincere recognition of its importance. I think to get there, it can’t just be about diversity, which can remain quite superficial—the agenda has to be driven by reconciliation.

Athanasius Trash-Talking the Greek Philosophers

Athanasius takes a swipe at the limited popular influence of the Greek philosophers:

As to Greek wisdom, however, and the philosophers’ noisy talk, I really think no one requires argument from us; for the amazing fact is patent to all that, for all that they had written so much, the Greeks failed to convince even a few from their own neighborhood in regard to immortality and the virtuous ordering of life.

He then contrasts this with the teacher from Nazareth:

Christ alone, using common speech and through the agency of men not clever with their tongues, has convinced whole assemblies of people all the world over to despise death, and to take heed to the things that do not die…

A good reminder of the fact that reason alone holds little power. In fact, saying that the Greeks were not “convinced” undersells the point; were there not likely many who were convinced by the philosophers in argument and yet still helplessly afraid of death? Imagine the father of a boy seized in convulsion, who cried out to Christ with tears pleading “I believe; help my unbelief!” For all the genius and charm of Socrates, what authority does he hold over demons? Who is even he next to the King of Glory? I have heard he stood without shivering over a winter night, but did anyone ever ask “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'”

For a long time I’ve wrestled with the implications this has on evangelism and the general witness of the church. But for now, I’m dwelling on the extent to which I would be counted as one in the number of those who despise death.

“He Desires a Noble Task” The Erosion of the Evangelical Pastorate

empty-church-pulpitThe evangelical church has a problem. We’re going to run out of good pastors. For a variety of reasons, we are failing to sufficiently prepare the next generation of church leadership. I doubt this particular problem will ever feel like a full-blown crisis, given the many influences on church health and the wide diffusion of the effects, but it’s a trend with costly consequences. All things being equal, eventually there will be fewer churches than there could be, and on average they will be weaker.

This message is different than the common doomsday alarms. American evangelicalism is not in perfect health, but it’s strong in many respects. More 20-somethings are currently attending evangelical churches than any year since 1972. Enrollment in Christian Colleges is also up, as is diversity. The problem is not that there aren’t any young people in church; it’s that not enough of them are planning to lead.

Why think this?

First, the numbers. While Christian colleges are growing, seminary enrollment has either plateaued or declined at mainline and evangelical seminaries. Don Sweeting, President of Reformed Theological Seminary, told the Lausanne Consultation on Global Theological Education a few months ago in his plenary address, “We have more seminaries and fewer students.” It’s not just an enrollment issue. As anyone who has recently spent time on seminary campuses can tell you, more and more seminarians are not planning on leading churches. They are there for counseling, or para-church ministry, or simply to learn more about Scripture. Quite a few don’t know why they are there.

This brings us to quality. There are no easy ways of determining the quality of pastors-in-training, even on very simple metrics (unlike most other graduate programs, an M.Div. does not require GRE scores).  What we do know is that there has been a distinctive cultural shift away from a “best and brightest” mentality of the Puritans. To put it very simply: the top Christian students (whether attending a Christian colleges or not) are generally not interested in leading churches vocationally. From what I see, this trend is accelerating. Schools like Gordon, Wheaton, Moody, and Biola are not producing nearly as many future ministers as they used to, and even fewer from the top 25% of students (a group I’ll call the leadership quartile). To the leadership quartile academia, medicine, law, politics, technology, and media are attractive—sadly, being a pastor is not.

I see three reasons this is happening: Continue reading

Advice for Undergraduates Planning on Seminary

In April Fred Sanders asked me to write to some THI students who are anticipating seminary in their future. Today I officially started an M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, so it feels fitting to review the tips I wrote and share them here. I’d like to hear what others think (both Biola grads and not).

5 tips to chums considering the pastorate (with some personal examples):

1. Read your books: The people guiding your education right now know a lot more than you do about pretty much everything, vocational ministry included. Commit yourself wholly to their care while you have the opportunity. There will be occasions in the future when you can develop other important skills and affections, but resolve to consistently prioritize now what you can best do in this season of your life: carefully reading and talking about old books (writing about them is important too, but less important for now). With this priority in mind, do not let the syllabus, your classmates, or the general cultural expectations prevent you from thoroughly ingesting each text. If that takes reading some books twice, do it. Carefully attend to your own energy cycles and optimal conditions for study. Never again will you be able to read so widely and with such helpful support: be a good steward of this opportunity. A good indicator of this will be feedback from your mentor (and since success in Torrey depends much more on hard work than “a beautiful mind”-type insight, you should try to be in the top 5% of your class). If you start the program ahead, write more and periodically engage with stronger dialogue partners who will push you. A good quote on this topic: “When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you aren’t working hard enough.”2013 - Logo - Torrey Seal (2738)

2. Develop aspirational relationships: There was a time when pastors were usually the best educated people in town. This is not true anymore, so you need to be thoughtful about charting a course that will improve on the standard academic route to the pastorate. Most people will become the average of their closest companions. And while Sutherland Hall is a wonderful place with many great people, it does not have a high concentration of deeply rigorous thinkers, so you’re going to have be proactive about building your friend base. I recommend a mix of people who are especially helpful given your current life-focus (see point 1) and then just generally wonderful people (given the likely longevity of many of these relationships). In addition to peers that will spur you on, regularly seek out the company of older students and alumni. Lunch once a month with a graduate student takes little extra effort and will be extremely helpful in keeping you humble and hustling. Note that this advice does not mean you shouldn’t be good friends with your roommates or the random person on your intramural volleyball team; you just need to head hunt too. I did this by intentionally making friends with older students I respected, presenting at academic conferences, doing fellowships through think tanks/other colleges, taking classes cross-listed at Talbot, and interviewing pastors about both their ministry and their preparation for it. I’ve kept interviewing since graduation and now have advice, recommended resources, and the contact info from more than twenty pastors. Continue reading

Matt and Lauren’s Wedding Sermon

My wife’s wonderful sister married a great guy this weekend; they asked me to give the homily at the wedding. I was stunned by the invitation, but also very blessed to do it. I’m hoping to preach 100 sermons by the end of seminary; I owe most of the ideas and a few whole sentences of this first effort to my favorite wedding preacher, Fred Sanders.

“We are gathered to witness and celebrate the marriage vows of Matt and Lauren. Matt and Lauren have been waiting for this day and preparing for it—we all have, with gifts, clothing, food, and music. But as Christians, Matt and Lauren recognize that they are not the main actors today, God is. Marriage is something that God designed, and God today creates one thing out of two things.

Dietrich Bonheoffer put it this way, in a letter written from prison to be read as the sermon of the wedding between his neice and his best friend.  “You have said ‘Yes’ to each other by your free choice, and cheerfully and confidently set your life in a new direction. Today on your wedding day, God joins his will to yours and adds his ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes.’”

Matt and Lauren, God is doing the same thing today; He shares your will and seals your union with His divine blessing. What does it mean for God to bless your marriage? This is what it means: from this day forward, all of your individual blessing, growth, and joy is wound together with the blessing, growth, and joy of the person standing next to you. For the rest of your life, there is no better place for you to stand. Whatever challenges you face, tragedies you mourn, or even frustrations you endure in this relationship, God promises to make them for your highest good. It’s important to note that this is not because you are both so savvy at picking the perfect match or you share some special quality. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says that it is better for a believer to stay committed to their spouse, even if they don’t share faith in Christ, than to end the marriage. If I made this promise, it wouldn’t mean anything. But this is promised by a God who sees every sparrow fall and who holds the heavens in His hands. He is faithful, and He will do it.

In Genesis, God shows us three purposes for marriage, and in Revelation, he gives us two promises. The first purpose of marriage is companionship. The only thing that was not good in the Garden of Eden was Adam alone. In one another, you have a best friend, someone with whom you can be totally unguarded and deeply known.

The second purpose of marriage is sharing a life on mission. Eve was made to work in the garden with Adam. I know you two became closer through your common love of music, and you both work now to support students and families. Your marriage will be an opportunity to deepen that shared purpose. Help one another find the intersection of your gifting and passion and the world’s need, and pour yourself out there together in service.

The third purpose of marriage is to expand God’s family. He tells the first couple, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Maybe you will be blessed with biological children. Maybe you will adopt. Maybe you will mentor others in the faith. Whatever your future, it is always your privilege to build up the church as you can.

With these purposes in mind, I charge you to both to stand at your post with gratitude and courage. Matt, Lauren only gets one husband. She is an incredible gift from God that only you receive. If you are not the man who sings of her grace and favor, there will be no man, and her favor will go unsung. If you do not create a home that is warm and energizing to her, the image of God that she uniquely reflects will shine less brightly for others. If, when the time comes, you are not ready to lead with your whole life, it is her children who will long for their father. You are the only person who can do these things, do them well.

Lauren, Matt is quite a guy, and today he’s committing himself to you alone. At the end of a long day, yours are the only arms he will have to collapse into. Take care of him. Charm him. Keep him on his toes. Inspire him to live and die for his brothers and sisters, and help him daily see what is really good and true and beautiful.

I hope these charges make you feel a little overwhelmed. Find strength in the two promises from Revelation 19.

6Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

Did you catch the promises? Here’s the first one: as you identify with the church, you are Christ’s Bride. It is through Christ that God has shown His mercy to the nations. Christ is our true and better husband, in Him we see the three purposes of marriage perfected. Even after we had betrayed Him, He humbled Himself to become the friend of sinners. When we had squandered our inheritance, He gave us His and called us His ambassadors. By His death and resurrection, God the Father raises us up and adopts us into His family as sons and daughters. Even when you fail in your marriage, you are God’s child and He is faithful from generation to generation.

The second promise is about your victory and joy. That fine linen, the “righteous deeds of the saints”? That’s yours. You have been given the Spirit of God, and you will heal and teach and build up like he does. You also have the best seat to watch one another become like Christ. This is really cool.

Now, some practical advice. Until this final supper, the marriage supper of the lamb, learn to love forgiving each other. Do it all the time, make it your habit. In liturgical churches we confess sin and rejoice in forgiveness every Sunday, and there is no age limit to stop doing it. You might confess and forgive every day of your marriage, but do not lose heart. Today God echoes your ‘Yes,’ but tomorrow and the next day you join His will for each other and echo His.

I’d like to close by giving us all a charge, as we each play a part in Matt and Lauren’s marriage. Some of you here know all that these vows imply. Share your wisdom gained through experience. If you are single, share your wisdom too, and help Matt and Lauren remember that their family is but a shadow of the eternal family to come. Maybe you don’t feel like you have any wisdom. Do this: commit to speak and act in ways that build the unity of these two. Get on their team and stay on it.

“Therefore in recognition of Matt and Lauren’s vows to each other to God in this service of marriage, do you pledge to support their union and to strengthen their lives together, to speak the truth in love, and with them to seek a life of love for others? If this is your intention, please say “We will!”

On the Height of the Buildings in Heaven

Ever wonder about the buildings in heaven? And the block sizes?

Two articles sparked similar thinking the other day. The first is in the most recent Atlantic, from Harvard economist and polymath Edward Glaeser. It’s about how skyscrapers promote human flourishing by pushing the price of space down and density up: the key ingredients for vibrant culture and business. It takes an especially interesting turn when Glaeser explains how Mumbai is failing its poor people by restricting building height:

Limiting heights didn’t stop urban growth, it just ensured that more and more immigrants would squeeze into squalid, illegal slums rather than occupying legal apartment buildings…Mumbai is short, so everyone sits in traffic and pays dearly for space…An abundance of close and connected vertical real estate would decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a 21st-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space. Yet instead of encouraging compact development, Mumbai is pushing people out.

The second article is by big-deal pastor Tim Keller, who catalogs the differences between different-sized churches. He puts the parting shot in someone else’s mouth, but it’s a bomb either way:

Schaller shows that the very large church is more accessible and capable of reaching young people, single people, the unchurched, and seekers than smaller churches are. He then poses a question: If the need for very large churches is so great, why are there so few? Why don’t more churches (a) allow the senior pastor to become less accessible, (b) allow the staff to have more power than the board, (c) allow a small body of execu­tive staff to have more decision-making power than the larger staff or congregation, or (d) allow directors more power to hire competent workers and release generalists? His main answer is that the key to the very large church culture is trust. In smaller churches, suspicious people are much happier…The larger the church gets, however, the more and more the congregation has to trust the staff, and especially the senior pastor…ultimately a very large church runs on trust.

To be fair to Keller, he says earlier in the article that different-sized churches shouldn’t be judgmental toward one another, but the implication is clear: to reach the unchurched, we need to get over our big church hang-ups. Or, put another way, we need to figure out how to make big churches better.

I’m interested in whether these two articles bear some mutually-informing relationship to one another. Maybe I’m reaching, but maybe not. The deep magic is everywhere.

TFA 20: Gladwell, Steinam, and Lewis

My first breakout session had Malcolm Gladwell facilitating a discussion between civil rights advocate and US Representative John Lewis, feminist Gloria Steinam, and a director of La Raza (didn’t catch the name, seemed like a big deal).

I have fundamental disagreements with these dialogue partners, especially Gloria Steinam, but the title of the session intrigued me: “Reaching the Tipping Point: Case Studies in Momentum and Change.”

A few highlights. The first statement came from John Lewis, who had been friend of Martin Luther King Jr., when he was asked what he would have done differently in the early days of the movement:

I wish I had spent more time studying. There were some of us that viewed non-violence as a tactic. There are others of us that viewed it as a way of life. I wish I studied more to communicate to others the true lessons of the way of life.”

Second, building on a theme of his recent New Yorker article, Gladwell asked if an act of civil disobedience could last 381 days in today’s culture. This number is significant as the number of the days it took the Montgomery bus boycotts.

Another interesting moment: at one point Malcolm asked: “Given what TFA is fighting for and the way we are doing it, where are the Republicans?” One girl (in a room of 2,000) yelled out, “Right here!” Gladwell’s point stood.

My final thoughts: the church needs to do more to show what the resurrection means. We have not dramatically and consistently given our lives to minister to the needy. We have not systematically demonstrated that we care for the poor as Christ did (but do not believe that government is the best means of helping). We have not corporately used our money and time to show that we believed the Son of God when he said “It is more blessed to give than receive.” When I hear these stories of deep conviction and the great cost it took to fight for what is right from non-Christians, I ask myself, “As an adopted child of God and recipient of the bounty of heaven, why am I not giving far more?”

TFA 20: What Christians can remind public educators

If you were a baker, and the flour was brought to you full of maggots and worms, you could not be expected to produce good bread.”

This statement was made in the Colorado House of Representatives by Max Tyler (D-Lakewood), talking about a bill that would tie teacher evaluations to student academic growth. The bill’s sponsor was a TFA alumnus Michael Johnston (D-Denver). This quote provoked a rich discussion in our first plenary session at TFA’s 20th Anniversary Summit.

Christians know that education is not what ultimately prevents human flourishing. At the same time, we are readers of the Book, and if more people in America are not able to read well, our churches will slowly empty. Our cities will deteriorate.

We also recognize that humans are created in the image of a creative, rational God. This image animates every child in our country. That is why we should not be surprised when there are hundreds of schools now that prove that low-income students can achieve at the levels of their high-income peers, if they are lead by excellent teachers.

One teacher profiled in Kopp’s A Chance to Make History is Megan Brousseau, a first year biology teacher in South Bronx, the neighborhood once described by Jimmy Carter as “the worst slum in America.” To help her students prepare for the very challenging New York State Regents exam, Megan asked the principal to unlock her classroom on Saturdays to give her extra tutoring time. Most teachers don’t do this. The ones who do don’t usually expect many students to come. But instead of telling herself she had done enough, or that she couldn’t help those who didn’t want help, or that people in slums don’t value education, Megan got on the phone. On the first Saturday, 76 out of 80 students showed up to study biology. On their first try, 117 of Megan’s 120 students passed the Regents. The remaining three passed after practicing more with Megan.

Megan took a risk in approaching the principal, and calling her students’ parents, and teaching on Saturdays. In one sense she was giving. This is the more traditional leadership word. But I think “risk” better describes what the most successful leaders do. These leaders expand the scope of their effort, and in doing so, they cut themselves off from explaining their failure as the fault of others. If Megan had decided “I will help those students that want it,” she would have preserved for herself a tidy account of what went wrong in the case of a failing student (or for that matter, a class of failing students). What’s more, she would have been able to avoid a tremendous amount of work. But in order to help all her students pass (20% of whom were more than three grades behind), Megan took total responsibility.

Live Blogging TFA 20: Welcome Session

I’m writing this from the opening ceremonies of Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington D.C. More than 11,000 alumni, corps members, staff, partners, and donors have gathered to celebrate Teach For America’s role in education reform and the build momentum for the road ahead.

The event started Friday at noon with a lunch for TFA’s 1,500 current staff members. There was much to celebrate: TFA’s first year as one of Forbes’ Best 100 Companies to Work For (the only education non-profit on the list), a recent funding stream of $100MM, and growing progress seen in New Orleans, New York, and Washington D.C. public schools. Kaya Henderson (alumna from 1992) spoke to this progress as interim replacement for Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of Public Schools in Washington D.C. It was a special time to celebrate as a family.

Today, the family invited its friends: 51 teachers from the charter corps of 1990 up to 1,500 alumni from 2008, and lots of special guests: Arne Duncan, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Geoffrey Canada, John Lewis, Sally Ride, and John Legend. Some of the most important names aren’t ones you’ve probably heard of, but they include the leaders of the public districts of New York, Los Angeles, D.C., Seattle, and others.

It’s a very exciting event, but Kopp didn’t lose sight of why we’re here. In her opening remarks she reminded us:

In aggregate, we have not seen a meaningful closure of the achievement gap. Where a child is born still very accurately predicts whether she’ll ever have a shot at college…there are still whole neighborhoods that put more students in prison than college.”

Kopp said she was eager to see what ideas the breakout sessions would spark. But she did take the chance to mention one fundamental principle, the principle that supports every other initiative in Teach For America:

Every place we see transformational change for students, we find transformational leaders. And I know we won’t see more change if there aren’t people with this vision who are ready to serve.”