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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, August 12

Gapers Block

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Anyone familiar with the hard-boiled detective novels of Dasheill Hammett would be familiar with this scenario. A private detective, better known as the Continental Op, is on the trail of a murderer. The police haven't made any arrests. Perhaps the prime suspect is an untouchable member of the underworld and the flatfoots knew better than to seek him out. It is the duty of the Op, as promised to the dame who smoked her cigarette oh-so-seductively in his office, to find the killer.

On his path, our Op discovers a few possible culprits. Initially, he has a gut feeling that it's the longshoreman with whom the dame had a brief fling. The jealous one. The one with the mean temper who always seems to be holding a sharp hook. Upon further investigation, and after being roughed up quite a bit by said longshoreman, the Continental Op discovers that the longshoreman had a rock-solid alibi. After following his trail for a few chapters, the Op realizes that by no feasible means was the longshoreman the guilty party. The longshoreman was, in literary terms, a red herring. He was a fleeting distraction on the narrative path. Following him wasted valuable investigation time.

On Wednesday, the Illinois State Senate caught a red herring when they voted 42-9 to override Governor Blagojevich's veto of what is dubbed the "Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act." This will allow Senate Bill 1463 to go into effect, requiring students to begin each day with a moment of silence when they can pray in any way their respective religion's prescribe. Perhaps the children can pray that one day they will be in a classroom with enough desks per pupil, where there are books that end a presidential timeline with the current President Bush, not the one who ended his presidency in 1993, and where they have a chance of scoring high enough on the ACT to get into a college. Any college.

In a state that has the highest achievement gap between wealthy students and their poor counterparts, where more than 16,000 public schools failed to meet the annual requirement per the No Child Left Behind Act, and where 100 of its 891 school districts are on the Financial Watch List, why are we chasing the red herring of school prayer?

Perhaps the bill's sponsors are taking a page from the Ronald Reagan years. In 1983, Secretary of Education, T.H. Bell, warned the Great Communicator that the nation's educational system was failing to prepare its students for a competitive workforce. This prompted President Reagan to form his National Commission on Excellence in Education. The commission published a report entitled, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform." Researchers were hand-picked by the Reagan administration and they came to the conclusion that, "While we [the American people] can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

The report goes on to list the problems that plagued our nation's educational system such as a 13 percent functional illiteracy rate among 17-year-olds, consistent declines in test scores, and complaints from business and military leaders who spent millions of dollars on remedial education to prepare recent high school and college graduates for the jobs for which they have been hired.

The committee made suggestions for reforms such as increased fiscal support; real cooperation between the federal government, state government and localities; and benchmarks for administrative leadership. This was not going to be an easy task, but just as the title implies, the nation was indeed at risk.

President Reagan responded promptly with his platform for improving our nation's schools. He wanted to dismantle the Department of Education, ending any kind of centralization of education, and he wanted a constitutional amendment to "...permit the acknowledgment of the Supreme Being in our classrooms." He felt that permitted school prayer would be the final solution to the problem of a system in shambles.

Twenty-four years later, the nation continues to be at risk. Schools in crisis that need the most funding are actually having their budgets cut thanks to the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind. The same measures, coupled with Chicago's Renaissance 2010 plan are forcing neighborhood schools to close. This interrupts, if not entirely halts, the educational process for many students.

Students are often relocated to other neighborhoods where they often have to cross gang territories. Safety is the most basic fundamental need according to the most respected schools of pedagogical thought. Researchers believe that school change can result in a four-to-six month academic loss. These new schools will see drops in achievement and ergo; a decrease in No Child Left Behind funds. Low performance is contagious as it diffuses from one overcrowded school to another overcrowded school.

Theis did not prompt the Illinois General Assembly to expedite and pass Representative Cynthia Soto's genius House Bill 0200, The Closure of Schools Act. This act would have made the closing of schools a more transparent measure and therefore, not something that can be approached flippantly. This bill was chopped and discarded on the Senate floor, then reintroduced and tabled since last May. This bill could have saved the chance at a decent education for thousands of Chicago Public Schools students. Congress did, however, feel prompted to pass and then take on the Herculean task of overriding the Governor's veto to force a moment of silence in schools.

As Mayor Daley pointed out during Chicago Teachers Union contract negotiations, Chicago Public Schools have one of the shortest instructional days of any district in the nation. This moment of silence will take away yet more valuable time from core subject classes, the ones that will prepare students for the real world. Even theological universities expect their students to be able to read and write. Should we continue chasing the red herring while our schools continue to be at risk?

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Waleeta / October 10, 2007 10:05 AM

Ameen, oo ameen.

Lulu / October 14, 2007 6:05 AM

How about praying for competent administrators, smaller class size, adequate funding and involved parents?

JP Paulus / October 17, 2007 11:08 AM

I posted this in Eric Zorn's blog at the Chicago Tribune...

In the Seeker blog (in the Religion section of the Chicago Tribune), John from NC just gave us a REAL LIFE example -- not a fear-driven accusation. Is Connecticut the bastion of Christian Conservatism?

At least in Chicago public schools, they could actually REALLY USE a time to slow down & focus.

The moment of silence isn't any more a waste than the Pledge of Allegiance.

There's been a strong effort to teach adults what they should, and really should NOT do in this situation. Have you heard of many (if any) incidents of adults overstepping bounds at the See You At The Pole event every year. SYATP promoters make sure they follow the law, and someone from the ACLU actually commended them on that!

i think it's a legitimate challenge to students of faith....let's see if things really do change , and that students aren't just mouthing prayers, but are really speaking to God -- and that God listens!

i think that's the deeper issue!

Kenzo / October 20, 2007 11:51 AM


I appreciate your response. I like the public debate aspect of the comments section, but I do wish you would write a more cogent argument. I understand that you disagree with me, but I don’t understand clearly on what grounds. In the future, if you could give excerpts rather than just the cite blog postings you are referencing, that would really help. Our readers don’t have the time to Google “See You At the Pole” and “John from NC” to make sense out of whatever message you are attempting to convey.

It appears that your initial argument is that school prayer is not a big deal when you compare it to the Pledge of Allegiance. You then go on to mention that CPS students can “REALLY USE” time to slow down and focus. I don’t understand what this argument is based in. Please tell me, what is it? I am not being sarcastic; I just want to know in what direction to take my case. Is this moment of silence innocuous and not worthy of public debate, or is it something that would really benefit Chicago Public School students?

Most teaching workshops I’ve attended advocate beginning class with a journal entry or brief review exercises. Please show me the pedagogical theory that advocates starting the day with quiet free time as a best practice. Have any studies proven that a moment of silence allows students to “slow down and focus?” Show me the evidence (and no studies made by Brigham Young or Bob Jones University, that wouldn’t be fair).

In the end, you mention that time will tell whether or not this will work. So, you look at mandated school prayer as the independent variable in this experiment. School achievement will be your dependent variable. So if a critical mass of CPS schools makes the grade this year per No Child Left Behind, we can thank prayer, and not the innovative lessons of thousands of dedicated, innovative teachers? If you honestly believe that, I pray for you, sir.

Leila / November 3, 2007 12:01 AM

I don't see a point in that act because its only for a short period of time and apparently none of the students don't care for it. I also don't like that students might be suspended just because they talked during that moment. I'd rather have the students be suspended for doing something they believe in.


About the Author(s)

Kenzo Shibata is a full-time educator who moonlights as a graduate student of public policy at Northwestern University. He writes about education, labor, and prison policy. Most importantly, he's a North Side White Sox fan who won't stop believing. You can reach him at

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