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FOR EXPERT COMMENT: Religion Can Play Important Role in African-American Education, says MU Researcher

August 26th, 2013

Story Contact: Christian Basi, 573-882-4430,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – This year, President Obama appointed David J. Johns as executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. Johns’ goal will be to improve African Americans’ academic achievements. Historically, faith-based organizations have helped to fill the role that Johns will now play, said University of Missouri researcher Noelle Witherspoon-Arnold. She noted that struggling school districts could learn from history and harness the power of church communities in education.

“In surveys we have conducted, African-American communities are more accepting than other ethnic groups of pastors and other church leaders taking a role in education,” said Witherspoon-Arnold, “For example, when a student is unruly, a teacher can speak with a pastor who may then put outside pressure to behave on the child. When whole communities become involved in a child’s upbringing, the young person can feel more emotional support, which can improve academic performance.”

Faith also plays a role in the motivations of school principals, according to interviews conducted by Witherspoon-Arnold as part of her research.

“Many principals cited faith as a major reason for their belief in social justice and advocacy for students,” said Witherspoon-Arnold.

Witherspoon-Arnold recently edited a special issue of the journal Religion and Education. The special issue focused on religion, spirituality and the schooling of African-American children. She has written chapters for books on the same topic. Her research has been published in numerous journals, including: Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education; International Journal of Leadership in Education; Journal of Equity and Excellence; Teachers College Record; and the Journal of Negro Education.

Witherspoon-Arnold holds an appointment at MU as an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis in the College of Education and also is affiliated with the Department of Black Studies in the College of Arts and Science.