This has been a tumultuous year. Between what seems like daily media coverage of police brutality, hate crimes, and economic injustices, the one bright spot has been the powerful progressive voice fighting for social change. By casting critical eyes on systems that unfairly oppress and diminish lives, progressives have managed to launch successful movements – such as Black Lives Matter, Marriage Equality/Gay Rights, and Income Inequality – that use people’s lived experiences to tell the stories that expose systemic flaws and create a common understanding for why we should and can do better.
If only that spirited progressivism could also carry over to the fight for education reform. Education, after all, is a fundamental underlying component for social justice. As Chris Stewart, a respected community organizer and education activist said, “You can’t fight for social justice while ignoring the fight for better results in education.”
You can’t fight for social justice while ignoring the fight for better results in education. #LearningIsJustice #EdForward
— Citizen Stewart (@citizenstewart) July 24, 2015
Leaders from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s seemed to intuitively understand this connection. Prominent leaders like Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X created a cultural ethos around the nation’s shared responsibility to address inequalities in education and other social ills.
Similarly, the experience of a white teacher at an all-black school in Philadelphia during Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the early years of implementing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) shows the role the education system plays in social justice. Sunny Decker’s honest and perceptive observations – captured in her autobiography An Empty Spoon (1969) — still resonate today:
1. Reading is the core problem. Students didn’t do the work in high school because they didn’t get good reading instruction in the elementary years.
“What we really have to do is change our concept of elementary school, and get rid of those cutesy, cheerleader-type girls who play cut-and-paste with the kids. If we flooded the primary grades with competent professionals, kids would learn to read.”
2. While a fifth of the staff is top-notch, teaching needs to be more professionalized.
Decker describes easy-to-anger staff that often responded physically. She’s horrified when a teacher brutally drags a student down a flight of stairs by her hair, and is warned to keep her silence by another teacher: “…if you’re smart, you won’t mention what happened after the fight. Unless you want to press charges, of course. And things could get unpleasant if you did that.”
Decker sought understanding, connection, and trust with her students, but concluded she could most positively impact their lives by helping them improve their skills. But most of the other teachers didn’t see it that way.
“Making learning fun is a great premise, as long as learning is taking place. More often than not, it isn’t. The old-guard teachers throw up on their walls their lectures and Mickey Mouse assignments … experimentalists spend so much time “reaching” the kids that little substance is ever conveyed.”
Because, it really didn’t matter.
“It’s strange that so little prestige is associated with teaching in America…Teachers are just a bunch of laborers…Other professions have bar exams and graduate schools and internships. There’s much big talk about similar requirements of teachers, but they really amount to nothing more than putting in time. There just aren’t any standards. Promotions are based on seniority, so ability goes unrecognized.”
3. Leadership and purpose matter.
Decker greatly admired the school principal, who masterfully responded to student and community needs. He welcomed leaders of The Black Power movement and discussions about racism, and encouraged students to participate in civil action involving change for their betterment.
Like other social issues, education is a fundamental right that too often is still unfair, unequal, and entirely dependent on a child’s racial and economic background. Nearly fifty years after Empty Spoon, gerrymandering of public school attendance boundaries maintains separate and unequal schools. Low income, minority and LGBT students confront the same themes Decker exposed – including being physically and psychically beaten up, and passed along without needed skills, while courageous teachers and leaders work valiantly against a system that covers up wrongdoing and doesn’t work well for those who need it the most.
Education reformers and leaders of today’s social movements already share a common vision of equality. As we approach the reauthorization of ESEA, the two forces could channel their progressivism and work together to:
1. Help communities understand why clear, honest, and complete information about student achievement, school performance and teacher quality is important both to identify AND address educational inequities.
2. Understand that some organizations are created to promote the interests of adults, not of vulnerable students. Organizations that promote opting-out of standardized testing and lessening accountability are working against social justice.
Here’s to hoping that progressives see the history and importance of connecting equality and empowerment to education – the most fundamental, basic right of them all.