Humbly acknowledging the borrowed words of a great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I have quoted small portions of his iconic speech to challenge our idea of educational freedom and authentic learning. I do this now rather than the observed January holiday or designated Black History month not to diminish their importance, but to elevate the notion that great people and great ideas are worthy of acknowledgment at any time, all of the time, and at particularly difficult times.
When I recently revisited Dr. King’s 1963 speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, I was moved to tears reading the humble but powerful cry for freedom and equality. I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. King deliver this speech on August 28th via our television. My mother and I sat intently clutching onto every word that deeply seared our hearts. It was a pivotal time in my life that I will never forget. It happened just a few years before our family would be put to the test of his words. I am forever thankful that I took the test and passed it.
Our family became racially integrated through marriages and children of my siblings. I gained beautiful new family members, along with a new understanding and acknowledgment of my particular privilege. It took little time to discover that these family members were treated differently on many occasion. Often, they were given less than respectful interaction. At times, they experienced blatant disregard. I observed first hand the ugly scourge of racism. I began to understand the words of Dr. King, that I heard as a 10 year old when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Later in life, I found myself working as a teacher and then administrator in a predominately African American community. I saw once again challenges and struggles as parents sought to level the playing field for their children by way of a good education. Ten years before my arrival to a new state, in the mid eighties, this school district had gone through a tumultuous desegregation mandate that resulted in a “white flight” escape to the suburbs. There is much more to that dark story, but for sake of time and space I’ll just focus on the schools and children that were left behind.
Dr. King told us the following.”Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Dr. King’s words were slow to take root. In fact, twenty five years after his words rang out over the multitudes in Washington D.C, racism was still full-blown within many of our institutions. Schools were one such institution that clung desperately to their separate but equal philosophy. While desegregation finally began to more forward, it was hardly in the manner Dr. King had envisioned or described. Although some attempts were made to level the playing field in schools, the results of racism still closed doors of opportunity, especially below the Mason Dixon Line.
The school in which I worked was a “magnet” school hoping to “attract” the predominately white students who left at the time of desegregation in that county. It was a Montessori magnet and did indeed pull in a few children from outside the area. However, there was no real integration in the truest sense. Desegregation barely met the letter of the law. In the Montessori classrooms, filled with mostly wealthier white children, one would find thousands of dollars in equipment and supplies, lots of parent involvement, frequent field trips and multitudes of hands on experiments and activities. It also embraced the philosophy of following the child and creating the best conditions for their learning.
These students ate together at lunch and played together at recess. They often had special family events as well. While the principal tried to integrate school-wide events and activities as often as possible, it was painstakingly obvious that we housed two separate, but not so equal schools, within the larger school building. Most of the teachers who chose to work together were there because they genuinely cared and wanted to provide the best education possible. However, the non magnet students had less supplies, old books, worn desks, and a fewer field trips. They ate lunch together, played at recess together and shared an occasional game of ball with the magnet students. This magnet school was an awkward attempt at integration and everyone knew it.
Watching this all play out with daily regularity, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King’s speech again and in particular his analogy of cashing a check.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Now over fifty years since Dr. King’s poignant plea, not all, but many of our beautiful children of color are still looking at that bad check. They are often trapped in inferior and substandard public schools within their cities. With millions of federal dollars pouring into our most needy schools, we know our children are still shortchanged. White flight still exists and so does deep rooted racism.
Those who seek to right these inherent wrongs are often led by their ideology and elitist altruism. Government must right the wrong – translated to mean more funding directed to the “failing” public schools. The premise here is that any money diverted from public school will make them fail even more than they already have.
Others believe that funding students/families directly to attend the school of choice will right the wrong of inequity. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions will take care of ingrained racism. Wealthier white families will still take flight when children of color show up at their school of choice.
Children of color will also remain trapped in poor performing public schools regardless of how much funding they receive. One of the main reasons for this lies in how that funding is spent. Typically schools seek out proven track records of success peddled by predatory publishers of books and programs promising increased test scores. So they buy more books, shining and new electronic devices, and maybe some teacher training to go with them. Some initial success may be noted in these cases, but long term educational benefits are not apparent in the relevant research. Most notably, the last administration’s efforts with the federal school improvement grants showed in a report that we are still failing our children even when we provide more targeted funding.
When children are able to enroll in their school of choice they feel a bit more empowered, but this choice must be a good one. Schools in general, whether public or private, charter or magnet, typically don’t do a very good job of facilitating real and lasting learning. It’s a factory that groups children in age batches. It produces compliant consumers who often find themselves bored, bothered or bewildered. Students pick up a few basics, regurgitate facts on tests, and then move on to the next grade level. Sadly, they don’t often retain much of what they’ve crammed into their short term memory. As school years pass, many students can no longer think for themselves, problem solve for themselves, or create and invent. This is not surprising since most of their school existence is scripted, contrived and controlled. To many this is incredibly baffling and very concerning.
For some, school works as designed. For others it is a bad check that can’t be cashed now or later in life.
Simply put, school has to be re-imagined to honor and value the unique ways in which every learner learns. It can’t be prepackaged education delivered in a one size fits all box tied with a bountiful bow of good intentions. As a nation we must confront the reality that exists and stop patting ourselves on the back for dropping the ball. We must stop insisting that we are doing the best we can and start doing what is right. We must acknowledge the statistics that tell us our schools are not working for so many children. We must find the will and the way to create conditions for learning that actually result in real learning, the kind of that lasts a lifetime, not just for a test.
Much like Dr. King’s earnest desire for his own children, we must go from dreaming to acting now. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Keeping children of color in substandard schooling conditions sentences them to a life of inequity and oppression. Keeping any child oppressed in this manner is a travesty and counter productive to our core beliefs of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
At various times in our lives, we will encounter tests that judge our character. These tests may come in our individual families, our schools, our work place, or our government. These tests are not simple multiple choice or true and false. They are performance-based requiring us to clearly demonstrate our understanding of Dr. King’s call to action in his 1963, I Have A Dream speech. They call on us to clarify and validate the principles of equity and freedom for all.
With regard to schooling, children need the freedom to learn without sanctions, punishments, threats or coercion. We need to usher in a new school paradigm based on the principles of liberty. This a doable and urgent. In the quote below, I respectfully borrowed some of Dr. King’s words to formulate the deeply held commitment that many brave educational freedom advocates believe.
“And when this happens, and when we allow educational freedom to ring, when we let it permeate every school district and every school in every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of the children, black and white, rich and poor, different faiths and ethnicity, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual:”
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
We are witnessing this freedom already in alternative schools, democratic schools, good charter schools, and even home-schools. The freedom to learn is a fundamental human right. Many schools in their present form, and often unknowingly, rob children and young people of this basic right by taking away choice and substituting it with compulsory compliance and a canned curriculum.
When will life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness find its way into the schoolhouses of America? How much longer do we have to wait?