Throughout my journey to improve education options and close a belief gap that stymies opportunities for far too many children of color, I have been honored to meet an impressive array of African-American and other diverse leaders who are willing to call out injustice—even when it makes them a target.
These parents, educators and scholars bring passion and a crucial perspective to an educational debate that has become increasingly polarized. I’m humbled by their work and honored to be working alongside them. We need to hear their voices more often.
In that spirit, and in honor of Black History Month, I offer a reminder of their best blog posts in recent months:
A former teacher and CEO of a national parent empowerment organization, native Floridian Shree Chauhan opines on why educational organizations did not live up to their ideals in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other racially charged police killings:
Educational inequity is but one form of racial injustice in this nation. If an organization can passionately advocate on a broad array of education issues, why shouldn’t it be capable of confronting the structural racism in Ferguson and the nation as a whole? And if organizations cannot lead conversations that address the broader issues Ferguson protesters are courageously putting before our eyes, it may be time to call them out for being advocates of students and communities on paper, on slick websites, but not in reality.
Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s death, the hopes of the slain leader remain unfulfilled, says Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund:
Dr. King’s vision and the work of the civil rights movement were based in the belief that all Americans must have equal citizenship rights. And while the movement removed the legal barriers that deprived black Americans of our rights, we have not enjoyed equivalent prosperity or opportunity.
And educational attainment now stands as a formidable barrier separating aspiration from achievement for far too many low-income children of color.
Giving needy minority families the power to choose the right schools for their children moves racial justice forward, argues Kenneth Campbell, the former president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options:
Another obstacle, which may be the most damaging of all, is the practice of forcing children from low-income families to attend low-performing schools based simply on their zip code, while children from wealthier families are given options simply because their parents have the resources to move to communities with good schools or to pay private school tuition.
It is troubling that so many Americans not only tolerate a practice that is clearly inequitable and unjust, but also fight to keep children from less affluent families in schools they would never consider for their own children.
Children with disabilities can succeed and thrive if they have a teacher who believes in them and a school that fosters their potential. New Orleans charter school principal Rahel Wondwossen offers her school as an example:
Academic achievement for students with disabilities is steadily improving. There are many challenges, but there also is a great deal of hope. The mission of Cohen College Prep—to build a high school that prepares all students for college and life success—guides our team’s work every day. Our plan for our special education population is no exception. In the 2014-15 school year, our special education population increased for the third year in a row to nearly 19 percent—higher than the national average, which has been about 13 percent for the last decade. We take every student who comes to us, and we do whatever it takes to make sure that they have the best options in life after they leave us—ranging from college success to a transition plan after graduation.
One of the poorest states in America can ill afford to walk away from the Common Core State Standards. Mississippi’s school children already face an uphill battle in leveling the academic playing field, and need expectations to be raised, not lowered, says Mississippi native and education college dean Matthew Lynch:
Mississippi must persevere, even if it means a dip in assessment scores in the short term. Even if means a few years more of those scathing headlines about how the state is at the bottom of the barrel (again) when it comes to student achievement. Even if it means educators having to revamp their lesson plans and approach subjects in a whole new way. Even if it means angry parents and constituents who holler about their rights being tread upon in the name of a “federal agenda.”
Minnesota teacher Lee-Ann Stephens offers her ideas about how to improve No Child Left Behind, a law designed to protect children who are falling through the cracks in our nation’s schools. She wants to be held accountable for results:
Without annual test results, how would I really know if I were doing my job well? I know this doesn’t make me popular with some of my colleagues, but I bristle at the notion that we get to take credit when our students thrive. However, it’s not our responsibility when our students struggle because something else must be to blame—parents or poverty or underfunded programs.
The whole premise of No Child Left Behind was to protect our most vulnerable students, to shine a light on their academic performance so they wouldn’t fall through the cracks. I know schools and teachers experienced this law as stifling and stigmatizing, and in many ways it was, but how do we walk away from a law whose promise has scarcely been met?
Stereotypes of education reformers abound. Latasha Gandy, a mom and education activist, aims to shatter those stereotypesand keep her eye on the bigger goals:
Doing this work full time has its hazards. Reform opponents are well-connected and well-organized. Lawmakers and community-based organizers tell me they are afraid to work with me because of the organization I represent. I get hostile messages online, I’ve had people attend my events with the intent to sabotage them, and it seems every day my integrity is questioned by local bloggers.
Still, it’s more than a job that keeps me fighting. I want all little girls like mine to have every opportunity to succeed. I want more parents like me to be on the front lines demanding justice in education. I want people who have overcome real inequities to have more voice in education policymaking.