“I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.”
~ Secretary Arne Duncan, October 9, 2009
I saw this quote on a slide while attending of the most recent Summer Seminar for Teachers, and I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind since.
Having spent four years as a student at Gonzaga College High School, at a Jesuit institution here in the District of Columbia, I am well-versed in the history and meaning of social justice: our collective goal to protect the dignity of human beings while maintaining core pillars of equality and solidarity. I think I understand why the Secretary would have made such a bold statement in his remarks at the University of Virginia. He grew up on the South side of Chicago, where some of his friends went on to do great things, while others went to jail or died young. In that experience, he saw that education was a dividing line between success and failure.
He understands that the education of America’s children is a civil rights issue, and that is why Duncan has called for Congress to reauthorize ESEA and make significant changes proposed in the President’s Blueprint for Reform. He calls for high-quality teachers and leaders in America’s classrooms and schools, especially those classrooms and schools populated by the most underserved groups. He wants to continue the investment to turn around or close underperforming schools. He is an advocate for rigorous academic standards for all students that lead them down a pathway toward college or a fulfilling career.
Our collective failure to provide a quality education fundamentally undermines the human dignity of our students. Not preparing them for a possible college career by assigning them to underperforming teachers or principals in failing schools restricts the path that they may wish to choose in life. Secretary Duncan has pinpointed the central issue behind the need to reauthorize ESEA: it is not an issue of partisan politics, nor an issue of top-down legislation; rather, it is an issue involving the reaffirmation of the civil rights of America’s students, a reaffirmation of their dignity as human beings.
Here in Washington, we are fast approaching the dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. In the midst of the civil rights movement, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that August day, proclaiming,
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
Our children have a dream, the same dream that Dr. King had, the American dream. Should we continue to provide our children with a broken system, we will continue to strip away any future they may dream about. We will continue to downgrade the state of America and its economy, and we will continue to withhold the basic rights owed to our children. NCLB is broken, and it’s a social justice issue in getting it fixed.
Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from his school in Rockville, Md.
Read Arne Duncan’s remarks about social justice made at Harvard University in October of 2010.