Education Is Social Justice

“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.

Greg MullenholzHe 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

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.


  1. We are definitely getting things confused in education. It is a basic right in America to an education. Talking “civil rights” and “diversity” only goes to tear up the fabric of education and distracts from learning. The government, teachers and students are so caught up in “diversity” and “civil rights” that they cannot teach or learn!!! I challenge good ole Arne to video tape a “normal” classroom in Chicago public, then video tape a “normal” classroom in a private school and you will immediately see what our problem is–lack of respect and direction. Public school students have unhealthy dress and social habits. They have all types of media going throughout the school day that distracts them. We are just to “politically correct” to say STOP IT!!!

  2. It seems to me with the DOE involved in our countries education process it can only lead to failure. Look at the DOE’s handling of student loans, Sallie Mae. Complete failure. Now we are letting them mess with our children’s education, WOW, we are in for a complete failure. Please let the parents handle their children’s education and tell the government to stay out.

  3. Whether or not education is, or become social justice ultimately depends upon those of us who are at “ground zero,” or providing direct instruction. As a speech therapist, I have advocated for social justice through education for my disabled students at a special education center in the Los Angeles School District. Not only have my concerns and the concerns of the parents been ignored, I have been punished for reporting physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the students by some of the staff. Social justice dependends upon reducing the psychological and spatial distancing between the lowest and highest ranking members of any educational system. When a teacher, or member of the “lower ranks” is punished for following district policy and state law, while higher ranking administrators allow her to be the constant recipient of retaliation and harrassment, social justice will not occur. When a Department of Education investigation validates that teacher’s information, but at the same time accepts surface changes as indication that true reform will be made, social justice will not occur. When that same department uses that teacher’s information without regard for confidientiality and at the same time ignores the retaliation against the teacher for providing that information, social justice will not occur. When educators providing direct service are harrassed for trying to provide social justice to all students regardless of real or perceived differences, social justice cannot and will not occur. My students continue to be abused.

  4. Who is fighting for this right? Everyone who has the power to make decisions must have their child/children in private school. They seem to be blind or choosing to turn a blind eye to the status of our education across the country. I feel this as a parent and a former teacher.

  5. I’ve read the article, because i was searching for information about how the U.S public school system works, thinking how can I stimulate my university mates, that right now are on a strike. there are on a strike, because our country’s public school system is a shame, and not only that, it goes against people’s civil rights,vsince education is a basic right, and no one should profit from it. but our goverment will not acknowledge that there is something rotten going on.
    your public schools, or at least the ones a attended while a lived in florida, are a walk on the garden of eden, everyday at any hour, if you compare them to the ones we have. they were the only time in my life when I actually went to a public school in fact, since,once i was back in my country i attended a paid high school.
    so, i’m crossing my fingers, and supporting my friends, so one day i can see those kind of public schools in my country, because if we do not fight for what is right, and we do not improve our education system, we are sadly doomed.
    so please keep up your good work, and efforts, also the great teachers and staff that work in every school, so that one day the dreams of children will come true, cause education can make any dream come true..

  6. We, in the School of Education at Nova Southeastern University, definitely support Secretary Duncan’s thought that “education is the civil rights issue of our generation. To that end, we launched a master’s degree in diversity education in 2008 and have an approved Diversity Plan that goes into effect this Fall. It’s about doing something because we care and the classroom, as well as the workplace, is the place to start.

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