Righting the Wrongs of Inequality through Educational Opportunity

I am a white woman and my fiancé, Brent, is a black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, at the height of the crack epidemic.

Unlike me, Brent was excited about his thirtieth birthday – a day several of his childhood friends didn’t have the chance to celebrate because they were in prison or dead. Brent’s mom may have saved him from meeting a similar fate when she sent to live with his aunt to attend school in the affluent suburb of Summit.

Brent and his friends were just as smart and talented as their suburban counterparts, but their schools were underresourced—as a result of a racially unequal society— and couldn’t support student development the way that staff and families knew their children deserved. That’s why Brent’s mom made the difficult decision she did.

And, that’s why Secretary Duncan’s recent speech on Investing in Teachers Over Prisons at the National Press Club resonated with me, both personally and as a social justice advocate.

I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education to learn about education policy and champion my core educational beliefs—cultural competency training for teachers and human rights-based learning for students—toward the goal of creating a more just society in which future generations won’t experience the injustice that Brent and his peers did. I hope the Secretary’s speech proves to spur a nation defined by unequal access to resources and opportunities to feel “uncomfortable with this truth” and take action to change it.

The Secretary understands what happened to change the course of Brent’s life. He believes in the power of excellent educators to support students’ personal and academic growth. He also recognizes the pernicious effects of systemic racial inequity.

Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of their white counterparts. Traditionally underserved students of color attend and complete college at lower rates than their peers. America imprisons black people at a higher rate than in Apartheid South Africa.

These facts aren’t coincidence – they’re the result of a system defined by racism and inequality on an individual, cultural and institutional level.

In his remarks, Secretary Duncan urged America to challenge the status quo. He urged us to examine unconscious biases by taking an “unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class”. And, he urged that we do “something transformational and revolutionary” to fix our broken system: shift funding out of prisons and into our highest-need schools. By doing this—along with the other key components of the Secretary’s plan— we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve outcomes for all students.

The Secretary said that despite the progress we’ve made, “we have to do more” to provide all students with equity of opportunity. We have to do more to send more students to flourish in college and fewer to languish in prison. We cannot continue to squander the potential contribution of countless students who are left “on the sidelines,” like Brent almost was. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is.

And, the time is now to put this revolutionary thinking into action. We can’t wait any longer to do right by all of America’s children and to fulfill the promise of our nation.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

PDK/Gallup Poll Reveals Americans Know Students and Teachers Deserve the Very Best

As an educator with more than a decade of classroom experience, I’m encouraged by several of the data points in the PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools. It is especially heartening to learn that the majority of Americans want to better support the critical role teachers play in the lives of our young people and the prosperity of our nation. Teachers are among the most hardworking, dedicated, and creative professionals in any field, and this survey reveals that the public believes in taking steps—including increasing pay—to support and recognize them in a manner that reflects the vital nature of their work.

We know that teachers have the greatest impact on learning. We know that families across the United States send their very best to school every day. And, we know that every family’s very best—regardless of factors including socioeconomic status, geographic location or cultural background—has a fundamental human right to an education of the highest quality. Tragically, we also know that countless students have been denied this right throughout American history. To overcome our unjust past and establish an education system that truly achieves equity and enables every student to realize his or her potential, we need the very best teachers in all of our classrooms. That means treating teachers like the professionals they are by giving them the supports necessary to grow their practice and meet the needs of all students.

That also means attracting the highest-achieving students into the teaching profession, an idea that about half of those polled support. To best serve students—in addition to developing strong content and pedagogical knowledge—prospective educators should represent the diversity of our nation, be trained in cultural proficiency and, most importantly, possess an unwavering belief that all students can achieve.

The PDK/Gallup poll results are especially timely as we wait for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to improve educational supports and structures nationwide. It’s what teachers need and America’s very best deserve.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.