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Now Is the Time: MLK and Equality of Education

Stephen Eldridge, TeachHUB

Now Is the Time: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Equality of Education

“The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies. We squander funds on highways, on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armament, but we pauperize education.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 14th, 1964


Martin Luther King, Jr was an advocate for universal education and opportunity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a time for those of us who spend our lives educating America’s children to take a step back and think about how well we’re living up to the ideals that Dr. King championed. As he knew, one of the major roadblocks to equality in this country is equal access to education and its benefits. Unfortunately, despite decades of effort, we still have a long way to go in eliminating the disparities that exist between students of different races.

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The Achievement Gap

In the 1970s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began tracking the academic achievement of American students at various ages. This data includes comparative scores between black and white students. Since the first tests were administered, there has been an “achievement gap”. The average white student scores noticeably higher on both Math and Reading tests than the average black student. The good news is that this gap narrowed considerably over the 1970s and 1980s—the combined Math and Reading gap averaged about 85 points in 1971, but only 53 points in 1990. The bad news is that this progress has stalled over the last twenty years. Between 1990 and 2008 (the most recent year for long-term trend data), the same gap was nearly unchanged, from about 53 points to about 52. This gap is a clear indication that many black students aren’t getting as much from their education as they should.

Causes of the Gap

The achievement gap probably has as many causes as there are students. A lot of the proposed explanations are controversial. Blame has been cast on black culture, with some social scientists (and more than a few TV talking heads) suggesting that academic achievement is sometimes dismissed as “acting white”. Others have attacked standardized tests for showing cultural bias that discourages minority students from success. But you might rightly find these explanations lacking when there are more obvious socioeconomic challenges facing black students.

The economic disadvantages black Americans face have not gone away. Black men still earn only 74.5% of what white men earn, on average, and black women earn only 69.6% of what white women do. These disparities, aside from being unfair in of themselves, are also unfair to children whose families are impoverished through no fault of theirs. Differences in income are linked to differences in parental education and involvement, childhood nutrition, and early -childhood education that affect students for the rest of their lives. This is sometimes called the “school-readiness gap”.

What’s often less appreciated is the continued impact of segregation on minority students. Because in 1954 the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling ended formal segregation in America, many people don’t realize that since the 1990s subsequent cases have eased requirements to integrate schools. As a result, schools are less diverse now than they were 20 years ago. This process of “resegregation” means the socioeconomic problems faced by minority students are amplified when they’re placed in schools that are full of similarly disadvantaged students.

Narrowing the Gap

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. How can we possibly change institutions, cultures, and the individual behaviors of millions of people? But let’s not forget that progress has been made—we found ways to make our society more fair in the past, and if we want to badly enough, we’ll find ways to move us closer to equality today.

Maybe the most important thing to remember is that as an individual teacher you do make a difference. Research and common sense agree that a teacher’s impact on a student’s education is substantial. In tough times and struggling schools it can seem like nothing really helps, but the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is always important.

Of course, much of the achievement gap takes hold before a student even walks through the classroom door. Institutional reform efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone (subject of the controversial documentary Waiting for Superman) have had both successes and failures. HCZ involves special charter schools, as well as engaging parents in parenting classes and enrolling young children in early education and health programs. What’s promising about HCZ is the evidence that steps to close the achievement gap are possible. Where HCZ has failed, though, is in community-building within schools. Teacher turnover has been as high as 48% in a single year. This is far from creating a sustainable school culture.

What We Need to Do

We need to support programs and people that will apply these lessons:

  • Healthy toddlers become better students. Children’s health programs are vital to achievement.
  • Engaged parents raise successful children. Programs to educate struggling parents yield results.
  • Learning is a skill that needs to be developed early. We can and should provide early childhood education.
  • Teachers are fundamental to good schools. Schools are cornerstones of their communities, so teachers need to be treated like members of the community and play an integral part in any reform.

If we can accomplish this—if we can give the same advantages to all our students that privileged students take for granted—we can begin to cut loose the socioeconomic anchor that still drags down the performance of many black students. That will help us not only to close the achievement gap, but to close the gap that still exists between where we are as a nation and where Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed we could be fifty years ago.

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