African Americans have always seen education as a key to life and freedom. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass taught us that to educate a man is to “forever unfit him to be a slave,” but to deny a person education is to “[shut him or her] up in mental darkness.” Douglass said that when his former master ordered his wife to stop teaching Douglass to read, he felt he was being treated “as though I were a brute.”
Today, if you can’t read, you’re sentenced to social and economic death in our globalizing world. Even children understand this. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® program provides summer and after-school enrichment that helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning. At one CDF Freedom Schools site, a 21-year-old servant-leader intern recently described the connection between not being able to read and becoming trapped in our nation’s dangerous pipeline to prison: “If you can’t read by third grade, you don’t want anyone to know you can’t read, so you act out. When you act out, you get grouped with the other kids who act out. They can’t read [either]. Because no one can read and no one discusses that they can’t read, they end up becoming part of gangs and everyone there is there for the same reason . . . But there is always someone in the gang who can read, and those who can’t end up becoming their tools.”
I remember growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in the South—an inquisitive young girl barred from the public library, the public pool, and other public facilities because of my race. Our segregated and unequally funded school and school library had hand-me-down, out-of-date books from White schools. The external world put a lot of obstacles in my way and told me I wasn’t as valuable as White children, but I didn’t believe it because my parents and teachers said it wasn’t so. My parents valued education and made sure we always had books in our home, even when we did not have a second pair of shoes. At school, our teachers did not allow us to fail. We had great teachers who knew that their job was to prepare us for the future. And there was a strong belief in our community that education was a way out that could give us the means to change the world.
But millions of children who need the same hope and way out today aren’t receiving them. Legal segregation is over but inequality is alive and well. Fourteen million children in rich America live in poverty. More than 20 percent of children under age five are poor, including more than 40 percent of Black children and more than 33 percent of Hispanic children. Just as was true 50 and 150 years ago, the best hope these children have of lifting themselves out of poverty is a quality education with a good job at the end of the line. As President Obama has said, education is the strongest weapon against social inequality and the best path to opportunity in America. Without a good education, millions of children will remain poor throughout their lives and many will become trapped in the cradle-to-prison pipeline that leads to dropping out of school, arrest, and incarceration.
Pervasive inequities in educational funding, resources, and opportunities have placed poor and minority children in low-performing schools with inadequate facilities and ineffective teachers. Practices such as tracking, social promotion, and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions resulting from ‘one-size-fits-all’ zero tolerance discipline policies contribute to the discouragement and disengagement many poor children and children of color feel. Instead of being the ‘great equalizer,’ American education continues to perpetuate inequality, with the result that poor children stay poor, poorly educated, and unskilled. Rather than providing a way out of poverty and discrimination, American schools too often mimic the economic and racial disparities that poison the rest of American society, with devastating results for children and at great cost to our nation.
Sociologist Ray Rist put it powerfully forty years ago: “if one desires this society to retain its present social class configuration and the disproportional access to wealth, power, social and economic mobility, medical care, and the choice of life styles, one should not disturb the methods of education [operating in America].” (emphasis added)
Is that what we really desire for our nation’s and children’s future? Or are we prepared to stand up, speak out, and raise a ruckus until our schools live up to the promise of educating every child? It’s time for every adult to step forward and assume their responsibility of preparing children for the future. The purpose of schools is to educate children. With a majority of children of all races and income groups—and over 80 percent of Black and Hispanic children—behind grade level in reading and math in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade, we are failing.
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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.