I’m just going to go ahead and say it. Education is a civil rights issue, and it’s one that we can’t be moderate about. Sorry, not sorry.
I’m referring here to a group of people that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. liked to talk about: the “moderates.”
This isn’t the “I Have a Dream” Dr. King that we hear every January, though. I’m talking about the controversial Dr. King we don’t always read about in school, who called out people for being complacent with the inequalities that exist around us.
Here’s what he says about those sorts of people:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate[…] who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’ […] Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Dr. King is talking about his frustration with White folks who claimed to support integration, but wouldn’t join his movement because it seemed too controversial or too inconvenient.
These “moderates” liked the idea of equality. It felt good to support. They were supposed to support it. But they weren’t willing to actually do anything meaningful about it.
I hate to say it, but the moderates that Dr. King described still exist today. There are lots of people who will acknowledge that inequalities still exist all around us, but they’re opposed to any sort of “direct action” that might actually put a stop to those same injustices.
It happens in all sorts of areas, like housing, healthcare and even education. As teachers, we are obligated to call out any inequities that may stand in the way of our students’ potential. Education is a civil rights issue, and we must be willing to challenge the status quo for our underserved students to get the opportunities they need.
IMPERFECT SOLUTIONS, NOT PERFECT IMAGINATIONS
There are a lot of critics out there who specialize in finding flaws in any sort of effort to improve our schools, like holding high standards for students and building systems of accountability that ensure our kids are learning.
Their arguments boil down to this: Sure, our schools aren’t perfect, but all these changes aren’t going to fix them. Wouldn’t we be better off just leaving things alone?
Those same critics often rely on completely context-free, anecdotal examples to support those claims. And in some cases, some are just waging a flat-out misinformation campaign to halt any sort of effort to improve public schools for those who have been most underserved.
All that negativity points back to the idea that we can keep doing what we’ve been doing and somehow our schools will get better on their own, and that’s literally insane. Education reform may miss the mark at times, but we can’t let imperfect efforts get in the way of meaningful outcomes.
WE CAN’T KEEP WAITING
Let’s be clear: I don’t think that we should simply go along with every new idea or policy just because it’s supposed to be “good” for students—supporting school reform efforts doesn’t mean we have to suddenly stop thinking critically.
However, it does mean that we can’t keep waiting for the perfect opportunity to start analyzing the areas where we have room to improve. The obstacles are never going to just disappear—politics will always be messy and money will always be hard to come by. The battle to make schools better is always going to be an uphill climb, and I say that’s all the more reason to get to work.
There are so many issues that our kids face today, from a lack of access to good schools, to unsafe learning environments, to rapid teacher turnover, and plenty of other problems. We can’t fall into the trap of viewing education reform as just another political debate. It’s a civil rights issue, and it’s not one that we can afford to sit out.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning ELA educator, author, and advocate from rural Western Kentucky. He is a former Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow and member of the Kentucky Education Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Council (TAC).