Bending the Arc of Educational History: Overturning the Apartheid in America’s Education System and Building a Social Movement for Public Education
School & District Management Opinion

Bending the Arc of Educational History: Overturning the Apartheid in America’s Education System and Building a Social Movement for Public Education

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — April 26, 2012 3 min read
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My recent post about the “redlining” or apartheid in American education linked to research about how New York City’s public schools keep lower income kids out of the schools with the most experienced teachers. Bryant Muldrew’s recently posted about the birth of a student movement to turn this apartheid around and create a National Student Bill of Rights. Saulo Colon has written here about Occupy Education. Dr. John Jackson said of the Schott Foundation’s Education Redlining report, we need to “use the data to drive action” and he called for increased public will.

Many of us at this blog know there is a need for a national movement to transform education. We know we need to create the public and political will to turn our educational system into one that nurtures children and allows then to thrive and, as Michael Holzman posted, become “capable of contributing to their civilization and public life”.

How do we create such a movement? I have posted a lot at this blog about the current student movement in Chile and about the Occupy movement in the US. Over the next few months I want to foster a dialogue about lessons from the past. Bryant and Saulo will participate in this discussion and we would like to hear from our readers as well.

For years, many of us have been working hard to build the political and public will needed to give every child the opportunity to learn and thrive. We saw access to quality public schools increase from the 1950’s into the early ‘80s. We worked to bend the arc of educational history toward justice and succeeded. We tasted the movement fruits with public school desegregation (and Brown v. Board of Education), increased resources for schools, housing and family nutrition; and increased NAEP scores across society (National Assessment of Educational Progress). We saw the opportunity gap lessen and then the achievement gap narrow. There was an art to how these movements were built and succeeded. Then, since the 1980’s we’ve seen a decrease in movement traction. Like other economic justice issues during this period, we witnessed more gains for billionaires and their corporations than for the average working family. We’ve seen a deliberate campaign by lobbyists and media firms working on behalf of the wealthy. We’ve seen policy priorities in state government becoming more and more exclusive, greedy and harmful for the historically underserved.

Over the next few months guest blogger Saulo Colon and I will explore what are the elements that undergird the success of all social movements, what are the struggles and backlashes they must take on--and we invite you to enrich this dialogue with your thoughts.

We will present our hypotheses and encourage discussion on these questions:

  • What are the lesson learned from how the movement pulled off overturning Apartheid in South Africa, winning women’s suffrage in the U.S. (and girls the right to play Little League) and how Gay rights has become a mainstream issue?
  • What were some of the roles of students, educators, the media and philanthropists in these changes? What lessons could we apply today?
  • What are some reasons why movement progress slowed down in the 1980’s and became reversed in the last 30 years? What is social transformation (as opposed to episodic reforms)?

In studying various movements--across time and issues--we have developed a cross cutting analysis of similarities in successful movements. Ranging from the labor movement winning the eight-hour work day, getting rid of child labor and livable wages in the 1920s-40s, to the civil rights movement overturning Jim Crow in the 1950s-60s, there are many lessons that can help fuel the public education justice movement.

This blog will continue to share ideas on movement building and encourage discussion on innovative ideas on other current public education equity issues. You will continue to hear from Saulo Colon, Bryant Muldrew, Michael Holzman, me and our readers. Please let me know if you would like to guest blog by sending me an email at

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The opinions expressed in Democracy and Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.