Equity & Diversity Opinion

Civil Rights Hero James Meredith Issues the American Child’s Education Bill of Rights

By Anthony Cody — February 06, 2014 6 min read
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A while back I shared a review of James Meredith’s memoir, A Mission From God: A Memoir And A Challenge For America.

For those too young to remember, in 1962 Meredith became the first black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi. In 1966 he was shot while leading the March Against Fear, an effort to register African Americans to vote. He recovered from his wounds to complete the march, which became one of the biggest marches in civil rights history, and he went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University.

This year, Meredith has offered a fresh call to conscience, through his Educational Bill of Rights for America’s Children. But this icon of the civil rights movement is charting a very different path from that of the corporate-led “education reform.” Although he is now 80 years old, Meredith drives his grandchildren to public school every day in Jackson, Mississippi. His Bill of Rights shows he has a close eye 21st century education.

A release from James Meredith does not pull any punches.

Our schools are being destroyed by politics, profit, greed and lies. Instead of evidence-based practices, money has become the engine of education policy, and our schools are being hijacked by politicians, non-educators and for-profit operators. Parents, teachers, citizens and community elders must arm ourselves with the best evidence and take back control of our children's public education before it is too late. We all must work together to improve our public schools, not on the basis of profit or politics, but on the basis of evidence, and on the basis of love for America's children.

Meredith’s declaration, written with William Doyle, the co-author of his acclaimed 2012 memoir A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America, identifies 12 basic education rights that every American child is entitled to, a set of proposals based on Meredith’s 50-plus year career as a social activist, and his discussions with thousands of students, parents, teachers and education experts across America.

In this era of scarce resources, Meredith points out that that billions of education dollars can be saved and redirected from unnecessary standardized testing, unproven classroom products and unproven so-called education reforms. “If we do not commit to this course as a national emergency,” says Meredith, “America is headed for disaster.”

Meredith urges Americans to join a national debate on the American Child’s Education Bill of Rights, and to add their own ideas, on his website. Here is his contribution:

The American Child’s Education Bill of Rights

Every American public school child has the right to:

1. Experienced Teachers: A school run and staffed by fully qualified professional educators and teachers; a lead classroom teacher with a minimum of a masters degree in education and three years classroom experience; a school where computer products are never used to replace teachers; and a school the leaders of society would send their own children to.

2. Equity of Resources: A nation that sends many of its most experienced and effective teachers to help its highest-poverty and highest-needs students; strives to deliver educational equity of resources to all students; and strives to reduce the harm done to children by poverty and segregation.

3. Involved Parents: A school that strongly encourages and helps parents to: be directly involved in their children’s education; support their children with healthy eating and daily physical activity; disconnect their children from TV and video games and read with them on a daily basis; and a school that regularly invites parents to take part in school activities.

4. Quality Learning: A nation where educators and officials collaborate to identify the best evidence-based practices; a nation that rigorously tests classroom products and reforms before spending billions of dollars of taxpayer funds on them, including testing them versus smaller class sizes and more experienced teachers; a nation that that does not spend billions of taxpayer dollars on excessive, unreliable and low-quality standardized tests that displace and damage authentic learning; and an education with an absolute minimum of standardized tests and a maximum of high-quality, teacher-designed evaluations of student learning and progress.

5. Effective Teachers: A school where teachers are evaluated through fair and aggressive professional peer review, not unreliable standardized test data; and a school where under-performing teachers are coached, mentored and supported, and when necessary fired, through a process of professional review and transparent, timely due process.

6. Personalized Instruction: A school with small class sizes, similar to those enjoyed by the children of political and business leaders, so all students can receive a truly differentiated and personalized instruction, with regular, close feedback from their teachers.

7. Full Curriculum and Services: A school system that provides universal pre-K; a strong early education based on research fundamentals, correct developmental milestones and educational play; a rich curriculum including the arts, civics, literature, history, science, field trips, and music; fully funded, effective and inclusive special education that strives to intervene early and prevent problems; and if necessary, wraparound social services and a free, healthy breakfast and lunch.

8. Transparency: A school where records of every dollar of taxpayer money spent are available for public inspection; where personally identifiable student information is not shared with outside parties without express parental consent; where parents and teachers are involved in school management and policy; and where core public school functions are not sold off to for-profit operators.

9. Respect for Children and Teachers: A nation that respects teachers as well as it respects other elite professions; and considers every child’s physical, mental and emotional health, happiness and well-being as critical factors for school behavior, academic achievement and national progress.

10. Safety, Freedom and Challenge: A school and a classroom that are safe, comfortable, exciting, happy and well-disciplined; with regular quiet time and play time in the early grades; regular breaks through the school day; daily physical education and recess periods; a healthy, developmentally-appropriate and evidence-based after-school workload; and an atmosphere of low chronic stress and high productive challenge, where children are free to be children as they learn, and children are free to fail in the pursuit of success.

11. Reform Through Rigor and Accountability: A nation that uses rigor, accountability and transparency when it comes to education reform; where any proposed major education reforms must be tested first, and based on hard evidence, independently verified, before being widely adopted and funded by taxpayers.

12. A 21st Century Education: A school and a nation where children and teachers are supported, cherished and challenged, and where teachers are left alone to the maximum extent possible by politicians and bureaucrats to do their jobs - - which is to prepare children for life, citizenship, and careers with true 21st century skills: not by drilling them for standardized tests or forcing a culture of stress, overwork and fear upon them, but by helping them fall in love with authentic learning for the rest of their lives, inspiring them with joy, fun, passion, diligence, critical thinking and collaboration, new discoveries and excitement, and having the highest academic expectations of them.

The rights and principles spelled out here are remarkable in their rejection of the core tenets of test-driven education reform. Instead of emphasizing a system driven by consumer choices, and standardized test outcomes, Meredith focuses us on delivering high quality education to all children, made possible by equitable resources. He also sharply identifies standardized tests as the enemy of authentic learning, and makes clear that we must inspire students through the pursuit of joyful and creative expression. He knows that collaborative peers are far more effective at boosting teacher quality than unreliable test score data. His definition of personalization emphasizes small class sizes, not computers. He turns the familiar calls for rigor and accountability on their head as well, insisting that we ought to base our judgment on evidence of success. If this philosophy were to guide us, many reforms like VAM and vouchers would never have made it out of the experimental phase.

Meredith invites the public to join him on the Facebook page he has created to discuss these issues.

What do you think? Is this Education Bill of Rights worth ratifying?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.