Federal Opinion

Civil Rights and Democracy are Inseparable

By Deborah Meier — May 28, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I got a few blasts for the comments you liked on Klein/Sharpton/Gingrich’s (EEP) civil rights efforts. It hit a nerve. Our obsession with schools is both a healthy and an unhealthy aspect of the American psyche. This is, at least, the second time we’ve placed schools at the center of the civil rights movement. Dr. King moved on to other issues—above all to poverty—before he died. But poverty was less appealing to the conscience of the country, and he isn’t remembered for that work. We have a very strong heritage of seeing poverty as a personal failure. Maybe more than in Europe and many other places in the world. We still see our grand old country as open to any striving person who wants to get ahead. The losers need only work harder, do their homework, follow the rules, etc., and they, too, will…..

The school integration drive of the ‘50s and ‘60s failed. Except for the legal victory, which was very critical. It left a heroic legacy of stories and heroes. NYC schools were barely touched by it. Chicago and Philadelphia—each of which I taught in—were very slightly affected. And for a fairly short time. Boston was mightily affected—except that in the end, segregation remains in place. This is not simply due to racism as it affected schools—but also to hostility toward mixed residential communities in which not only black and white live side by side, but rich, poor, and middle-class do. More another time.

Can schools play a part? Yes, yes. Creating diverse school demographics is useful, if we also decide to organize the school so that kids are not then separated by tracking. It’s also more powerful when we put kids together in small peer groups (under 20 for sure) for several years so that they can build a strong inclusive community. We found multi-age grouping a useful way to do this—with half the class moving on and a new half joining each year. “Looping” is another approach used in some schools—where the teacher moves up with his/her class. In such a setting it’s also critical for teachers to see the full range of skills and talents of her students and for kids to feel that their past experience and family history will be assets to the community. Kids who are urged to leave their intelligence at the doorstep of the school and just try to “be good” are in for trouble. I know it is hard to explain, but I never ever (as a kindergarten and preK teacher) noticed that the low-SES kids in my classes were “without language,” “without concepts,” or without wonderful stories and talents. And I was virtually always able to build close relationships with their families. From Day One, parents were invited in, and because I taught only half-day, I did lots of visiting, taking small group trips, and in other ways bridging the class divide the other half-day. Even in Head Start, where there were only poor children, I was lucky to have only 12 kids and a great para (in Philadelphia the very first year of Head Start). With the help of the children’s families we uncovered hidden treasures in Germantown where we were located. (In a local church.)

There are wondrous other ways to create communities that bridge the gaps in our society without focusing on the stereotypes that too many middle-class people hold about “the poor,” the “underclass,” etc., bad ideas promoted by well-intentioned Ruby Paynes. If our ancestors were poor, they were the worthy poor—not like “them.” Or we have mythical memories of the olden days when even the poor were heroic.

But poverty does hurt. If it didn’t, we’d all happily be poor. And the root of poverty is the absence of income. Money. And all that money can buy. Good health, nice homes, leisure to pursue hobbies, and security are great things to have. And respect. A civil rights movement that ignores our growing income gap—that tolerates the fact that what some people make in a day others make in a year—just doesn’t deserve that name.

Civil rights and democracy are, for you and me, Diane, inseparable. There cannot be democracy when there is gross and permanent inequality between people occupying the same space and the same nation.

Oddly enough, the last few presidents represent the mixed-up nature of where we’re at re. winners, losers, rich, and poor. The last Bush managed to be both the heir of a long line of wealthy New England elites and the personification of the low-brow, middle-American male. President Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, represents the social mobility of America as we like to imagine it. From the log cabin to the White House. Exemplars of what education, high IQs, and charisma can do—our wide open land of opportunity. Obama manages to hit a homer, adding race and basketball to his image (despite poor bowling skill!).

Sometimes we can use these exceptions skillfully to create a climate of openness; sometimes, alas, we use it only to heap more scorn on the losers. See? HE did it!

Jay Mathews has asked a good question in a recent blog piece. If NCLB—test-driven and sanction-driven—reform hasn’t changed the odds for the losers, what else might? The alternative is not going back to where we were. He and I—and you, Diane—agree. Naturally, I’m hoping we pick up the conversation where we left off in the early ‘90s. More on that next week.

This week, I’m off to D.C.—again. This time to defend childhood! I’m going to argue at an event today against the earlier and earlier intrusion of phony “academics,” standardized testing, and drill-and-sit-still in the lives of very young children. Sponsored by The Forum for Education and Democracy and the Alliance for Childhood, we will present data about what’s happened to kindergartens. Based on a study of LA and NYC—5-year-olds, if they’re lucky, have 30 minutes a day of self-initiated activity, something faintly resembling play. Some have it just once a week. The poorer the children, the less self-initiated activity allowed—after all, “they have to catch up.” The metaphors we use tell us a lot—including the unfortunate latest out of Washington: The Race to the Top. Ugh.


P.S. Speaking of using racing as a metaphor for schooling: If everyone becomes proficient, we’ll invent a new set of indicators to separate the very proficient, moderately proficient, etc. The new rank order will look a lot like the old ones—guess who’ll be on top and on bottom? On and on and on.

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