Accountability Opinion

Why Education Is Not the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

By Diane Ravitch — May 26, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I was glad to read your comments on the faux-Education Equality Project (EEP), now headed by New York City’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton, with the assistance of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The papers used to call Klein and Sharpton the odd couple; now they will have to refer to the leaders as the odd trio.

I have wondered why veterans of the civil rights movement of the 20th Century were willing to sit by silently and see their language corrupted by present-day politicians. The civil rights movement was about dignity, justice, and equality—not just in schooling, but in every realm of life. It was about opening the doors that were shut by law and that blocked access to almost every aspect of public life. It was about securing equality of access to education, but also to jobs, health care, housing, public transit, public facilities of all kinds, and a decent life. It was about equality before the law and the right to vote.

And now, as you so rightly point out, the EEP claims that equality can be defined solely by raising test scores. The EEP’s central argument is that schools alone can produce equality and nothing needs to be done about health care, jobs, housing, or any of the other legacies of a history of racism. The fact that we have a black president, a black attorney general, and in our state, a black governor, is a strong indicator that racism is vastly diminished. But it is not gone, and our society continues to be blighted by our history.

Frankly, I am tired of the claim that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. No, it is not. The leaders of EEP say that the civil rights revolution will be completed if only the test scores of whites and blacks converge; and that if kids take test prep endlessly and conquer the demands of standardized testing, then Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy will be fulfilled.

If the EEP “reformers” were truly concerned about civil rights and not just posturing, they would have a plan to do something about de facto segregation; they would launch a program to make sure that every child had access to good health care and started school ready to learn; they would coordinate between the schools and other government agencies to make sure that families had access to job training programs and social services and the basic necessities of life.

If the EEP “reformers” truly wanted schools to close the achievement gap, they would develop a coherent curriculum to make sure that children in every community and every school had access to the knowledge and skills that are needed to prepare for life in this society. And they would make sure that class sizes were reasonable—smaller where the children need extra attention. And they would promote their belief in the importance of education by taking steps to really improve education, not just by ratcheting up the pressure on principals and teachers to produce higher test scores (by any means necessary).

I cannot take EEP seriously because it does not actually have a civil rights agenda other than raising test scores, and it does not have an educational agenda other than threatening or rewarding teachers and principals. This is a publicity campaign, not a civil rights campaign, nor even a campaign for better education.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.