In 2014, civil rights icon James Meredith launched the “American Child’s Education Bill of Rights,” a 12-point declaration of education obligations that he says the United States owes every child. (You can read that declaration here.) He said that the country was spending too much money on standardized testing and “so-called education reforms.” Now, 50 years after he was shot in Mississippi during his one-man Walk Against Fear to highlight racism in the South and encourage voter registration, he is speaking out again on the state and responsibility of public education in the United States — and the dangers of not changing course.
Meredith spent nine years in the Air Force, was the first black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi, and earned his law degree at Columbia University. In 2013, he was awarded the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the school’s highest honor. He is the recipient of the 2014 Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. placed James Meredith first on his own list of heroes in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” writing:
“Some day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.”
Here is a new piece by Meredith about public education, co-written with William Doyle, a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar and the author of several books. Doyle and Meredith are the co-authors of “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.”
By James Meredith with William Doyle
Fifty years ago, on June 6, 1966, while making a one-man Walk Against Fear, I was shot down on a Mississippi roadside.
That episode and the events it triggered inspired thousands of black Americans to register to vote, and helped free many Americans from the tyranny of segregation and fear.
Four years earlier, in 1962, I forced my way into the segregated University of Mississippi with the help of 500 federal marshals and 10,000 American combat troops, an event that helped open the doors of higher education for all Americans.
Today I have a new mission — to improve the public school education of our nation’s children. I support public education because it is a pillar of our democratic society.
We are in a dark age of American public education. We are losing millions of our children to inferior schools and catastrophically misguided and ineffective so-called education reforms that are wasting billions of dollars, destroying the teaching profession and causing widespread chaos in public education. We are, in effect, destroying the future of our republic.
Our public school children, rich and poor, do not need toxic stress, unqualified temp teachers, unreliable and universal standardized tests, system-wide disruption, eliminated arts and recess, excessive screen time, and schools forced to compete with each other instead of collaborate. There is no evidence that any of this improves learning, yet this is what we are forcing on our nation’s children.
It is time for all Americans to work together to strive to make the best possible education available to every single child in America. It is time to usher in a new Golden Age of public education for our children.
I stand with groups like the Network for Public Education against education policy governed by the mass standardized testing of children; against the privatization of public education; against mass school closures to save money or to facilitate privatization; against the demonization and de-professionalization of teachers; and against for-profit management of public schools.
I support equitable public school funding for all children based on need, democratic local control of schools, and well-resourced schools run by experienced educators.
I support giving all children, rich and poor, what they need to learn best: highly respected and highly qualified teachers; small class sizes; a rich, developmentally-correct curriculum; daily assessments by teachers — and not standardized tests by faceless screens; a strong early education that includes learning through play; regular breaks and physical activity; a classroom atmosphere of safety, encouragement, diligence, warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals; a screen-free “digital oasis” when appropriate; social support services when necessary — and a home environment rich in reading, conversation, respect, and proper nutrition and sleep from birth through adolescence.
The right to fail is just as important as the right to succeed: children must be encouraged to experiment and to learn from their intellectual mistakes and failures without punishment. They must be free to be children.
We all must work together to improve our public schools, not on the basis of profit or politics, but on the basis of love and respect for all of America’s children, especially those with extra needs.
There are countless ways you can help. You can walk into your local public school and offer to read to children. You can contact a mentoring group and volunteer to be a mentor to a child who desperately needs your attention and leadership. You can become involved in your community’s school board. You can lobby for more effective school policies. You can educate yourself by studying a cross-section of education initiatives, including promising ideas like improving parental education, stronger early childhood programs, strengthening and supporting the teaching profession, initiatives to support learning through play, and community schools, which build partnerships with local faith communities and nonprofits.
The destiny of America is in our hands. Will you join me?