The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

James Meredith: This is what Martin Luther King Jr. would tell school ‘reformers’

James Meredith, center, an Air Force veteran suing Mississippi for admission to the all-white University of Mississippi, leaves federal court in Jackson, Miss., on Jan. 16, 1962, for noon break with attorneys Derrick Bell, left, and Constance Baker Motley, both of New York. (AP Photo)

In his recent address to Congress, President Trump called education “the civil rights issue of our time,” a phrase that angered civil rights advocates who believe his administration has already started rolling back civil rights protections for minority populations.

One of his critics is civil rights icon James Meredith, a U.S. Air Force veteran who was the first black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi, and who earned a law degree at Columbia University. In 1966, he planned a solo “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., to call call attention to racism in the South and encourage voter registration, but he was shot and wounded by a white gunman early on the voyage. Other activists completed the walk, and he was able to join them before they entered Jackson. Meredith was awarded the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the school’s highest honor, and 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.”

In 2014, Meredith launched the “American Child’s Education Bill of Rights,” a 12-point declaration of education obligations that he said the United States owes every child. (You can read that declaration here.) He said the country was spending too much money on standardized testing and “so-called education reforms.”

Here is a new piece by Meredith, now 83, about Trump’s reference to education as the “civil rights issue of our time,” co-written with William Doyle, a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar, a 2017 Rockefeller Foundation Resident Fellow, and the author of several books. Doyle and Meredith are the co-authors of “A Mission from God: a Memoir and Challenge for America.”

Civil rights icon James Meredith: ‘We are in a dark age of American public education’

In an address before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, President Trump urged lawmakers to pass a bill funding “school choice for disadvantaged youth.” (Video: The Washington Post)

By James Meredith with William Doyle

President Trump calls education the “civil rights issue of our time.”

But he is pursuing education policies that will increase segregation and inequality, dismantle public education in America, and imperil the future of our democracy.

I am familiar with the subjects of education and civil rights. In 1961 and 1962, I triggered a constitutional crisis over my campaign to become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, an event that helped open the doors of higher education for all Americans. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., placed me first on his own list of heroes in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In 1966, while obtaining my law degree at Columbia University, I led a one-man March Against Fear to encourage voter registration and was shot down on a Mississippi roadside. Dr. King came to my hospital bed, and together we finished what became the last big march of the civil rights era in the South, an event that helped open the doors of voter registration for all Americans.

In 2013, the Harvard University Graduate School of Education gave me its Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, I take my grandchildren to public school every day in Jackson, Mississippi.

I am also familiar with conservative thinking and traditional Republican values. I identify myself politically as “black,” but I have campaigned for office as a Republican. Over the years, in my efforts to achieve full citizenship for all Americans, I have even at times worked with people like ultra-conservative, former arch-segregationist Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and former Klansman David Duke, both of whom I believed had renounced white supremacy at the time. I believe everybody is capable of redemption.

Today, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are attempting to improve our schools with “school choice,” vouchers, charter schools, cyber-charters, privatization, putting uncertified “temp teachers” with six weeks training into our highest-needs schools, and shackling public schools to the mass standardized machine-testing of children.

This represents a doubling-down on a quarter-century of failed bipartisan efforts at education reform, few of which have a track record of success, even when measured by the dubious metric of standardized test scores. The achievement claims of Potemkin-style “miracle schools” rarely stand up to serious scrutiny. Education is an exquisitely difficult and complex system, and there are few magic bullets, quick-fixes or shortcuts.

As one of the founding fathers of education reform, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently said: “If you look over the past 25 years at all the reforming we’ve been doing and all the spending we’ve been doing and still see flat and slow slog as the main outcome, it’s pretty discouraging.”

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The problem in American public education today is not our teachers. Working with resources and schedules often stretched to the bone, they perform miracles every day for our children, only to be shamed and punished for factors beyond their control. The main problem is not the teachers unions, though like any institution they can be reformed and improved. It is not our children or our parents, though families can and must do a much better job of instilling discipline, respect, compassion and healthy life habits in our children.

The main problems in American public education are poverty, decades of neglect and segregation of our high-poverty schools, and a system that is today driven not by parents and teachers but by politicians, bureaucrats, ideologues and profiteers with little if any knowledge of how children learn.

The education system has been hijacked by money, much of which is being squandered. We are wasting tens of billions of dollars annually on failed experiments, bloated bureaucracies, unproven and unnecessary technology products, and ineffective teacher professional development. A dystopian culture of constant, pointless, mass standardized machine-testing of children is crippling the schools and students it is supposed to help. The continuation of these trends threatens to hollow out and destroy our urban schools, and pull the rest of the system down with them.

Outside of my own father and my beloved friend Medgar Evers, the greatest man I ever knew was Martin Luther King, Jr. Behind closed doors, he and I sometimes argued over tactics and strategy in the fight for full citizenship for all Americans. But there’s one thing I think he and I would agree on today: we would tell those who work to destroy our public schools, no matter how well-intentioned they might think themselves to be, to stop invoking “civil rights.” It is a grave insult to the great American martyrs who died in service to that cause.

Instead, President Trump, Secretary DeVos and all Americans should work to give all parents, especially those in poor areas, authentic school choice — the choice between safe, high-quality, well-resourced and locally governed neighborhood public schools. Make this choice the minimum “default” standard. This is what poor families want, the same as other families.

Train American teachers the way high-performing systems like Singapore and Finland do — with highly selective, intensive, graduate clinical training in both research and classroom practice supervised by master teachers. Put teachers in charge of teaching and testing, and give them professional respect and autonomy. Fund schools equitably and transparently.

Give all American children a classroom atmosphere of academic focus, warmth, empathy, social and emotional support, playful discovery, and individualized teacher attention. Give them the educational advantages that are confirmed by evidence and enjoyed by students in elite zip codes, including high-quality pre-K, breaks and recess, early special education intervention and correct class sizes.

Give children the freedom to be children, and the freedom to make mistakes as they learn. The freedom to fail is just as important as the freedom to succeed. Don’t measure children against each other, judge their individual potential and progress.

In short, treat every child as a full and equal American citizen.

When that day comes, America will come closer to fulfilling the promise of our founding fathers and mothers, and to becoming the nation our civil rights martyrs dreamed of creating.

Some say standardized testing is a civil right. What about less testing as a civil right?