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Finishing the Unfinished Dream: The Road to Educational Equity

Group on middle school students working on a project.

This post was originally published on January 12, 2024 by Forbes. A shorter version of this blog was published on January 12, 2024 by Anti-Racism Daily. 

In August of 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream that Black and White children would someday be able to join hands together and live in a nation where they could be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. And yet, despite all of the schools that carry his name, the American education system has made limited progress in advancing the dream of economic and political equity Dr. King envisioned more than 60 years ago.

This May marks the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that school segregation is unconstitutional. De facto school segregation has nonetheless persisted, with the Economic Policy Institute reporting in 2020 that Black students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools as their white peers and that 60% of Black students are concentrated in high-poverty schools predominantly serving children of color. 

Many of these students are relegated to deeply underfunded “apartheid schools,” attended almost exclusively by low-income students of color. Battling the consequences of state fiscal abandonment like dilapidated school buildings, unsafe drinking water, and a revolving door of underprepared teachers, these schools have to work twice as hard to provide students with a quality educational experience—one that is rich in critical thinking, collaborative project-based learning, and opportunities for autonomously student-driven work.

This “deeper learning” historically reserved for “elite” students is now in demand across the knowledge-intensive job market and postsecondary educational spaces awaiting students upon graduation. High-poverty schools with elevated teacher attrition struggle to provide these crucial skills, leaving graduates scrambling to catch up to compete with their peers. This failure is both a national problem and a signal that our civil rights work is not yet done. 

Despite all of the schools that carry his name, the American education system has made limited progress in advancing the dream of economic and political equity Dr. King envisioned more than 60 years ago.

In The Civil Rights Road to Deeper Learning, we document the progress made in equalizing educational and life opportunities, and the work that is yet to be done. We offer a blueprint for policymakers, civic leaders, community members, and the Departments of Education and Justice to decisively pursue the next steps on the civil rights road to equity by ensuring that well-resourced, safe, community-centered and student-centered schools that provide access to rigorous and relevant learning are available as a universal right. 

Such schools exist already and can serve as models. In Ted Pollen’s 4th-grade classroom at Midtown West School in New York City, we observed a racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse group of 27 students who were deeply engaged in a mathematics inquiry focused on understanding the concepts of range, mean, median, and mode from the data sets they developed by measuring each other’s heights and those of their kindergarten buddies. They worked collaboratively to display, analyze, and discuss the statistical distributions they had constructed. Around the hardworking groups of children, student work covered the walls, including a classroom constitution that was collectively developed and signed by each student and teacher, along with a “Problem Parking Lot” with stickies listing various problems and questions the class had agreed to return to. Not visible but important were the school supports that make this productive hubbub possible: free breakfasts for all children; free transportation for children living in temporary housing; a Family Center offering workshops, cultural connections, and family support services; extended after-school time and services; biannual student–family–teacher conferences; and more.

Midtown West School and many like it across the country have designed their schools around some key features that can serve as a model for others building the schools in which all students thrive regardless of zip code, family income, or race and ethnicity. Key features they share and that we identify in our book:

Safe and Healthy Communities

Each year in the United States, 46 million children are exposed to adverse conditions associated with environmental exposures, violence, crime, abuse, homelessness, or food insecurity—experiences that can affect attention, learning, and behavior. Evidence shows that student attendance, achievement, and attainment improve when schools are designed to nurture the whole child by ensuring access to clean air and water, nutritious food, health care, and social supports, as well as strong relationships and services that remove obstacles to learning. Policies that support both environmental equity and community schools are key avenues to these goals.

A Well-Resourced System

Public schools in the United States are among the most inequitably funded of any in the industrialized world, and since the nation’s beginning, racial disparities and unequal access have gone hand in hand. A large body of evidence demonstrates that adequate and equitable financing of public schools is a wise investment in our children’s success and future, improving a wide range of outcomes for all students.

Safe and Inclusive Schools

Learning is social, emotional, and academic. Ample research points to policies and practices that foster schools that are physically and psychologically safe and secure, support conflict resolution with restorative practices, and create identity-safe and positive school climates. Students thrive when they are healthy and safe, learning in classrooms designed to motivate and engage them while supporting their self-confidence to persevere and succeed.

High-Quality Teaching

Teachers are critical for student success, but many schools struggle to fill their classrooms with well-prepared teachers. Such shortages are highest in schools serving more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Highly qualified teachers learn an extensive repertoire of academic content, skills, and practices based on the science of learning and development that foster the kind of deep learning students need to participate in our complex global economy. Policies that prepare teachers well and support them with adequate compensation and productive learning and working conditions make a difference for student equity and achievement.

High-Quality Curriculum

To successfully navigate the global and technologically mediated world in which we now live, young people need to be prepared to engage intellectually in addition to developing interpersonal and technical skills. This requires learning that focuses on inquiry-based methods that foster deeper learning. Such curriculum has, unfortunately, been rationed to relatively few students and made especially inaccessible to students of color, who are often segregated in schools and tracks that offer a lower-level curriculum with limited access to Gifted and Talented programs and advanced courses in which deeper learning practices are more likely to be found. Policies that create access to a “thinking curriculum” that supports 21st-century skills are critically important for equity.

Instituting policies that enable all students to thrive regardless of their race, identity, or socioeconomic background will benefit all Americans.

As Dr. King made clear, advocacy for civil rights isn’t a zero-sum game. When schools focus on social and emotional learning rather than punitive disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect students of color, for instance, all students benefit. When states invest in equitable and adequate school resources, achievement gaps are reduced and graduation rates soar for all students, ultimately improving state and national economies benefiting all citizens. Instituting policies that enable all students to thrive regardless of their race, identity, or socioeconomic background will benefit all Americans. This MLK Day, let’s redouble our efforts to ensure that our schools provide all children with the equitable, empowering education they deserve.