In a Nation that Needs James Meredith’s Morality, We Get Standardization
Valeria Strauss’ latest Washington Post column was given over to James Meredith and his co-author William Doyle who have just published a book excoriating our country’s direction in public education. “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America” describes civil rights leader Meredith’s newest mission: to improve public education for all children. Meredith sees us headed in the wrong direction when it comes to educating our children, especially those who are economically disadvantaged… and he casts the blame on the testing regimen imposed by those favoring standardization:
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.
If Mr. Meredith wants a different story about public education he only needs to read main stream newspapers that parrot the conventional wisdom that public education is failing because it is not exposed to market forces, because it is not rigorous enough or does not hold each child to a high standard of behavior, because we don’t use enough technology, and mostly because we have overpaid teachers who don’t work hard enough because they are protected by their unions that establish needless rules and red tape that block the kind of disruptive changes that have increased productivity in other parts of the economy. And how do we know schools are failing? Not because the students are disengaged, not because the graduates are directionless, but because students are failing unreliable and universal standardized tests.
Meredith’s ideas about improving public education are different from that proposed by “reformers” who define success based on teaching to standardized tests:
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.
In her introductory paragraphs, Ms. Strauss offers a brief biography of Mr. Meredith, who is now 80 years old. He spent nine years in the Air Force, was the first black student to enter and graduate from the University of Mississippi, and later earned a law degree from Columbia. On a one man “Walk Against Fear to highlight racism in the South and encourage voter registration” he was shot but survived. His voice, alas, is drowned out by the likes of Bill Gates, Eva Moskovitz, and other billionaires who advance an agenda that suggests students lack grit and teachers lack vigor and if only both parties would apply themselves our scores on tests would improve. Their fast, cheap, and easy fix has pushed us back to a nation of re-segregated schools that make it increasingly difficult for children of color and children raised in poverty to succeed. We need to heed the call of leaders like Mr. Meredith who stand against profit and politics that are driving the agenda of public education and stands for the love and respect for all of America’s children, especially those with extra needs.