Within education circles, like much of society, equality has become a buzzword. When exploring options for their children, parents today are likely to hear administrators and experts discuss issues like minority engagement rates, shrinking achievement gaps and classroom parity. But beyond the packaging, what does educational equality truly mean, and are we accomplishing it within our classrooms?
There is no denying that education reforms over the past several decades have helped create greater opportunity for students of every race, religion and gender. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found more women enrolling in college than men, particularly among Hispanics and Blacks. And over the past 30 years graduation rates among African American and Latino high school students have outpaced the national average, and they continue to grow.
Yet, at the same time, more and more students of color find themselves disenfranchised from the system entirely. Nearly one-third of African American students don't finish high school. One in three attends a "drop-out factory," a high school in which less than 60 percent of students graduate on time. Internationally, America ranks near the bottom in terms of minority enrollment in higher education, and only slightly more than half of Hispanic students that start college obtain a bachelor's degree in six years.
Certainly cultural differences play a role in shaping young people's aspirations, and those perspectives are changed slowly and from the inside-out. But one of the most decisive factors sustaining the racial wedge in our education systems – and one we have the power to change – is the fact that reform has focused on achieving to the lowest common denominator. Instead of expecting each child to meet high expectations in the classroom, our efforts have rested on a mentality of "just pass."
It seems that we have ceded the belief that every child has the potential to achieve great things and to flourish as human citizens of the world, and instead created a platform that aims to boost students over a very minimal bar. Schools today boast of high proficiency and college-readiness rates, yet about 40 percent of incoming freshmen require remediation upon their first year of college. That may pass as classroom equality, but it's not educational justice.
Educational justice stems from the conviction that every child has an immutable God-given value, and that given the opportunity each has the capacity to achieve at high levels. Although not obvious, settling for less than the best from each student – and allowing students to settle for anything less from themselves – does a disservice to our young people and to the communities in which they live. It reinforces social disparities by seeding the notion that some can only be expected to go so far and the notion that "Leroy or Shaniqua 'can't learn' like others."
Growing up in a small southern-Georgia town, I could have easily succumbed to such low expectations like many of my peers in our local public school. But, in third grade, my parents moved me to a private Christian school where teachers challenged me. They taught me to have faith in myself and to cultivate the qualities I need to have, even if I didn't at the time. And yet, as most American students don't have the luxury of a private education, I believe we must ensure academic standards are raised in public classrooms.
More than 90 percent of American students attend public schools, and high expectations must become the paradigm of our education system. Common Core Standards, which were developed in 2009 to address the trend towards mediocrity in our schools and the broad variations between states and districts, are structured on the principle that every student can, and will, achieve to the expectations we set for them.
The Common Core Standards focus on fewer, clearer benchmarks and set practical progressions to help students of all backgrounds to develop the skills necessary to succeed at each grade level. An independent analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggest that they are stronger than most states' former requirements in both Math and English Language Arts. And, by creating greater congruence among schools, they better ensure that where a child grows up or goes to school doesn't limit their access to a quality education.
The Bible implores us to provide our children with an edifying and full education that trains them to meet life's challenges. Building on sound theological grounding and sociological necessity, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Education must enable [one] to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of [one's] life." By making high academic standards the basis of our schools, we can answer that charge to increasingly facilitate training by doing more to help all students to succeed in life with quality education. That's educational justice, and it's a conversation we should be having.