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Current Page: Opinion | Monday, January 18, 2016
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy and Equality in Schools

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy and Equality in Schools

Dr. Antipas Harris serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Regent University as well as Director of the university's Youth & Urban Renewal Center.

A phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Stride Toward Freedom, reverberates in my mind this MLK Day: "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable."

It serves as reminder that God's will that everyone be treated justly and with integrity is something we must continually pursue. It is crucial that we apply the struggle for justice and integrity to our education system for the sake of our children.

Over the past quarter century, the United States has made remarkable strides toward achieving equity in schools. High school graduation rates among minority students have steadily increased, and today more women are enrolled in college than men. According to the Pew Research Center, from 1996 to 2012, Latino college enrollment more than tripled. The same report shows that African American college enrollment has increased by more than 70 percent.

But even so, serious achievement gaps persist. Consider, for example, our neighbors to the north. Maryland officials recently released the results from PARCC assessments — tests aligned to Common Core Standards and administered for the first time this school year.

Statewide, 39 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency benchmarks in reading in grades three through eight. But only 23 percent of African-American students met those targets. Low-income students performed even worse; only 13 percent of economically disadvantaged students in Maryland met learning goals in reading. Among English learners, only five percent of students met or exceeded proficiency.

These dreadful truths underscore the need to work harder to ensure all students, no matter where they live or how much their family earns, receive an education that prepares them for the quality of life they deserve. We can support efforts to increase quality citizens for the future of American by holding students to high, consistent academic expectations now.

Continuing to use Maryland as an example, educators have begun that difficult work — as have most states across the country. School leaders are working hard to implement rigorous education standards that reflect the skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in college and to have successful careers.

Instead of masking over low performances, administrators have adopted tests that reflect these higher goals. The sobering results have gotten parents' attention; they are finally getting honest information about their children's performance. This is good! It helps the schools and parents to work together in helping children to better develop their skills and knowledge for a future of success.

Yet, some dissenters try to use this moment to reverse reforms Maryland schools are undertaking. And this type of nonsense is happening in other states as well.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was correct to say, "We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda." 

This is exactly the problem at hand. Those who want to reverse the progress to raise the standards argue that these new expectations are too difficult, or that some students can't be expected to meet a high bar. This feeds on old propaganda that African Americans, Latinos and low-income students can't learn. But that was proven wrong before. And it is still wrong.

So we can't go back to when students were held to low expectations; we cheered when they met those, even if it didn't mean much. Going back to that path would only bolster a broken system that evidently wasn't working.

In September 2015, Education Week explained that nationally underrepresented minorities performed poorly on the SAT and ACT exams. According to the report, "While 61.3 percent of Asian students and 52.8 percent of white students in this year's class met the college-readiness benchmarks on the SAT, just 16.1 percent of black students, 22.7 percent of Hispanic test-takers, and 32.7 percent of Native Americans did."

So to take assessments back to the way they used to be might render higher scores in high school but would reinforce high rates of remediation in college — for the struggling numbers of African Americans and Hispanics that make it that far. And for those of us who do, many graduate with the added challenge of resulting debt for added courses. Others do not succeed, run up a college loan bill and drop out with no degree to show for it.

For the sake of our children, we cannot go back!

Scripture teaches that faith without action is dead (James 2:14-17). So it is with our pursuit of equality in schools. Unless we are willing to hold all students to rigorous expectations, and to ensure they have the support they need to meet them, we will continue to fall short of the collective call to treat all of God's children with proper support.

As we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, our children's destiny beckons us to fight for justice in education. Borrowing words from King's Stride toward Freedom: "This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

Dr. Antipas Harris holds advanced degrees from Boston University, Yale University and Emory University. He serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Regent University as well as Director of the university's Youth & Urban Renewal Center. His wife is an assistant principal in the Virginia Beach public school system.

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