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Honoring our Heroes By Closing Opportunity Gaps

March 2, 2012

By Tina Dove

From my earliest childhood, I was told that my education would provide the tools necessary to save my life, and that the pursuit of a high quality education would be extremely valuable. I later realized that I had an obligation as a woman of color to pass along this life-saving gift to others by becoming a high school teacher. One of my role models in education was Mary McLeod Bethune. Like me, Mrs. Bethune was a strong, duty-bound woman of color. She was a fierce champion of civil and human rights, the founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women and the founder of a school for African-American girls in Florida now known as Bethune-Cookman University.

In the late 1930s, Dr. Charles Spurgeon Johnson, a sociologist specializing in race relations and the first black president of Fisk University, interviewed Mrs. Bethune. The purpose of this interview was to ascertain what contributed to Mrs. Bethune becoming a leader for gender equality, despite a difficult upbringing in South Carolina as the daughter of former slaves.  When asked specifically about the scars and injuries she sustained in her childhood that helped to shape the woman she had become, she responded by saying,

I think that possibly the first and real wound that I could feel in my soul and my mind was the realization of the dense darkness and ignorance that I found in myself – when I did find myself – with the seeming absence of a remedy. What I mean by that was the recognition of the lack of opportunity. I could see little white boys and girls going to school every day, learning to read and write; living in comfortable homes with all types of opportunities for growth and service and to be surrounded as I was with no opportunity for school life, no chance to grow – I found myself very often yearning all along for the things that were being provided for the white children with whom I had to chop cotton every day, or pick corn, or whatever my task happened to be. I think that actually, the first hurt that came to me in my childhood was the contrast of what was being done for the white children and the lack of what we got.

When she died in 1955, I doubt she believed that 57 years later a child anywhere—particularly in the United States—would still be facing the same educational and social inequalities she fought so very hard to end. Yet, for many children of color and children growing up in poverty, 2012 might as well be the early 1900s. It is evident that far too many of our children are still being denied a fair opportunity to learn simply because of the accident of their birth or the zip code of their residence. It was unacceptable then – it is reprehensible and indefensible now.

It is for this reason that I am dumbfounded by our nation’s current education debate. Far too much time and attention has been spent on arguing for academic accountability for schools and teachers, while completely ignoring the underlying issue of resource accountability. We obsess on the need to close the achievement gap while completely ignoring the continued expansion of the opportunity gap, particularly when the achievement of children of color is part of that narrative. Interestingly enough, some of the so-called leaders in the education reform movement praise countries like Finland and Singapore as examples of high quality education systems ripe with opportunity and lacking achievement gaps. They wonder what their secret is, only to discover that these international leaders in education have taken research on matters such as the importance of a holistic, child-centered education and actually implemented it. Based upon the recommendations of some of the leading educators in the United States, these countries provide their children with access to high quality early childhood education; well-trained, highly qualified teachers; college preparatory curriculum; and equitable resources—except in the case of their neediest children, who get even more resources. And when a teacher struggles, they support that teacher even more. This is far from what we give our children, especially our children of color, and far from support we provide our educators.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), only 22 percent of local education agencies operate pre-k programs targeting children from low-income families. Additionally, schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with one or two years of experience than are schools within the same district that serve mostly White students.

Here is what we must do. ProPublica, using the OCR data, created a tool that can be used to not only look at how your child’s school is performing, but how it compares to other schools in your district, region, or state. Use this tool! We owe it to our children to learn everything we can about their education, where the opportunity gaps exist and what must be done to close them. In addition, we must hold our policy makers accountable—just as they hold teachers and principals accountable—and ask them why our children are being denied the resources they need to close the opportunity gap so that they can be successful in school, citizenship and in life.

Toward that end, the Opportunity to Learn Campaign has picked up the mantle from our early civil rights and social justice leaders and is on the front lines of the battle to close the opportunity gap and ensure that each child has access to the tools and resources necessary to realize their civil right to a high quality education. Join us by signing our Declaration of Opportunity and showing your support for providing each and every child high quality educational opportunities.

Mary McLeod Bethune was a woman of action, as am I. Instead of settling for a reality that sentenced black children to a life without opportunities similar to what she experienced, she created opportunities to ensure that Black children were able to reach their full God-given potential. As Black History Month ends and Women’s History Month begins, we can honor her and other African Americans who struggled for equality, social justice and civil rights for all by demanding that all children are given an opportunity to thrive and succeed; by fighting to give them the opportunity to learn.

Tina Dove is the Director of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign

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