Quality Public Education For All: Do We Want It?

by | Sep 20, 2023

New Introduction by Benjamin Moynihan

(An alternate version of this essay was published in the May/June 2001 (Volume 17:3) issue of the Harvard Education Letter as “Quality Education Is a Civil Rights Issue”)

It strikes me that Bob and Charlie’s writing remains relevant to issues at the heart of current education reform discussions in America, imploring us to attend to the promise of equal opportunity for all, just as when they wrote it in 2001. Their incisive critique of policies aimed at moving Black students instead of fixing all schools, which has prevailed in these almost 70 “all deliberate speed” years since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, remains prescient today. The students, teachers, school leaders, and researchers we work with in the Algebra Project grapple daily with these dilemmas in a collective quest for more equitable education.

In their 2001 essay, Bob and Charlie asserted that education should be understood as a civil rights issue. Twenty years later, education remains the cornerstone of opportunity and meaningful citizenship in the United States today. Paraphrasing one of Bob’s assessments of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, he said: We got Jim Crow out of accommodations, we got it out of the vote to some extent, but we did not get it out of education. In the 1980s, Bob founded the Algebra Project in “the Spirit of Ella Baker” and of bottom-up civil rights organizing traditions in the Black community, with its mission to redefine public school K-12 education as an equalizing force in society, particularly by establishing a floor of math literacy that all children can stand upon.

We live in an era where the ability to read, write and reason with the symbol systems of mathematics is essential for full participation in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. And yet, math illiteracy continues to persist as a barrier to full citizenship for far too many young people in the nation. The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report detailed that 68% of 12th-grade students in the country are not proficient in mathematics. And within that figure, 92% of Black students, 89% of Latino/a students, 69% of white students, and 50% of Asian students are not proficient, representing millions of young people in diverse communities all across the United States.

Bob and Charlie’s framing is a testament to the Algebra Project’s belief – shared by many – that quality public education is a right for every student, not a privilege for the few. Theirs is a voice calling for a modern Reconstruction of national values, legislative guarantees, and investment in educational opportunity. Just as the civil rights movement was driven by the voices of African Americans and allies contradicting a systemic and oppressive expectation of silence and compliance, our work today must center on empowering the voices of students, teachers, and communities demanding the education they deserve. The daily struggle for a high-quality public school education is ongoing. We remain steadfast in our commitment to transforming education as an opportunity structure for all. As we seek to move the needle on the key issues of math literacy and school reform, let us heed the lessons of history. Let’s continue to fight for an inclusive, equitable, and quality K-12 public education system for every child, regardless of geography, zip code, or background.

The dominant proposals for school reform aimed at addressing the plight of poor black children these days—vouchers, busing of black students to white suburbs, magnet schools in inner cities, programs to send Black kids into white private schools—amount to a national program of moving students rather than fixing schools.

The national discussion on school “reform” revolves around designing education as a sorting machine rather than building an opportunity structure. If African Americans are going to make significant progress in education reform, we need to see education and literacy as a civil rights issue. And we need to organize.

Predominantly African-American schools are stigmatized. Providing serious money and resources for most Black schools is seen as throwing good money after bad unless it is for the purpose of attracting white people.

Almost 40 years ago, early in the spring of 1962, seven of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been arrested for helping escort Black people in Greenwood, mostly marginally literate, about one hundred at a time, to the voter registrar’s office. John Doar was our lawyer and, on the stand as a witness in Judge Clayton’s Federal District Court, I made an appeal on behalf of Black people in the Mississippi Delta for one person one vote. I argued that fairness required that America could not turn its back on the flagrant denial of an entire citizenry’s literacy education and then demand that literacy be a necessary condition for their citizenship. (In this case, their right to vote.)

We won that argument. Black people, in theory, have the right, as citizens, to vote in this country, although as the last presidential election reminded us all too well we do not, when it really counts, have that right as a matter of course in practice.

Black people have also, not yet, won our rights to our literacy education in functional public school systems across the country.

My current work—an effort I have been engaged in for the past twenty years as founder of “The Algebra Project”—links the ongoing struggle by minority people for education and citizenship to an issue of math literacy. We think that in an era where the “knowledge worker” is replacing the industrial worker, math literacy must be added to reading/writing literacy and that illiteracy in math must be considered as unacceptable as illiteracy in reading and writing is now. You cannot boast about being unable to read a book.

The Algebra Project is retooling the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement to advance an American tradition that argues for education as the fundamental structure for opportunity and meaningful citizenship. No one understood this better than freed Negro slaves during and right after the civil war. “The first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state, in the South, came from Negroes. Public education for all at public expense, was, in the South, a Negro idea,” wrote W.E.B. Dubois in Black Reconstruction.

Their efforts were beaten down and sabotaged after the election of 1876 when, like our current situation, America suffered a tainted presidency, and as of now, the citizenship rights of Black people were the issue. Sharecropping followed the collapse of reconstruction. With this system came presumptions of white blamelessness and of Black intellectual inferiority. “The Negro should be taught to work with his hands,” wrote one writer late in the 19th century. Real schooling, he added, “tends to unbalance [the Negro] mentally.”

Sharecropping was still in place when Fannie Lou Hamer, the resonant voice of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the National Democratic Convention in 1964 asked the country with her heart, soul, and her two months a year sharecropper schooling, “Is this America?”

There had also arisen in the midst of the Depression the idea of an “aristocracy of the intellect.” By the end of World War II, SAT tests and a national selection process that determined who was worthy of the best schools were set in place. This skewed the idea of public education as an opportunity structure—a place where everyone in the democracy was given an equal opportunity to advance—toward the idea of public education as a means of selecting a national elite.

And though we are concerned with math—algebra in particular—it is the Project’s core underlying idea that education in public schools as an opportunity structure for every student that is of relevance to the discussion about educational needs and “school reform” that is taking place today.

In our vision, public education means quality public education for all students. Such an education remains an unfulfilled promise in America. We haven’t put the money or the effort into figuring out what a quality education could be and what students could be expected to learn. As was true of the Southern civil rights movement where sharecroppers, maids, day workers, and others who were expected to be silent found their voice, real change, meaningful school reform will require the voices of students and community demanding the quality education that everybody assumes they can’t handle, don’t want.

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