What Can Martin Luther King, Jr. Teach Us About Our Education System?

08/30/2013 09:30 am ET
  • Diane Ravitch Research Professor of Education, New York University; Author, 'Reign of Error'

I received a note from an outstanding superintendent in a fine suburban district in New York, someone I greatly admire. He is experienced and wise. He has the support of parents, staff, and community. He runs one of the state's best school districts.

He wrote of the excitement and joy of the beginning of the school year. He talked about the commemoration of Dr. King's legacy. But he ended on a sad note. He said he experienced the sadness and humiliation of telling teachers and students about their test scores and ratings, about how many students had failed the absurd Common Core tests, which meant their teachers too had "failed."

Suddenly, it struck me that the best way to remember Martin Luther King was not to think of him as a statue or an icon, but to take to heart his example. He did not bow his head in the face of injustice. He did not comply. He said no. He said it in a spirit of love and non-violence. But he resisted.

He said no. He resisted. He said, we will not acquiesce to what we know is wrong. We will not acquiesce. We will not comply. We will not obey unjust laws.

How does that apply to the situation of public education today? Public schools are drowning in nonsensical mandates. They are whipsawed by failed ideas coming from D.C. and state capitols that are following D.C.'s demands. They are subject to regulations and programs that no one understands. These mandates are ruining schooling, not making it better. The incessant testing is not making kids smarter, it is making kids bored and turned off by school. Schools are trapped in bureaucratic mazes that make no sense.

What would Martin Luther King, Jr., do? Would he passively submit?

No. He would resist. He would organize and join with others. He would build coalitions of parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members, and members of the community who support their public schools. He would demand true education for all children. He would demand equality of educational opportunity, not a Race to some mythical Top or ever higher scores on bubble tests. He would not be silent as our public schools are worn down and torn down by mindless mandates. He would recognize that the victims of this political and bureaucratic malfeasance are our children. He would build a political movement so united and clear in its purpose that it would be heard in every state Capitol and even in Washington, D.C.

And that is how we should commemorate his life.