THE BLOG

Education, Integration and Equality: The Way to Make America Great

01/16/2016 06:39 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2016
  • Eric Cooper Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education
Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images

Our nation, it seems, has descended into ugliness.

Presidential debates are more like barroom brawls. The comments sections of most news sites are a cesspool of hatred, name-calling and fear. When President Barack Obama exuberantly calls out, "Let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all!" his "opponents" seem unable to find even enough goodwill to applaud that. (How one can be opposed to curing cancer is beyond me.)

The open-air hostility snaking through the country seems to fly in the face of what America stands for. Or does it? Some would venture that it's actually what Americans do best. Writing for Salon, author Chauncey DeVega said, "Donald Trump's racism, nativism and bigotry are as American as apple pie."

With that line, the picture DeVega paints is bleak; but unfortunately, it has historical merits. If you consider the annihilation of Native Americans, the enslavement and oppression of African peoples, Japanese internment camps, Jim Crow, redlining, mandatory minimums -- I could go on and on -- it's easy to see where he's going with that sentiment.

But when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched, preached and toiled during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he knew the sordid history of this country -- and was deeply mired in its bigoted present -- and yet, he still imagined that things could be different. He saw the ugliness but believed in the beauty.

What would Dr. King think about our country today? I think he still would have hope. And here's why:

Despite the bad news that permeates about failing schools, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and apathetic communities, education still is working to improve the lives of children across the country. Data from the Council of Great City Schools continues to suggest an upward trending in student test scores in America's largest urban school districts. Additionally, data from the Department of Education indicates graduation rates have reached unprecedented levels -- some 82 percent of students are graduating.

Headlines indicate otherwise, but it is true: Education is making a difference.

Further, scientific research tells us that an integrated education -- one where students and teachers alike come from varied racial and socio-economic backgrounds -- works even better. In fact, in our work with the West Metro Education Program, a desegregation initiative with Minneapolis Public Schools, the students who were bussed to suburban schools made three times the progress in both reading and math when compared with similar students who were not a part of the bussing program. Desegregated districts such as Eden Prairie, Minn., have reduced the "achievement gap" by nearly 60 percent, using culturally responsive strategies, as well as those pedagogies guided by neuroscience. Districts such as Robbinsdale, Minn., and urban schools in districts such as San Francisco, New York City and Bridgeport, Conn., have in elementary grades seen two standard deviations of improvement for their students.

The list can go on, suffice it to say, showing that integrated districts, and those who support their educators through sustained professional development, have succeeded at unprecedented levels. The more diverse a school, the higher the achievement. Frankly, the data which continues to emerge hopefully will strip ideology of its influence over public policy.

The fact is, isolation and xenophobia work against our collective success. Partnerships, community and togetherness make us all better. Dr. King knew that, which is why integration was a major part of his dream. He longed to see a day when "little black boys and black girls would be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls -- as sisters and brothers."

We are making progress, but there still are children being left behind.

Too many Black, Brown and poor students still languish in schools where the mosaic of skin tones in classrooms and communities isn't properly celebrated. Too many are judged by their circumstances, not their strengths, and are held back by stereotypes, labels and low expectations. Despite good intentions and academic training, too few teachers understand that the brain is a muscle - wired with everything it needs to be phenomenal, and able to change and grow with exercise and challenge.

Sadly, there are those in power who are comfortable ignoring science. There are those who are all too happy to perpetuate myths, stir up fear and leave those children behind. When presidential candidate Donald Trump says, "Let's make America great again," we know exactly what he's really saying: Let's make America white again.

For so many reasons, it is imperative that all of us who know better reject that dog-whistle, and actively decry those who would deny the dream to any human -- especially the children.

And while we're denouncing Trump and others like him, we need to lift up the power of education.

While we're nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should take care not to neglect our resources and treasures here in our own home. We need to invest in education.

By educating the teachers on best practice emerging from neuroscience research, focusing on diverse cultures as strengths rather than weaknesses to be ameliorated, changing their beliefs about children's abilities, we counter the worst parts of our nation and keep taking steps beyond our ugly past. By educating the children, we create, over time, a more just and harmonious future.

Like Dr. King, I believe in the beauty this nation has to offer. I see it all the time in classrooms from New York to Minneapolis to California.

On this, the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, let's consider ways we can contribute to the growth of students and teachers alike, through education - the most important civil right of our time.

Instead of making America great "again," let's do what Dr. King wanted us to do. Let's make our country great right now -- by embracing the diverse cultural, ethnic and racial mosaic of Americans, by focusing on tolerance, empathy and inclusion, and most importantly, providing a hand up for those struggling with poverty: black, white, brown, Asian, Native American.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.

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