To Fulfill Their Rights

06/09/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

By Leticia Bustillos, Associate Director, Education Policy Project, NCLR

At the height of the civil rights movement, President Johnson gave a speech at Howard University dubbed "To Fulfill These Rights." He recognized that extending equal opportunity to all is not enough.

If we are to "open the gates of opportunity," he said, then "all of our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates." This is "the next and the more profound state of the battle for civil rights."

Watch President Johnson's historic speech below:

These words accurately depict where we are today. As the "Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA)," which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), goes to the Senate floor for consideration, we are reminded that the battle for civil rights has not yet ended. The skirmishes of the last 50 years have resulted in promising gains in education. Still, too many students are losing ground, unable to harness the socioeconomic benefits that come from education.

If we are to achieve true equality as President Johnson envisioned half a century ago, then we must ensure that students from low-income communities are given the necessary resources and supports. For the civil rights community, accountability must be at the forefront of our actions.

How we act is subject to debate. What is not debatable, however, is the necessity of including robust accountability measures to identify where achievement gaps exist. These provisions ensure that the progress of every child and every group is known. It also guarantees that achievement gaps remain at the forefront of the national consciousness so that everything can be done to eradicate them.

The need for strengthened accountability is not lost on our nation's educators. For Dr. Vasthi Acosta, Executive Director of Amber Charter School in New York City, accountability is not a one-time measure that comes at the end of the school year. It is a central focus of her school community.

Student performance data, disaggregated by group, empower teachers at Amber to differentiate their instruction based on the needs of various students. Schooling, then, becomes about not just filling gaps in achievement, but also providing opportunities to improve learning by capitalizing on the assets of students. Amber's stated goal is to "find those who are in need, learn what they need, and then meet that need."

For Dr. Acosta and her team, there is no greater sign of their success than to hear the community inform them that what they are doing is making a difference.

"Recently, I received a thank-you card from a mother whose son got a full scholarship to a local private middle school," said Acosta.

She said that she didn't speak English and couldn't help him with his homework, but she knew if he was doing well or not because of the scores on his assessments and the school's constant communication with her. Together we helped that boy through a door that is often closed to so many of our children.

For the first time in our country's history, students from underrepresented communities now form the new majority in our schools. Their success is a testament to the investments we make in them and their capacity to positively contribute to our future well-being. To fulfill their rights, we must act with conviction.

Holding ourselves accountable for the success of our students is a principle enshrined in the reauthorization of ESEA. Giving our students the wherewithal to walk through the gates of opportunity is the charge of accountability. Seeing them on the other side of those gates is one more victory in our battle for civil rights.

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.