We’re well into the 21st century but two recent news items should make us wonder how far we’ve actually come in this, the 83rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth and the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
The first is an article by Katherine Schulten in The New York Times that notes that on last year’s National Assessment of Education Progress exam, only 2 percent of U.S. high school seniors were familiar with the civil rights struggle of the 1950s. Students could not identify the wording from Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court decision that knocked down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools.
Ms. Schulten reported also that after a comprehensive review, the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that civil rights history is often avoided in schools.
Much more disturbing, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that parents in one Georgia school district were enraged by math worksheets that contained questions about slavery. Among them: “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” Another: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
Parents are demanding an apology as well as diversity training for teachers and administrators.
Parents should be demanding a lot more than that! They should ask about the teacher(s) who gave the test. Where was the sensitivity to the African-American students? They should know the context of the math test. Was this an integration of math and history? If so, were these the best examples that could have been used? They should ask if this was an ad hoc blooper or a carefully crafted piece of the curriculum. Finally, who is responsible for supervising the teachers and the curriculum in the school and district – and where were they?
Both parents and teachers need to be vigilant in preventing prejudice and in celebrating the diverse and tolerant country we say we are. That begins with Martin Luther King Day, but doesn’t end there.
In honor of MLK Day, the NEA called upon teachers to “help students put in perspective Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, his impact on the Civil Rights Movement, and his significance to American culture and history.”
Martin Luther King Day is observed this year on Monday, January 16. As the magazine PTO Today wrote, this day is an opportunity for parent groups to “help focus students’ attention on the civil rights leader and to reinforce his message of racial justice and equal rights.”
In the second decade of the 21st century, students have to know more than anniversaries. The history behind the anniversary tells us who we are as a people and what we aspire to be. The lessons of Dr. King’s life and legacy must go beyond one day in our schools. How the civil rights movement is taught or how Martin Luther King Day is observed, while important, is not the whole story. What is important is that we teach our children that we are a society that respects and celebrates differences.
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