As a new academic year starts, children around the country are going back to school and settling into new classes. Meanwhile, parents, educators, policy experts, and politicians are gearing up again to monitor and measure student learning—and preparing to ask the hard questions about whether or not the children in their care are getting the best possible education. Hard questions sometimes elicit hard answers, and often it is the students themselves who know the answers better than the adults in charge. But we seldom ask the students, and when they do speak up, we rarely pay attention to what they have to say. Last spring, Justin Hudson, a student who knows the questions and answers well, spoke up about equity in education. We all need to listen to Justin's words.
Justin was a senior at Hunter College High School in New York City, and he had been chosen to deliver the graduation speech for his class. Hunter is a public school for grades 7-12 that has a national reputation for excellence and sends a quarter of its graduates on to Ivy League schools—a figure many private schools would envy. But Hunter's students don't resemble the student body at most of the city's other public schools. They are considered intellectually gifted based on the results of an admission test written by the school's teachers, and, as the New York Times recently noted, there are very few minority students at Hunter: while Hunter's entering seventh grade class last year was 3% Black and 1% Hispanic, 70% of the students in the public school system as a whole are Black and Hispanic. Justin, who is Black and Hispanic himself, chose to address this obvious disparity in his speech—and this eighteen-year-old's observations eloquently sum up one of the most urgent debates in education today.
Justin told the audience that as he stood at the podium reflecting on the stellar education he had received over the last six years, "More than anything else, today I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I don't deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds...We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as 'gifted,' while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that."
Justin continued, "It is certainly not Hunter's fault that socioeconomic factors inhibit the educational opportunities of some children from birth, and in some ways I forgive colleges and universities that are forced to review eighteen-year-olds, the end results of a broken system. But we are talking about eleven-year-olds. Four-year-olds. We are deciding children's fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we're smarter than them...I apologize if this is not the speech you wanted to hear...I apologize if I have not inspired you, or uplifted you, but we have failed to inspire and uplift an entire generation of children."
Justin then explained that he didn't mean his speech to be a moral lecture to his classmates because he understood that he had benefited from the current system just like everyone else in the room—but he now wanted to turn the guilt he felt for having being blessed with such tremendous opportunities into determination to help bring the same kinds of opportunities to other children, and he hoped others would join him. He said, "I do not know the capacity in which I will be able to make this world a better and more just place, but I strongly believe that education is the most effective means of creating social improvement, which is precisely why this is a battle we cannot concede...I hope that in the near future, education itself will not be a privilege for the few in this world [and] I hope that a quality education will not be a privilege for the few in this country."
Making sure that a quality education is available to every child in our country—and is not just a privilege for a few—is indeed one of the great battles of our time. It is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and the task that will help determine America's place on the global stage in a rapidly changing world. I am so grateful that a bright young leader like Justin is already sensitive enough to recognize that every child deserves an education like his and brave enough to speak out and join the fight to make that happen. We all need to pay attention to Justin's words of wisdom.
[Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.]