Remembering the Lessons of Dr. King: An Inclusive, Quality Education for All

Steve Volk, April 9, 2018.

Two weeks ago, I explored John Dewey’s understanding of how reflection impacts teaching in the “Article of the Week.” For Dewey, I noted, reflection was an intricate process in which we derived meaning from our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, “in community,” and in a context that led to growth not just of the individual but of others as well. Reflection was a central part of learning and, learning, in the context of an educational setting, always took into consideration the purpose of education itself. For Dewey, this purpose was not simply the abstract intellectual development of the individual, but the way that the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and moral understandings came to support and sustain democratic society.

I was drawn back to Dewey’s views on the purpose of an education this week as I, and millions of others, solemnly observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us used the moment to search for lessons from Dr. King that could inform a search for ways to counter the dismal moment the country is living through. In particular, I was looking to understand what are our responsibilities as a community of educators at this time. Like Dewey, Dr. King understood that an education that only taught one to “think intensively” or to think “efficiently” was insufficient. “The most dangerous criminal,” King wrote while still a student at Morehouse College in 1947, “may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”  “If we are not careful,” he warned, “our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Temple Church (1963), Library of Congress and World Telegram & Sun photo by O. Fernandez. Public domain

I was not surprised, then, to learn that the United Federation of Teachers awarded Dr. King its “John Dewey Award” in 1964. King’s acceptance speech, delivered on March 14, 1964, was not one of his more memorable talks, but I was staggered to see its continuing relevance more than a half-century later, a sign both of the power of King’s insight and of the fact that so many struggles that he took on remain uncompleted today.

For Dr. King, 1963 represented a high-water mark in terms of the accomplishments of the non-violent direct action movement in its fight for civil rights. Still, he warned that the “civil rights issue…will now be faced and solved or it will torment and agonize the political and social life of the nation.” To read, only in the last two weeks, of the shooting by police of Saheed Vassell or Stephon Clark is to recognize that the killing of black people by law enforcement continues to be a national crisis, and that the political and social life of the nation is still agonized by racism, King’s unsolved civil rights issue.

Dr. King and Education

In his speech accepting the John Dewey Award, Dr. King identified education as a central “battleground in the freedom struggle.” Because he understood that education was a road, perhaps the road, to equality and citizenship, he argued that “it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights.” Depriving Blacks access to equal and quality education was “part of the historical design to submerge [them] in second class status.”

Racism complicated access to a quality education for Blacks, but that wasn’t the only factor involved. “First,” he charged, “education for all Americans, white and Negro has always been inadequate. The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways [at least, we used to], on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on an over-abundance of over-kill armaments, but we pauperize education.”

Draft of King speech, UFT-Dewey Award, 1964: Courtesy of King Center archive:

And yet, although he saw all children, White and Black, as well as all teachers, as being negatively impacted by the “pauperization” to which education was subjected in the United States, for Blacks, the quest for education was “literally a question of life or death…In a society requiring ever higher standards of knowledge, the Negro is doubly handicapped by discrimination and lack of education.”

Dr. King’s sobering words were fresh in my mind when I read two reports on education issued this week. They underscore that not only does the “civil rights issue” remain unsolved today, but that this country has in significant ways retreated from the explicit demands, not to mention the implicit hopes, of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as well as from many of the legislative landmarks passed 50 years ago, especially the Voting Rights Act. Public schools in the U.S. are now more segregated by race (and class) than at any time since Brown. As Beverly Tatum recently observed,

Nationwide, nearly 75 percent of Black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend so-called ‘majority-minority’ schools. Both Black and Latino students are much more likely than White students to attend a school where 60 percent or more of their classmates are living in poverty. Separate remains unequal as schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are still likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities, and fewer classroom resources.

In 90 of the 95 largest cities in the United States by population for which data is available, more students of color than White students attend public schools where most of their classmates are poor or low-income – and this by a substantial margin.

It is nothing less than a national disgrace that 64 years after Brown, as the Rev. Dr. William Barber II recently critiqued, “we’re still funding schools with property taxes where the quality of a child’s school can be determined by the size of the parents’ bank account rather than the potential of the child’s brain.”

Punishing Students of Color

The first of these studies released this past week examined “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” and it both confirms and adds to the stark evidence of the discrimination faced by students of color, particularly Black boys, that had been published previously. According to the authors of the GAO report, using the latest data available from 2013-14, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined through suspensions and expulsions in K-12 public schools. Further, “these disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”

Black students, for example, accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented some 39 percent of students suspended from school—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points. Black students were similarly overrepresented in other types of discipline including corporal punishment and arrests (see chart below). (Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in each of these categories, but not by as high a proportion.) Earlier studies have shown that disproportionate levels of suspensions and expulsions for Black students begin in pre-school. Black children represented 18% of preschool enrollments in 2014, but received more than one out-of-school suspension in 48% of cases.

What the new GAO study indicates that other studies haven’t examined is that Black students were overrepresented in all forms of punishment regardless of the income level of the school, although the degree of overrepresentation does go up in conjunction with the poverty level of the school. In terms of suspension from school, for example, Black students were overrepresented by 12% at schools at very low poverty levels and double that amount at schools with 75-100% poverty levels.

The GAO study recognizes that the issue of who gets disciplined and why is a complex one, but the authors reviewed a variety of studies that maintain that “implicit bias—stereotypes or unconscious associations about people—on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.” (See, as well, Smolkowski et al, 2016.) The report also cites studies that have found that the types of offenses that Black children were disciplined for were largely based on school officials’ interpretations of behavior. One study, for example, found that “Black girls were disproportionately disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as disobedience and disruptive behavior.” Finally, a different research study used eye-tracking technology to show that, among other things, teachers gazed longer at Black boys than other children on video clips when asked to look for challenging behavior. 

Persistent Inequality in Postsecondary Education

The second study to emerge this past week that calls our attention to all that remains to be done to advance Dr. King’s work, concludes that students of color are systematically underfunded at the postsecondary level compared to White students.  In “Gaps in College Spending Shortchange Students of Color,” written for the Center for American Progress (CAP), Sara Garcia examines how the underfunding of schools that serve students of color in the K-12 years carries over into higher educationl. It is well known that public school funding for K-12 education has persistently discriminated against students of color, creating understaffed and underperforming schools. The CAP’s report confirms that “these inequitable patterns do not end when a student graduates from high school put persist through postsecondary education.” According to the study, public two-and four-year colleges spend, on average, more than $1,000 less per year on students of color (identified in the report as Black and Latino) than what is spent on their White counterparts. When added up nationally, “public colleges spend approximately $5 billion less educating students of color in one year than they do educating white students” (emphasis added).

A variety of factors contribute to this significant funding disparity; the CAP report suggests that one of the most important is that students of color are “disproportionately more likely to attend institutions that have lower revenue and government funding per student—meaning that those institutions also spend less on education for each student.” To take California, a state with a relatively high level of postsecondary education funding, as an example: California is slated to spend $33 billion on higher education this year, but considerably less is directed to the state’s community colleges where students of color are overrepresented. Louisiana offers an example of a state which spends comparatively little on higher education: While there is no major gap in spending across different racial or ethnic groups, the state spends around a third less on higher education than the national average, and so all students, White as well as students of color, are disadvantaged financially.

How does state spending impact the chances for student success? A recent Harvard study determined that a 10% increase in total college spending could produce an additional 55 bachelor’s degrees per year at a typical four-year university. Further, while about 60% of students enrolled at 4-year colleges will graduate within 6 years, only 38% of students at community colleges will obtain their credentials either at their initial institution or at an institution to which they transfer in the same time.

Fighting for the Education of All

In 2017, 53 years after Dr. King’s award, the Rev. William Barber II, architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, received the UFT’s John Dewey Award. His address, like Dr. King’s, highlighted the central role that education must play in the democratic struggle, observing that “the only way we as a nation cannot educate every child is to argue that some don’t matter like others matter, and some children are inferior because of their race, their zip code and their class.” Like Dewey and King, the Rev. Barber said that “fight for the humanity of all children” is central to the “moral revival” of the country. “Public education and access to a high-quality, well-funded, diverse public education and access to college, to community college, and [to the] development of the soul and the brain is a moral issue.”

So, where does that leave those who teach in private, selective, majority White liberal arts colleges? Is this of concern only for K-12 teachers? Only for those at community colleges or in state-funded, public institutions? Not at all. In fact, we must recognize, as Andrew Delbanco recently put it, that private institutions “need to do a better job of meeting their public responsibilities.”

These responsibilities, I would suggest, point in two directions. In the first place, it means working towards inclusive excellence on our own campuses. Inclusion and equity demands that we look farther than enrollment numbers as we measure whether we are actually inclusive, and that we go beyond what is traditionally valued in terms of how we measure “excellence.” This is not in any sense a “lessening” of standards, but rather expanding our capacity both to recognize and to value the multiple strengths and cultural knowledges and skills that students bring with them from their (less represented) home communities. Sasha Eloi-Evans, of the University of Rochester, captured this when she argued that “Institutions must be supportive of the social and cultural needs, in addition to the academic ones, of all their students, and do so by instituting inclusive habits of the mind and heart in the entire community. Looking forward, the focus should be about eradicating the exclusionary practices that require students to change who they are or fight herculean battles in order to be successful. Diversity efforts at all institutions should be about acknowledging and appreciating students for who they are – making it difficult to dismiss them or their concerns.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses Oberlin College in Finney Chapel, on Oct. 22, 1964. Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives

Secondly,  private institutions, regardless of the size of their endowments, the depth of their resources, or the sweep of their histories, face an uncertain future if they do not take on the struggles of the public sector, both K-12 and postsecondary, as their own. There are many reasons why that is the case. The battles that public sector educational institutions must wage to get the funding they require are, in the end, battles that will determine whether voters see education as a public good or a private consumable. As polling indicates the impact of declining support for higher education in general, will be felt on private and public institutions alike. Further, the walk-outs that teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere are carrying out not only to be paid a living wage but to teach in classrooms where their students can learn and thrive, are efforts that demand our support if we are to fulfill Dr. King’s call to stop “pauperizing” education, “pay our teachers as professionals,” and “surround them with the prestige” their work demands. Finally, the struggles that public school, K-12 educators take on as they try to provide quality, inclusive, free education for all students is a struggle that educators in private higher education must join if, now and in the future, we want to have students in our classes who represent the great diversity of the national and international community, and not just the children of those few who can absorb ever-increasing tuition bills.

In private as well as public institution, our efforts as educators must be, as Dr. King understood, and as the Rev. Barber reiterated in the present, an effort not just to “sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, the facts from the fiction,” but an education that is rooted in both meaning and morality. “The complete education,” King argued in 1947, “gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Those objectives are before us.


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