The “Fierce Urgency of Now” in Addressing Equity and Excellence in Education

As we commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, it’s clear that we have much more work to do to fulfill the dream that he articulated in his famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. In it, Dr. King spoke not only of a day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” but also of the “fierce urgency of now” in demanding freedom and justice for all.

Dr. King argued that America had “defaulted” on the guarantees outlined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – “insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” And although Dr. King did not specifically mention the right to a free public education in that speech, he knew that the struggle for equality of access to formal education was tied up with the economic, political, social realities that people of color, in particular, experienced.

It’s been more than 40 years since his 1963 speech, but America has continued to struggle to provide equal education opportunities for all students – no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex; whether they are rich or poor; whether they are citizens or not. The “fierce urgency of now” is needed now more than ever to fight for equity in education, particularly for students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission pointed to this issue in its 2013 report, noting that while we have made some important, incremental progress in education (e.g., higher standards), there’s not been a “serious and sustained commitment to ending the appalling inequities” that exist in our public education system.

So what can we do differently to ensure that every child in America receives a world-class education regardless of their background? And what will it take to tackle equity, and at scale?

At minimum our nation needs a sense of urgency, explicit focus, sustained commitment and coordinated efforts at multiple levels of government and with multiple agencies and organizations (in and outside of the education policy world). The Commission described the necessary work through five recommendations:

  • Ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education – particularly for low-income children, and programs with an academic focus to ensure kindergarten readiness;
  • Providing quality educators and instructional supports – attracting, training, supporting and retaining quality teachers and leaders, and ensuring they have the supports they need to be effective with students from all backgrounds, including access to high-quality instructional materials;
  • Meeting the needs of students in high-poverty communities – to mitigate the effects of poverty by providing critical access to health and social services, promoting increased family engagement, extending instructional time and expanding assistance for at-risk students throughout their pre-K-12 careers;
  • Restructuring school finance systems – including a holistic review of every decision that underlies school funding, with a special emphasis on equitable resources and cost-effectiveness; and
  • Establishing accountability and governance – to outline who is responsible for what, establish performance measures and consequences, and ensure that commitments are reflected in “the results on the ground.”

At Education First we have committed to maintaining an equity focus through all of our work, and will use that lens to measure our recommendations and even help us determine which new work to pursue. I hope others will join us in this effort, and build an equity lens into their work as well. The Commission’s recommendations map a logical path forward that can move us away from debates that are not focused on the success of all students and toward the “fierce urgency of now” all of our students deserve.

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