Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Education is the Civil Rights Issue of Today

September 14, 2012

This post originally appears on the blog of the National Civil Rights Museum. 

The National Civil Rights Museum is housed on the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a proud supporter of the museum and of Dr. King’s ideals. When I visit the museum, I am always inspired by the history of the struggle to desegregate America—especially our public education system—and to transform our country.

I am grateful for the countless individuals whose sacrifices made many changes we take for granted. These changes are fundamental, recent and incomplete. Just a generation or so ago, my role at the foundation—as president of our United States Program—would have been beyond the imagination of most Americans. And yet, today many students still imagine futures that their present education will likely fail to prepare them to achieve.

It’s no secret that we, as a nation, have a difficult time educating our most under-served children. On average, black students are two to three years behind their white peers academically. Almost 70 percent of black fourth graders cannot read at grade level. Most parents of color know their schools and children can do better. Seven out of 10 African-American parents say their neighborhood schools need to be reformed, according to research conducted for an array of education and civil rights organizations with support from the Gates Foundation.

From its inception, the Gates Foundation has funded efforts to help ensure all students have access to a great education—whether through scholarships in the earliest days to more systemic work today, like investments to help recruit, compensate, support and develop highly effective teachers.

The foundation was also an early supporter of the Common Core State Standards, which have been voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. These standards basically say that when students have done everything right, they should all graduate high school prepared to go to the next level. It’s not right that some students are headed to the Ivy League and some are headed to remedial education—when they have all done what was asked of them. That’s an equity issue.

The Common Core lays out what students need to learn to succeed. They raise the bar for student achievement for all students regardless of what state or neighborhood or circumstance in which they live. If implemented correctly, these standards will allow us to say to parents of color, “We know that you have high expectations for your child for your school—rightfully so. We have those same high expectations.” We also know that adopting better standards alone will not be enough to bring about equity.  We need to resolve as a nation to give children and families a way to meet them.

Our grant to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation will enable the museum to build on its existing initiatives and develop robust social media capacity so that the museum can be a platform for a national dialogue on equity in education. We expect the museum to use the Memphis City Schools as the entry point and connect its efforts with many advocacy partners already tackling this social issue in Memphis and nationally.

Since opening in 1991, the museum has hosted more than 3 million visitors. The museum annually sponsors the National and International Freedom and Humanitarian Awards, which celebrate the current civil and human rights advocacy of leaders around the world. Forty-four years after Dr. King’s untimely death, the museum continues to evolve from a commemorative and historical site to a forward-looking educational site.

The board of directors and officers of the NCRM pay homage to Dr. King, but are clear that there is more work to be done. In addition to bringing attention to civil and human rights struggles from other parts of the world, NCRM seeks to elevate the ongoing effort to guarantee each child and young adult in the United States an equitable educational opportunity that enables them to live a healthy and productive life.

 
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