In August 1963, James Meredith became the first African American graduate of the University of Mississippi. His admission to the university sparked riots that involved more than 30,000 U.S. combat troops and two deaths.
Today, he is an iconic figure of both civil rights and education. In his 2012 book A Mission from God: A Memoir and a Challenge for America, written with William Doyle, Meredith asked a panel of more than 100 leading figures in education 21 questions about how to improve the public education system.
Rosie Garland and Kylie Grimstad, both rising education majors at the University of Mississippi today, were asked six of those questions.
1. Children’s Rights: Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to an excellent public education delivered by the most qualified professional teachers; an education aggressively supported by the family and the community, and an education based on the best research and evidence?
Garland: “Yes, certainly. I’m a huge public-school advocate. Providing a big support system for a child in school provides a better system. Having evidence backs up the teacher’s strategies. Your education is your future, so we should have an evidence base to further their education. The community that surrounds the children is important because you are most represented by your community, and there can be a cycle if it’s not checked. The children are shaped by what they see and experience closes to themselves.”
Grimstad: “Yes, I believe that every child, everywhere, has the right to an excellent public education. Every child deserves to succeed and feel successful – each with an opportunity to feel welcome at school and be encouraged to learn.”
2. Parent Responsibilities: Would you support the idea of public schools strongly encouraging and helping parents to: be directly involved in their children’s education; support their children with healthy eating and daily physical activity; disconnect their children from TV and video games; and read books to and with them on a daily basis from birth through childhood?
Garland: “It’s proven that students that have been read to when younger do better in schools because they have a background to build off of. It would be positive if parents supported the children because the more support you can get the better.”
Grimstad: “Yes, supportive parents are key to a child’s educational career. If a parent doesn’t encourage and supervise the creation of healthy habits from attending school to healthy eating, a child is less likely to develop motivational skills that would lead them to do well in school. Children who are read to from birth have been shown to be better readers (therefore more successful in many subjects) than children whose parents seldom read to them.”
3. Educational Equity: Do you believe that America should strive to deliver educational equity of resources to all students of all backgrounds and income groups?
Garland: “Yes, absolutely. To provide a quality education to only certain students – it’s frustrating. I can’t even seem to put it into words, but every child should be provided the same education because there is a power in education. (Here in Mississippi) There is a lack of knowledge and resources, but I feel like people here are moving towards this idea of equity. There are more programs that are reaching out to those areas now.”
Grimstad: “Yes, a child doesn’t choose which background they come from – it should have no effect on the resources they receive at school. Resources have a massive effect on teaching strategies, which all teachers and all students deserve to have access to.”
4. Testing Reforms: Much of current education reform policy is built on the idea that the U.S. must catch up to nations that achieve high scores in the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests, like Finland, South Korea and Singapore. But since these nations rely on few, if any, of the reform strategies being promoted in the United States, like cyber-charters, frequent high-stakes standardized tests linked to teacher evaluation, teacher bonus pay, vouchers, and hiring teachers with no experience and no advanced degrees in education – why would the U.S. implement these strategies without first field-testing them thoroughly?
Garland: “Test anxiety is showing up at early elementary ages. It’s important to have standardized tests, but there should be less emphasis on them. The bonus pay should be focused more on student growth, through process monitoring that you can see throughout the year.”
Grimstad: “I believe that the way the U.S. uses standardized testing is harmful to the education system. Places of poverty feel this the hardest. Schools in high poverty areas tend to score lowest on standardized tests, therefore receive less federal funding leaving them in a shortage of resources and continuing the poverty cycle. Linking tests to teacher evaluations keep qualified, caring teachers out of places most in need of them in fear of it hurting their reputation as a teacher. Students suffer everywhere from standardized tests because teachers teach for the test instead of teaching in order to encourage higher level/ critical thinking and a well- rounded student.”
5. Teacher Qualifications: If a critical factor in the success of the highest-performing education nations like Finland, South Korea and Singapore, and of high-performing American private and parochial schools, is a highly professionalized, highly experienced and highly respected teacher force, why is the United States pursuing policies to de-professionalize the public school teacher force, including sending recent college graduates into our highest-needs, highest-poverty schools with five weeks of training, no education degree and no experience? What is the hard evidence that such policies improve student outcomes, versus teachers with at least two to five years of experience and advanced degrees in education?
Garland: “Being sent to impoverished schools should not be a requirement, because if their (teacher’s) heart is not in it, they won’t make a difference. The teacher needs to be able to understand the community’s background, and if they are just thrown into it, they might do more harm than good.”
Grimstad: “Teachers with little experience or education who are sent to high needs schools have a massive burnout rate. Teachers need extensive training and education to provide them with strategies that would enable them to be successful in high need schools.”
6. Classroom Environment: Do you believe that every child in the United States has the right to a classroom that is comfortable, exciting, happy and well-disciplined, with proper rest time, quiet time and playtime; a rich, full curriculum; full physical education and recess periods; and an atmosphere of low chronic stress and high productive challenge, where young children are free to be children as they learn, and where all children are free to fail in the pursuit of success?
Garland: “Yes, having a welcoming environment gives them the eagerness to learn and an open area to share their thoughts. You can see it if a student is interested; they will just spurt the facts out at you. If we can just keep that excitement throughout education. This can create a safe environment, so they can feel secure, because some students don’t get that outside the classroom.”
Grimstad: “Other countries who have high performance in education recognize the importance of a teacher. They put more emphasis on teacher education and, in return, teachers get paid more. People in America stray away from being an educator because they want to feel financially stable. If America paid their teachers more, then more people would go into teaching, and it would have a positive effect on education.”