In 1642 the Massachusetts General Court passed one of the very first laws about education in what would become the United States. It ruled that because it was apparent "the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth," all parents and guardians were required to make sure children received "so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes." Educating children well enough to read and understand the laws of the community was considered so critical that local selectmen were put in charge of making sure it was done—and they would be able to tell children hadn't been educated properly if they became "rude, stubborn & unruly."
For generations to come the power of education to develop good character and put young people on the right path remained a cornerstone of American thought about teaching our children. But today something has changed. We still say all of the same kinds of things about the power good schools and teachers have to radically transform a child's chances in life. We've now measured the connection between how much education a child receives and future success.
We know the dangers of dropping out, especially for the most vulnerable children and youths who have fewer high quality schools and resources than affluent children and fewer positive options for spending unsupervised time away from school. Politicians and celebrities do public service ads urging children to stay in school. But as soon as a child gets in trouble, too often the very first thing schools do is to kick them out of class. A public school student receives an out-of school suspension every second and a half during the school year. I've never understood how it makes any sense, for example, to suspend or put a child out of school who is absent, truant, or tardy and is not coming to school.
Data released this spring by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights showed in 2009 that 6.9 percent of all students received at least one out-of-school suspension; the out-of-school suspension rate went up to 14.7 percent for Black students. We may continue to talk about education as the great equalizer, but when it comes to pushing children out of school we are failing Black children most, especially Black males.
The findings are even more troubling for the most serious school forms of discipline: Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or who are referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or Black. Zero tolerance school discipline policies only add to the problem. The stories of six-year-old kindergartener Salecia Johnson, who was arrested in handcuffs at her Milledgeville, Georgia elementary school in April and driven to the police station in a squad car for throwing a tantrum, and Desre'e Watson, who underwent the same ordeal several years ago as a six-year-old kindergartner in Avon Park, Florida, were horrifying reminders that even our youngest children are at risk of being poorly handled. I find it hard to believe that one, two, or three adults can't manage a six-year-old during or after a temper tantrum without calling the police and arresting them. Sometimes I think we adults have lost our common and moral sense!
Instead of educating children well enough so that they will not become "rude, stubborn, & unruly" we now reject them at the first sign of any disobedience using widely subjective catchall phrases and offenses like disrespectful or disruptive. Most suspensions are for nonviolent offenses. Too many schools are pushing children into the juvenile and criminal justice systems to make them someone else's problem.
If giving all children an education still benefits an entire community, and if not educating children still makes it more likely their future "ignorance and vices" will "cost us [dearly] in their consequences," every time a child is excluded from school by adults or is chronically absent without any actions to determine why, we are failing the child and undercutting the importance of education. Hundreds of years after Americans first made that connection, what will it take for us to get it again today?
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.