Yesterday, John Legend came to Cornell and discussed how education inequality is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. The inequality stems from early education programs, including pre-school and elementary. At a young age students are divided into class structures based on preconceived intelligence that is oftentimes determined by the community the child is born in and their race.
My twin sister and I have had direct experience with education inequality in the LAUSD school system. Born in the midst of the L.A. riots, my mom knew that it would be best if we didn’t go to a school in our neighboring area. We attended private schools during pre-school and first grade, and as a first grader I found myself already failing, getting D’s and F’s on tests. I never really understood what was happening, but often felt inadequate. Eventually we switched to an elementary school near our home.
We weren’t sure how the quality of education would differ from the private to public elementary school system. Surprisingly, I excelled at my new school and was one of the top students. I didn’t realize the difference in my academic performance at the time, but nothing about me really changed in that time. I had the same work ethic and don’t know what led me to fail and re-take tests in the private school.
I was lucky to find encouragement among my 2nd and 3rd grade teachers in the new public school. However, my twin was not as lucky and she struggled to prove that she was just as smart. She was placed in a different classroom, and was labeled an ESL student because she was Latina. She was learning how to read books at low level English in 2nd grade. She asked the teacher if she could be placed in the regular group, but the teacher said she didn’t belong there. At that age, we fully understood english, were still learning how to read, and my sister would have been capable of reading english adequately if given the opportunity. Instead she was placed in an ESL class in 3rd grade and hardly learned anything because the teacher had a preconception that the students were “slower.”
Seeing that my sister was struggling, I taught her what I learned every week. At the end of 3rd grade when we had to take the standardized tests, she received a low score, and nearly got held back. It is the responsibility of the teachers to ensure that all students learn the required material and expand their knowledge to the fullest extent. Students in ESL are not inferior to other students and are fully capable of learning just as much. We must deconstruct notions that children have unequal capabilities of succeeding.
By this time, my family was able to move into a better neighborhood and we switched schools once again for 4th and 5th grade. In a new public school in a different community, my sister was able to get a fresh start. We were in different classes once again and both excelled as top students. My sister was able to convey her full potential as a student and she didn’t need my help anymore.
Once we got to middle school, my mom tried to get us into the honors program, but we were placed on a wait list. I was only able to get into the honors program, and my sister was not. I enjoyed my classes because I was surrounded by other students who cared about their work. My sister was placed in regular classes and dreaded going to classes because she was ostracized by students who didn’t care about their work. It would have been easy for her to stop doing her work, and adapt the “school isn’t cool” attitude of her peers. However, she never stopped trying and did her best in the classes she was given.
Convincing students to “care” about their work is fundamental to a good school. At the middle school stage, it is still possible to get students to “care” about schoolwork and become high achievers. They just need encouragement, and an awareness of what they want to do in their futures. Many of the students in my sister’s classes were minority students, and they possibly had similar experiences of failing classes at a young age, or being placed as ESL students. They lost faith in their intelligence and needed to feel like their intelligence was valuable.
I imagine my sister would still have been able to succeed as a student if I didn’t teach her what I learned during 3rd grade. But encouragement we gave to each other and that was nurtured by my mom and dad surely contributed to her motivation to continue to try and “care.” This is a photo of my sister asking John Legend a question about how we can address the issue of students being segregated based on preconceived intellect.
I am very impressed with the work of John Legend who is a philanthropist and a 9 time Grammy winner. He was home schooled and began attending University of Pennsylvania when he was 16. He studied English and wrote songs that would later foster his career as a musician. He said that he was extremely inspired by the book “End of Poverty” by Jeffrey Sachs. He contacted Jeffrey Sachs and was able to travel with him to Africa to learn more about poverty and possible solutions.
John Legend established a non-profit organization “Show Me” to support education programs in the U.S. like TEACH for America, and also address global poverty issues. The “Show Me” song and video from 2007 conveys a child in Africa living in poverty and attempting to escape by going on an airplane to a different country.
At the end, it is revealed that the song is in memory of Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, two 14 year old Guinea boys who froze to death while on stowaway in an airplane to Belgium in July 1999. Their bodies were found in August along with a letter written in French pleaing for reform in the African education system with the help of Europe.
“Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe,
We have the honorable pleasure and the great confidence in you to write this letter to speak to you about the objective of our journey and the suffering of us, the children and young people of Africa.
But first of all, we present to you life’s most delicious, charming and respected greetings. To this effect, be our support and our assistance. You are for us, in Africa, those to whom it is necessary to request relief. We implore you, for the love of your continent, for the feeling that you have towards your people and especially for the affinity and love that you have for your children whom you love for a lifetime. Furthermore, for the love and meekness of our creator God the omnipotent one who gave you all the good experiences, wealth and ability to well construct and well organize your continent to become the most beautiful one and most admirable among the others.
Messrs. members and officials of Europe, we call out for your solidarity and your kindness for the relief of Africa. Do help us, we suffer enormously in Africa, we have problems and some shortcomings regarding the rights of the child.
In terms of problems, we have war, disease, malnutrition, etc. As for the rights of the child in Africa, and especially in Guinea, we have too many schools but a great lack of education and training. Only in the private schools can one have a good education and good training, but it takes a great sum of money. Now, our parents are poor and it is necessary for them to feed us. Furthermore, we have no sports schools where we could practice soccer, basketball or tennis.
This is the reason, we, African children and youth, ask you to create a big efficient organization for Africa to allow us to progress.
Therefore, if you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and risked our lives, this is because we suffer too much in Africa and that we need you to fight against poverty and to put an end to the war in Africa. Nevertheless, we want to learn, and we ask you to help us in Africa learn to be like you.
Finally, we appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this letter to you, the great personages to whom we owe much respect. And do not forget it is to you whom we must lament about the weakness of our abilities in Africa.
Written by two Guinean children, Yaguine Koita and Fodé Tounkara.”
These children are martyrs for educational reform and convey that good education is a basic human right because it can lead to personal success that can equate to improvements in local communities and entire countries.
High quality education has been seen to be based on place and socio-economic status. Place is the physical environment and position in the world. Socio-economic status defines who has access to which schools in what neighborhoods. These divisions are what are causing education inequality and there must be more support for organizations like “Show Me” that aim to close that gap.