What If Students Were Walking Out for Better Schools?

Apr 30, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Student walkouts have been a hot topic lately and the media has been quick to swoon with round-the-clock coverage. There is no doubt that an important national conversation has been driven, at least in part, by the student activism on display in Parkland and nationally. But what’s less talked about is the outside interest groups and prominent players in the Democratic Party that have funded and supported these high-profile walkouts and marches. Some Parkland students have been so embraced by the media they they are now household names. Other Parkland students, who happen to hold different views, have been virtually ignored. And we already know that African-American students have long been ignored on the issue of gun violence.


Now, imagine a day when these very same groups of political operatives, interest groups and student leaders make school quality and student achievement their cause célèbre and students across America walk out of school in protest, not over gun control, but over school quality, low literacy rates and the achievement gaps between White students and Black and Brown students. Then imagine the media refusing to break away from constant coverage of these walkouts, where students hold up bright posters with the words “ 18 percent of Black eighth-graders read at grade level” and “ 28 percent of my teachers are chronically absent.” Imagine cities across America filled with students, teachers, parents and celebrities chanting in unison about the belief gap, classroom conditions and single-digit math proficiency while cable and network news stations blanket the country with reporters covering the fiery speeches of students and Hollywood’s biggest stars who say #EnoughIsEnough when it comes to the millions of American children who can’t read at grade level. [pullquote position="right"]I imagine third-graders parading through towns across America with posters about the importance and predictive nature of third-grade reading scores.[/pullquote] Or maybe they could just huddle in groups of 10 and chant, “It’s the work of the devil, fewer than five of us can read at grade level.” Students in California could wear #BlackLivesMatter t-shirts and hold up signs that say “75 percent of Black boys in California don’t meet reading standards.” Students in my state of Rhode Island would carry posters with the No. 50 on them and spread the message that when it comes to likelihood for success in the future, Latino students in Little Rhody rank 50th in the nation. Ashley Judd, Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney would lend their money and voices to this cause too, right? Massachusetts students would spread the message that despite their gold star status in the national K-12 rankings, they also rank third in the nation for the widest achievement gaps. So while lots of students in Massachusetts are doing really well, many—mostly low-income Black and Brown kids—are consistently well below grade level in reading and math. Reporters would swarm and chase after the crowds, asking them why they think so many of them have been pushed through the grades without knowing how to read or do math. Jake Tapper of CNN and Savannah Guthrie at NBC would ask the state commissioners and union leaders—who would undoubtedly be on hand for the march in a “we support our students” spirit—how graduation rates continue to rise while math and reading scores are flat and in many places, even on the decline. They would press these education leaders on the disconnect between high school graduation rates and the concerns of employers and colleges and universities over the lack of preparedness they see in recent graduates. John King of CNN would be managing the coverage from their New York studio. On his TV studio smartboard, he’d be showing the world how American students are doing as compared to students in other industrialized nations. He’d help his viewers at home to see how seismic the achievement gaps are between Black and White students. He’d shine a light on the poor performance of low-income students and rural students and he’d ask America, “Is this really who we are?” “60 Minutes” would undoubtedly jump into the fray and Leslie Stahl would ask how can we keep talking about STEM and STEAM as the new cool buzz words when America ranks 40th in math and 24th in science among developed nations worldwide and only half of our high schools even offer Calculus. She’d have data about how many school buildings had ceilings fall down this year while school was in session. And then she’d dig into the abysmal record high college remediation rates, further evidence that our diplomas are not indicative of 12th-grade skills, let alone college readiness.

It Would Really Be Something

Yes, it really would be something to see wall-to-wall coverage of students walking out of school to protest chronically low math proficiency, embarrassing international education rankings and the millions of children who can’t read at grade level. This type of civil disobedience would finally add some real teeth to the overused platitude that “the children are our future” and shine a much needed spotlight on a system of schools that is leaving far too many children behind. Armed with data, personal stories, and a few celebrity mega-stars, students walking out of school and holding marches in every major city would start a long overdue national conversation about education, arguably the civil rights issue of our time. Sadly, experience tells us that the same outside interest groups and political hotshots who were all over the recent March for Our Lives wouldn’t be nearly as interested in this effort. Celebrities would likely be less moved to participate or pony up their megabucks and the media would probably rather cover the latest stories about the Kardashians or Donald Trump’s latest tweets than the deplorable math and reading proficiency in our schools and the total inequity that exists based on zip code. And that, America, is a big problem.

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting fellow.

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