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Nicole Hicks holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-Level Governance from the University of Padova. She is currently working for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. This article is an edited excerpt from her master thesis, discussed in July 2021 under the supervision of prof. Pietro de Perini.
Boston Latin School.
Boston, Massachusetts, is the home of public education in the United States.
In 2021, a middle school in Boston celebrates Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black people in 1865. A poster hangs on the wall on which students write what “freedom” means to them. In heavy-handed pencil is written: “walking in the halls between classes.” The 55 seconds between class periods add up to less than five minutes each day that a student is not being told to sit taller, speak softer, or look forward—five minutes of freedom for a child.
Human rights provide essential, non-derogable freedoms to all people. While many assume that simply having all children enrolled in school fulfills the human right to education, this is only a small part of what international agreements call for. Education, according to such agreements, should actually allow children the freedom to grow into active citizens, following their own desires and dreams while protecting the freedoms of others.
As noted in General Comment No. 13 of the ICESCR Committee, education, besides being a right in and of itself, should be used to promote the respect of other rights and to help realize the total fulfillment of them. The human right to education exists, as well as human rights education, which has the goal of creating a culture that universally respects human rights. This type of education promotes certain values and attitudes that encourage people to not only demand protection of their own rights, but those of others. “It develops an understanding of everyone’s common responsibility to make human rights a reality in each community” (OHCHR).
Natalie Avalos says, “we cannot transform our material conditions without deconstructing the ideologies and affective drives that have forged them...without naming the multiple forms of our dispossession and claiming our existential rights to live in our full humanity” (Teaching Resistance, 2019, p.145). The classroom is a place, she says, to learn how to “be in the world in a nonviolent way.” We can learn how to share power and resources. We can learn how to collaborate. This is human rights education and the human right to education, in one. Education in this sense is the basis for personal freedom and a crucial prerequisite for the fulfillment of other human rights.
Just as with other human rights, the right to education can be adjudicated by the “four A’s”: accessibility, availability, adaptability, and acceptability. Applied to education, this can mean that schools should be well funded and prolific, free from discrimination, adaptable to the changing needs and desires of students, and culturally appropriate. Unfortunately, discrimination of all types runs rampant in the public school system, and students often do not feel comfortable in the buildings where they spend the majority of their days.
In a small national survey of adults, over half of respondents did not think that their K-12 schools were adapting to meet the changing needs of society.
Over a dozen international agreements discuss the human right to education, and the U.S. played an extensive role in the development of education as a human right. Beyond the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations released a Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training (HRET) in 2011, when the United States served on the Human Rights Council. This document provided a new set of articles explicitly defining what human rights education and training should encompass, along with specific state responsibilities. It stresses the importance of a universal culture of human rights, with a focus on mutual responsibility and participation. A 2016 panel created to discuss the implementation of the HRET declaration acknowledged that educators should adopt participatory, learner-centered, and culturally responsive methodologies. Western values and culture are reflected in all of the documents that the U.S. is a party to, so implicitly, the U.S. should have a deep interest in promoting this right. However, the reality today shows that the U.S. prioritizes capital gains over human rights.
What U.S. Schools Look Like Now
Availability: are there enough schools and of sufficient quality? Are teachers properly trained and supplied with necessary materials?
Stories of material resource deprivation are common in the United States and are reinforced by data gathered most recently in 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics and published in 2019. Environmental factors are “unsatisfactory” in up to 17% of public schools. This can include poor lighting, heating, water quality, noise, and most often, ventilation and air conditioning issues. As the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (often a proxy for poverty) rises, so do the percentages of unsatisfactory environmental factors.
In all states, most educators use their own money, uncompensated, to buy supplies and materials for their classrooms. Teachers in high-poverty schools also spend more than in low-poverty schools. Further, students in high poverty schools have less experienced instructors, less access to high-level science, math, and advanced placement courses, and lower levels of state and local spending on instructors and instructional materials. Numerous studies have shown that schools with higher percentages of at-risk students also have more teachers without full state teaching certification. The students are the ones who feel the impact of these disparities, and the consequences are worse outcomes when it comes to attendance, school performance, and graduation rates.
Accessibility: are schools accessible to everyone without discrimination?
Racial discrimination is so prevalent in the U.S. that it is inescapable in education. Having good schools accessible to children near their homes has also been a historical problem for most U.S. states because the U.S. is residentially segregated, and children often have to attend the school closest to them (therefore, schools are de facto segregated). Even when schools were formally racially desegregated in 1954, very little change happened until the 1970s and 80s. In fact, despite a common misconception, U.S. schools have only become more segregated in the Northeast from 1968 until today.
Gender discrimination can appear in schools in many ways, which hurt both girls and boys. For example, boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. Additionally, according to the most recent federal data, there was a 55% increase in sexual violence and a 53% increase in sexual assault when comparing 2017-2018 to 2015-2016 data, as well as nearly doubled incidents of rape or attempted rape that were reported at school.
Continuing in the vein of discrimination, only four states currently require teaching of LGBTQA history (California was the first), while four prohibit it. Just 15 states have laws prohibiting discrimination against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. California has had LGBTQA protections in place for over ten years, yet 67% of students said they were not taught positive representations of LGBTQA people, history, or events. 74% heard negative remarks about someone’s gender expression while in school, and 29% reported that they heard such remarks from school staff.
Further, in 2020 the U.S. Department of Education reported that fewer than 42% of states were in compliance with IDEA’s federal special education laws for students with disabilities. A 2020 government report found that in 63% of public school districts, at least 25% of facilities are not physically accessible to those with disabilities.
Freedom of religion is also frequently contested in U.S. public schools, as the nation struggles to separate “church and state.” Muslim students are more likely than others to have experienced bullying related to their religion at school, with one in four reported incidents involving a teacher, and some students still report their teachers reading directly from the bible during class.
Acceptability: are students being taught with culturally relevant and high-quality curricula?
There is no single federal standard for education in the U.S., which would theoretically allow for individualized instruction and an extremely relevant curriculum in each state. In reality, most students and adults find that public education is erratic and sorely lacking in the subjects that citizens most value. Most teachers do not even have significant input into the material they teach. In my national survey, when asked what they wished they learned in school, almost 50% of those surveyed mentioned taxes or financial literacy. One in ten said they wished they learned unbiased history.
There is no mandated civics education nor specific human rights class. With a focus on standardization, testing, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), many U.S. public schools offer neither the rigour nor the subject matter that would help children become well-versed in human rights. Martha Nussbaum claims that “a strong integration of the arts and literature [helps] to release the imagination and develop empathy for the Other,” which is integral in fostering a desire to protect human rights.
Acceptable education through human rights also means education that is participatory and democratic, adaptable, and accessible to all learners. Yet, the basic structure and teaching methods used by modern schools, despite significant research in the field of pedagogy, still relies heavily on what Paulo Freire calls the “banking method” of education. As described by Freire in 1970, in the banking method, teachers make “deposits” into the minds of children by talking, and children accept the knowledge by listening. Freire says this type of educational transaction is sanctioned by neoliberalism because it trains students to become docile citizens due to its one-directional nature.
Adaptability: is education flexible so that it can adapt to the changing needs of communities and students within their diverse settings?
A decentralized public education system can be both easier and more challenging to adapt to. Federal regulations have little effect in states that wish to maintain autonomy in education, but this way, states retain the freedom to allow individual school districts as much authority as they may need to adapt to their individual students.
At the district level, low-income and minority students are more likely to be in classes with more students, even though these students stand to see the greatest positive effects of small class size. Black and low-income students also disproportionately attend schools with the highest disciplinary and suspension rates. Schools in lower-income neighborhoods have higher numbers of students who need to work to financially contribute to their household, but these are the same schools under the most pressure to meet attendance goals tied to funding, so scheduling flexibility is minimal.
On a different note, nationally, only 20% of K-12 students are enrolled in a foreign language class despite at least 350 different languages being spoken in the U.S., including over 41 million native Spanish speakers. A failure like this to recognize the social and cultural settings children live in not only denies their right to an adaptable education but also prevents the building of a stable foundation that would allow them an education that meets other needs as well.
We don’t often talk about human rights as a matter of history, but the history of education in the United States makes it clear that the current K-12 (kindergarten through high school) public school system was never designed to promote the human right to education. In fact, because the U.S. has long developed a ruling elite class, many long-standing institutions are actually threatened by international education mandates. As such, there are systemic barriers to fulfilling the human right to education today.
While education has served many purposes since the founding of the nation, the most recent iteration was developed during the second industrial revolution, roughly 200 years ago, and has not been dramatically altered since the 1960s. The industrial revolution in the Americas overlapped with a period of the great migration to the U.S., so public schools proliferated and began to look increasingly similar (as well as structured) to prepare young scholars to be obedient factory workers. New schools opened each day. In 1892 a small committee met and designed the nation’s curriculum in an attempt to standardize subjects among U.S. states, which remains largely unchanged today. Employers were simultaneously giving schools feedback on their curriculum, particularly in the West, where farming and mining states were becoming wealthier. The direct link between educational goals and economic goals was solidified during this period.
Meritocracy gained traction in the late 1800s as well because of the seemingly sudden numbers of both immigrants and recently freed enslaved people moving to new towns and cities. Teachers needed a standardized system to evaluate their large number of students, and grades (marks) could also be used to separate students, whether by achievement, class, or race. Incongruous with international education legislation, which forbids discrimination and makes no link between education and the economy, K-12 education in the U.S. actually prepares children for undemocratic and economically stratified citizenship.
Even decades later, when neoliberalism gained popularity during the social reforms of the 1960s, meritocracy continued to reign as it was common to view individuals as important “entrepreneurial actors” whose success and failures depend only on themselves. With a renewed focus on free-market capitalism (“Reaganomics”), civil society was reduced to a domain for exercising personal entrepreneurship, leaving no space for education as a public good; much less education “directed to the full development of the human personality,” (Article 26 of the UDHR).
Education must adapt to its learners, and communities will always have different needs and desires for their learning. There is a widely recognized need for more participatory democratic spaces in most of today’s societies. Luckily, many education projects around the world have already been successful in creating such spaces.
Liberating pedagogy, or the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” “to the full development of the human personality,” has arisen in different global contexts and could easily be applied in U.S. public schools today. Not coincidentally, there are similar pedagogies that arise in all of these contexts: horizontalism, democracy, critical literacy, and self-directed learning, as well as a commitment to schools as safe and caring places. These pedagogies are excellent methods for educating citizens who are committed to equity and liberation, both in theory and in practice, which will better fulfill the human right to education. These radical pedagogies have been developed within spaces of resistance and have much to offer traditional education.
Horizontalism: In a horizontal learning environment, teachers do not pretend to know everything, and students are not mere objects of learning. Everyone is an active participant, and learning flows both ways between children and adults.
Direct Democracy: In a truly democratic school, everyone has a voice. The vote of a student is equal in weight to the vote of a teacher. The community at large makes decisions that affect them.
Critical Literacy: This activist model of citizenship asks students to examine the power dynamics in and around media, encouraging them to consider different socio-political viewpoints.
Self-Directed Learning: This kind of inquiry-based learning allows students to construct their own education based on their interests. Teachers give loose direction and allow students to ask their own questions and discover a hidden curriculum.
Safety: Abolish policing in schools. The notions of freedom and non-hierarchy mean nothing in a school where police are able to arrest a misbehaving student. Collective liberation in an academic setting requires a community commitment to restorative justice without the external influence that comes from schools collaborating with police departments. Schools are a microcosm of society, so children who are able to learn in police-free environments can become adults willing and able to exercise their fundamental rights, perhaps in a newly police-free state as calls for abolition grow in the U.S.
These methods of teaching and learning inherently reduce discrimination and increase access, particularly for historically underserved students (such as neurodivergent or ELL children) who struggle to learn in a traditional, rigid classroom that oftentimes feels unsafe. A curriculum that is developed by and for children will naturally be relevant and culturally appropriate to them, and the intervention of adults can still ensure good quality education. Self-directed learning is flexible by nature, and children who learn the value of critical literacy at a young age can become older students who fight for an equally adaptable space for those who succeed them. The education experiments mentioned above have been successful in proving this on a small scale and have been gaining traction as potential large scale solutions as well.
Ultimately, liberatory education is something that changes as we do. Allowing students to participate as equals with adults in their academic ventures would set an example of what equitable, liberatory governance can look like and force anyone in the school to ask more critical questions of governing structures outside of the school setting. In this way, liberation is praxis. That is the human right to education: continued practice so that children may grow up to be democratic citizens and ardent defenders of freedom and human rights.