In a scathing indictment of public education, Jada Williams, a 13-year old eighth grader at School #3 in Rochester, New York, asserted that today's education system, like slavery, keeps children of color from meaningful learning. According to Good Education, Williams essay referred to a quote by Frederick Douglass, who said that his slave master, Mr. Auld, told his wife, "If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master."
Williams said real learning is precluded by overcrowded and poorly managed classrooms, yielding the same results as Mr. Auld's ban. She went on to point out that her teachers—the majority of whom are white in this white minority district—have the power to determine what she can and cannot learn. Rather than teaching, she said that most teachers give students packets to complete independently, which she argues is pointless since her peers cannot read or comprehend the material.
Indeed, only 19 percent of her school’s eighth graders were proficient in language arts last year. Good Education argues that since this is well below the state average of 60%, “it's clear that the school and its teachers need to change their approach.” What Good Education fails to recognize is that low test scores, literacy and graduation rates are caused primarily by poverty, so even if they do change their approach, they would likely see only limited improvement in test scores and literacy.
What is clear from Williams’ essay is that her teachers created a learning environment that bored her and stifled her curiosity. Relying entirely or mostly on packets and worksheets is a terrible (though convenient) way to teach, especially for children reading below grade level. However, even kids who are reading at grade level benefit from inquiry-based, student-centered pedagogies.
Williams’ teacher and school, needless to say, were not happy with her criticisms and engaged in a campaign of harassment that ultimately led to her withdrawal from the school. The conservative Frederick Douglass Foundation, however, was impressed with her essay and her courage and gave her a special award, saying that her essay demonstrated an understanding of Douglass’ autobiography.