Some of the most courageous actions for equality in the United States and South Africa have come from children - from the thousands who marched in Birmingham, only to have been met with fire hoses and police attack dogs, to the students who integrated Southern schools to the Soweto child uprising over the brutalities of apartheid.
Now children are teaching new lessons in South Africa. Last week, thousands marched peacefully outside Cape Town City Hall demanding better schools, libraries, quality teachers, and teachers who simply show up for work. The New York Times featured a school in a Cape Town township where the students were teaching themselves because of chronic absenteeism and loafing by teachers.
Newspapers throughout South Africa have been noting brewing youth anger over education for the last several years. In 2007, 80 students in a Johannesburg school demanded the removal of "bad'' teachers citing the school's 95 percent failure rate.
Last year, students in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, with the help of law school graduates in a movement that has become known as Equal Education, successfully protested to get over 500 broken windows replaced. Ninth-grader Phatiswa Shushwana told South Africa's Financial Mail, "I didn't really think we could get the windows fixed, but afterwards I realized that we do have the ability and the power.''
We need students in the United States to find their ability and power to change education in this nation.
Despite being the wealthiest nation on earth, the United States is only 36th in science proficiency and 35th in math scores, behind several former communist countries, in rankings by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States only 30th in overall quality of primary education, 45th for education expenditure.
One reason is that the United States permits one of the largest gaps in educational outcomes between rich and poor. Millions of youth are barely better off than those in South Africa, consigned to desolate urban schools and forgotten rural districts in a modern version of race and class segregation. South Africa's education leaders and President Jacob Zuma at least admit their education system is broken and that it can no longer be blamed on the legacy of apartheid. They feel the pressure coming from the townships.
Graeme Bloch of the Development Bank of Southern Africa told The New York Times, "If you're in a township school, you don't have much chance. That's the hidden curriculum - that inequality continues, that white kids do reasonably and black kids don't really stand a chance unless they can get into a formerly white school or the small number of black schools that work.''
Here at home, we know the system is broken, but we never remotely come close to doing something about it. President Obama said in his recent back-to-school address, "I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books and the equipment and the computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too. So I expect all of you to get serious this year.''
Obama may honestly wish to be educator-in-chief, but it is hypocritical to ask students to get serious when Congress is not. Our version of broken windows was the miserly debate over the stimulus package that continued to trivialize school repairs. Repairs are merely an optional part of the $53.6 billion in state fiscal stabilization funds for education. But the price tag alone for repairs was $127 billion in a government estimate a decade ago. Education advocacy groups claim the figure is now $322 billion.
In August, the Daily News in Durban, South Africa, quoted weary first-grade teacher Linda Ntuli, who said her cacophony of 128 students is a "nightmare.'' She said, "These kids don't have desks or chairs, they don't have stationery, so they get bored easily and lose concentration.''
In South Africa, the students are rising up against the nightmare. There are plenty of American classrooms that are horrific in their own right. A child uprising might be one thing that embarrasses the adults into restoring this part of the American Dream.