Restoring Dignity in Public Schools: Human Rights Education in Action
reviewed by Linda Chavers - August 23, 2016
Title: Restoring Dignity in Public Schools: Human Rights Education in Action
Author(s): Maria Hantzopoulos
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775742X, Pages: 180, Year: 2016
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Restoring Dignity in Public Schools: Human Rights Education in Action is a dense, at times complex, and vital read for anyone in secondary or higher education who is interested in changing the status quo. Its very title is its core message. Author Maria Hantzopoulos is not arguing for introducing notions of dignity, compassion, and empathy to public education. She instead reminds us that these qualities are already there and should be brought to the center of educational practice and administration rather than pushed to the side.
Hantzopoulos does not begin the book with a clear and fixed definition of Human Rights Education (HRE) but rather demonstrates how it is practiced in secondary education. Citing a small public school in New York City named Humanities Preparatory Academy (Prep), the author chronicles how a once struggling school has achieved success by its practice of combining intellectual rigor with participatory culture. In other words, Hantzopouloss goal is to illuminate how an urban public school successfully did away with the dehumanizing constraints of No Child Left Behind and Common Core State Standards by incorporating the tenets of HRE and placing the individual child and educator at its center.
Restoring Dignity in Public Schools is a difficult book to wade through mostly because of the exhaustive and sometimes redundant amount of information Hantzopoulos provides. However, given her points about the extreme resistance to implementing HRE in American school systems, one can sympathize with the motivation behind this high volume of content. Hantzopoulos has two main barriers to push through: the current culture of high-stakes testing and accountability and the degradingly punitive atmosphere existing in our public schools. The popular discourse around secondary education concerns high-stakes testing and graduation rates resulting in preparing students solely for the testsat the expense of other empirically sound and effective pedagogies (p. 4). Further, as countless educators attest to, this type of preparation results in college freshmen arriving unprepared for the academic and intellectual rigors of higher education. Many college professors have privately and publicly denounced the tragic results of what happens with teaching to the test, myself included. Hantzopoulos adds to this sentiment by explaining, [t]his emphasis on accountability through high-stakes exams has only exacerbated existing inequities, particularly for those who historically have been marginalized from schooling, including students of color, low income students, multilingual students, and those with diagnosed disabilities (p. 4).
Hantzopoulous quickly lets us know that her book aims to address all student populations, particularly the ones discussed above that tend to be the worse off in these challenging contexts. In addition, the author promptly addresses the tensions behind charged words such as diversity and urban youth. She defines for her readers,
words like diversity and urban youth are most certainly often code words to describe low income students of color, the usages of these words in this book are more expansive to complicate singular assumptions to which urban and diversity often refer . . . urban are ways to talk about race without having to talk about race. (p. 10)
Hantzopoulos is not talking around but rather through the concerns that are holding us back as a society and particularly our most vulnerable populations.
Hantzopoulos cites most of her evidence from the previously mentioned New York's Prep school where she taught for 10 years before returning to conduct fieldwork for two years. She gathers evidence from other organizations employing HRE but Prep is her most illuminating and informative subject. Before sharing the evidence showing how HRE works and is successful, the author introduces and defines the essence of HRE and what it has looked like over the past twenty years. Within all of her convincing common sense arguments regarding HRE, what stands out powerfully and tragically is what is missing from our discourse on public education: [t]he United States . . . is one of the few national entities that does not refer to human rights or human rights education in any official educational policy literature (p. 17). Reading this book better situates what Hantzopoulos mentions earlier about the degrading atmosphere that can result from zero tolerance policies in schools. For example, a fifteen-year-old Black female student was slammed down and dragged out of a classroom by a white security guard during the spring of 2016. Her infraction was that she had her cellphone out in class and was not participating. A friend and fellow classmate videotaped this incident on a camera phone and was also arrested. The incident exploded on social and national media but the author points out that such humiliating moments occur more often than we think.
Hantzopoulos spends three chapters introducing HRE, including its history in global and national discourses and its current practices. This is perhaps the densest and most challenging aspect of her book since there is an exhaustive amount of information to get through. The author also informs readers about HRE, including its relation to the United Nations and the ACLU, and its place in grassroots, activist, academic, and political circles. The following seven chapters move from pushing for HRE in theory and practice, situating its origins, history, and various contexts and taking us to the spaces where HRE is currently active and producing positive results such as Humanities Prep in New York City. Hantzopoulus correctly argues that saturating Restoring Dignity in Public Schools with empirical evidence demonstrate[es] how these schools institutionalize pervasive forms of HRE in practice and document[s] the struggles and challenges [to show] the multiple possibilities (p. 30) for an educational system that puts human dignity at its center.