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Education as a Human Right
Trevor Gardner at UCLA -- Oct. 2003.

Education as a Human Right

Trevor Gardner, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, calls on all teachers, politicians, and individuals to insure every child's human right to education.

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"The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.

The best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.

The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right."
- Principle 7 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of a Child (20 November 1959)

It has been forty-five years since the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of a Child, a proclamation which explicitly guarantees children the right to basic freedoms and protections, including the above promise of quality education. Exactly thirty years later at the International Convention on the Rights of a Child, 176 nations signed onto a binding treaty, which expanded on the original Declaration and essentially made it international law. As a 10th grade world history teacher in one of San Francisco’s most neglected urban high schools, it sadly does not surprise me that the United States is one of only two nations not to have signed the Convention treaty. The other: Somalia. The reason: they are a nation without a functioning government.

The question, then, must be asked, "Is quality education a human right and are we providing our children with education that meets the standards accepted by nearly every nation in the world?" Are we teaching our children? Or, perhaps more significantly, are we teaching ALL our children?

The words "education" and "high standards" spring from the tongues of politicians like money from the pockets of corporate lobbyists, confidently and with resolve. But, I wonder how many truly understand the claims they construct ?or have even reflected on what it means to have high standards in education. The Declaration of the Rights of a Child articulates ideals such as: promotion of a child's culture, enablement, maintaining equal opportunity for children, helping to develop individual judgment and a sense of moral and social responsibility. These are some of the standards agreed upon by almost every nation across the globe. But when most politicians speak of high standards and accountability, they hold a different vision in their minds and, a majority of the time only in their minds - as the extent of their exposure to public education rarely reaches beyond the thirty-minute photo opp.

So, what are the lofty standards to which students and teachers in the United States are held accountable in today's "No Child Left Behind" climate? Do they align with the protections guaranteed to all children when the United Nations signed the Convention of the Rights of a Child on November 20, 1989? Do their visions of standards truly have "the best interests of the child" as the focus?

If so, then there exists a monumental gap between the incessant political claims about improving public education and the changes that actually need to occur to assure that all children in this country are given the opportunity to shine and grow through the nurturing of our public schools. Currently, high standards are defined and measured through standardized tests of knowledge. Knowledge is what matters, mostly rote facts that can be regurgitated into small lettered bubbles by #2 pencils. Promotion of culture, developing individual judgment, teaching a sense of moral and social responsibility ?the core educational values outlined by the United Nations; these are not values that can be assessed by a multiple choice test. Nor can they be used to objectively compare one student to another. Rather, they provide the guiding principles for how education should be carried out everywhere.

The flawed logic of those responsible for the contemporary flood of standards-based exams claims that creating a difficult test and forcing all students to learn identical information in the exact same way will lead to universal student success. By touting these "high standards," politicians are able to assert their support for education while taking little action for the best interests of children.

The true "achievement gap" in education is that of the chasm between politicians' voices and their actions in support of public schools. Perhaps they need to spend more time in schools like Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, where I teach, with children like the ones who show up to my classroom each Monday through Friday eager to learn. Incredible human beings who are falling through the gaps. I wonder if they would deliver more on their promises if they were forced to spend a week in my Modern World History class, in room 321 along with thirty five other students striving to do the best they can, nearly half of whom cannot read or write at a high school skill level. Would they be willing to sit obediently for four hours filling in bubbles on a high stakes test completely unrelated to the realities of their lives? Use the repulsive bathrooms? Eat the unrecognizable cafeteria lunches? Learn to write a persuasive essay when given an average of eight minutes of individual attention per week with any given teacher? Would they succeed, or even survive?

Would they then understand that the neglect of public education, the neglect of school children in the United States constitutes a human rights abuse? Perhaps they would feign responsibility, pointing to the fact that the US has refused to sign onto the Convention of the Rights of a Child. But I have more faith. I believe in change. We need to figure out ways to bridge the gaps: The gap between what politicians say about improving education and what they do. The gap between the daily realities of the lives of public school students and the awareness of everyone outside of education, including politicians. The gap between high stakes standardized tests and the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of a Child.

We live in the most prosperous nation ever developed. The material and intellectual resources of the United States are adequate enough to educate every child so that they achieve the brilliance that lies within them. Ignorance, failure, and miseducation should simply be unacceptable. We must begin to hold our politicians, our teachers, our parents, our citizens, and ourselves accountable to assure the human right to education that every student deserves.

Trevor Gardner teaches history and language arts at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. He participated in the Asia Institute's 2003 study tour to Korea and Japan and our 2004 workshop on human rights in Asia. You can reach him at

View the complete Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
Visit the website of the UCLA Asia Institute's 2004 workshop for educators: "Human Rights in Your Curriculum: Case Studies from Asia"

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.

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