Is the American Dream a Pipe Dream?

Our national conversation often revolves around “the American dream,” that uniquely American notion that anyone who works hard can live a full life that includes a secure job, satisfying personal relationships, the freedom to share one’s opinions, and maybe even home ownership. Recently, though, I’ve been reminded of two things: 1) we live in an increasingly dichotomous society, with the gap between the haves and the have-nots growing daily; and 2) the terms we use to discuss this inequity may in fact be hampering true conversation and change.

Last month, a research bulletin released by the Southern Education Foundation showed that the majority (51%) of our nation’s public school students now qualify as low income. In 40 (80%) of our 50 states, low income students make up 40% or more of the student body. The achievement gap between students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and their wealthier peers is well documented. According to Paul Thomas, writing on this issue on AlterNet, “poverty blocks children from high-quality educational opportunities while privilege insures better schools, advanced degrees, and access to jobs linked to the networking of privilege…. The lives of adults in the U.S. are more often than not the consequences of large and powerful social dynamics driven by poverty and privilege—and not by the character or tenacity of any individual.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, according to US News & World Report, those students who attend high-poverty schools are also less likely to enroll in and complete college. In fact, the gap in college degrees between our nation’s richest and poorest students has more than doubled since 1970; while only 9% of students from America’s poorest families earn a bachelors degree, a whopping 77% of their wealthiest peers do the same (see the Pell Institute’s full report). Dr. Margaret Cahalan, Vice President for Research Council for Opportunity in Education and Director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, believes that, “we have a national imperative to improve postsecondary educational opportunity equity both from a social justice perspective and from a national competitiveness perspective.”

Many education reformers, myself included, have written about the pervasive lack of equity in our public school system and the need to address these societal issues before we can hope to improve the public school system for all children. As cited in the Children’s Defense Fund’s report titled Ending Child Poverty Now, the United States has the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries, and a child in the United States has a 1 in 5 chance of being poor. In the foreward, Marian Wright Edelman states, “Child poverty is too expensive to continue. Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion – six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The language we use to discuss educational reform can also influence this national conversation. In September 2013, Conor Williams reflected on the use of buzzwords like “professionalism” and “accountability” and their relationship to equity. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss adds the terms “choice” and “no excuses” to these examples of values framing; in other words, these terms (and numerous others) have been co-opted by policymakers to suggest that education reform is in progress, when the actual practice may be far from the original intention.

The National Education Association (NEA) has even published an internal document cautioning their members against using terms like “educational equity,” “inequality,” and “education reform.” Rather than educating students to be “college and career-ready,” for example, the NEA wants teachers to help students be “equipped to succeed.” What’s the difference? In the grand scheme of things, there probably isn’t one. However, words have power, and this national conversation is just ramping up. More citizens are beginning to realize that our society’s inequity is reflected in our schools, and that it is going to take more than a small, committed group of individuals to make broad, sweeping changes. We cannot shy away from this conversation or these words, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel. It is time to get serious about creating a public education system that offers real opportunity for all students, regardless of their background or zip code. If we can do that, then maybe the “American dream” won’t end up being a pipe dream.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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