Archive for the ‘Education’ Category


The (myth of the) American Dream

February 5, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write this since watching Obama deliver the State of the Union last Tuesday.

Toward the end, refering to Joe Biden and John Boehner sitting behind him, he said:

…but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.  That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth. That dream — that American Dream.

From what I know, the two of them–and Obama himself–are pretty good examples of the American Dream.   They weren’t born into perfect circumstances and have still managed to become incredibly powerful in adulthood.  It’s just too bad that they are the exception, not the rule.  For most people, most of the time, the American Dream is out of reach.

Two things.  First, lest those of us who are inspired by the Obamas, Bidens, and Boehners feel lonely, we’re not.

The figure below contrasts the average US perception of mobility and inequality with the average response of 27 comparison countries (from the International Social Survey Programme).  Click to enlarge.

I find this data absolutely incredible.  I don’t quite know what to say other than that it makes my point about the myth of mobility quite nicely.  (Well, either that or Americans have managed to create a special mobility-and-equality-conducive environment that they are keeping secret from the rest of the world.  I’ll get to why that’s not the case in another post.)

Secondly, this news story serves as a reminder that the structures that keep just anyone from achieving the American Dream are real.

Late last month, a mother was sentenced to 10 days in jail (she originally faced up to 10 years) for falsifying records to get her daughters into a better school.

Poe [the superintendent] said residency disputes are usually resolved after parents prove that they live in the district, pay tuition or remove their kids from the schools.  This marked the first time that one of their residency challenges went before a jury in criminal court. Poe said prosecuting this case was meant to send a message.

“If you’re paying taxes on a home here… those dollars need to stay home with our students,” Poe said.

However, family and friends of Williams-Bolar call this an unfair case of selective prosecution.

I don’t know the case beyond the various news stories about it, and the NPR interview with the superintendent makes a pretty compelling case for why this situation went to court while prior cases haven’t.  But if you believe education is one of the best “ways out,” it highlights one of the many structures that limit real generational mobility at a large scale.

(As an aside, one of the worst things about this story is that the mother has been working to get her teacher’s license.  Now that she has a felony on her record, she probably won’t be granted licensure.)

On a slightly different note, I’ve been reading a fair amount of migration history that points to where some of the idea of the American Dream came from.  And also where it went.

More on that later.



Rural education: and what in the world are we going to do about it?

September 23, 2009

dirt road farm landLately, I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again.  From concerned parents to stressed out Initially Licensed Teachers (ILTs) to grassroots activists to state level decision makers, I’ve been listening, learning and talking about the challenges of rural education.

Not that we’ve arrived, but we are making real progress on urban education (see New Leaders for New Schools’ Urban Excellence Framework).  There are smart, thoughtful folks figuring out how to turn chronically low performing schools around, engage the community, synch high school prep programs with local employers, and feed students directly into institutions of higher educations.  But for all the excited momentum around these urban models, we have yet to find ways to address the poverty, geographic isolation and constant staff turnover that plague rural communities.

One of the ILT’s I talked to this week pointed me towards a segment on North Carolina Public Radio about rural schools, using Warren County as a case study.  It’s nice to see someone else drilling down into a community to begin understanding what these challenges look like on the ground.

There are a million subtleties, but from what I know, Dave DeWitt gets it about right:

  • Urban Tier 1 schools get more money per pupil than rural Tier 1 schools.  Secretary Duncan has gestured toward changing that, but don’t hold your breath.
  • Because school budgets in most states are comprised of formulaic money from the state supplemented by local money, rural communities with weaker or more dispersed tax bases have fewer resources to spread (literally) farther.
  • Because of this reality, rural school districts are usually unable to raise teacher salaries above the (relatively low) state level.  Unable to compete, they lose their good teachers to the nearest urban school system (DeWitt’s comparison to baseball’s minor league feeding their best into the major leagues is a good one).
  • In addition to being unable to compete on salary, rural school districts often struggle to provide housing for young teachers (take Warren County which has not a single apartment in the entire county) and/or job opportunities for the partners/spouses of teachers.
  • In Warren County’s case, you end up with a superintendent admitting that he would be unable to staff his schools if it wasn’t for the constant influx of Teach for America Corp members.

Add on top of these the preference at the national level for competitive grant money for innovation in the form of charter schools and merit pay for teachers (changes more easily–though not exclusively–managed in districts with more concentrated resources and population) and you can see why this is often a discouraging conversation.

It’s a long row.  We’re working on it.  But in the meantime, we should all say a blessing over TFA.



SES trumps GPA

September 3, 2009

Sorry for the light posting, folks. I’m on the road for the next month with only intermittent Internet access. I’ll check in when I can but in the meantime, enjoy Flying Whale.

Here are the findings, graph-style, from a Department of Education study tracking college graduation rates. As Nathan points out,

many low-income students who had high math performance still didn’t complete college. The percentage of college completion for low-income, high math students was still lower than high-income, low math students.


I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview last week of some forthcoming research on labelling students academically talented/gifted and–at least in Georgia–the results echo the ones above. Kids’ chances have more to do with their SES status and the quality of their school than, you know, their intellectual ability.

Once you throw race into the mix–it’s almost impossible for a poor African American at a bad school who is academically gifted to be identified as such. If I remember correctly, their chance is something like 1.8%. I’ll post that study here as soon as it becomes available (and edit that number if need be).

Obviously, the solutions that make college graduation more attainable for poor students and the policy and attitudinal changes that would level the nomination and testing process for being identified as academically gifted are quite different. But I’m adding both sets of data to my response arsenal when someone insists we have a merit-based education system.