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Americans' Attitudes on Inequality: A Teacher's Dilemma

Though the Two Americas campaign is kaput, let’s talk about a new Maxwell School poll on Americans’ attitudes towards inequality. (Juju to Andrew Leigh for the link.) What continues to surprise me is how, despite a rising tide of inequality, a high proportion of Americans still believe that everyone has a fair shot.

Here are the key findings from the September 2007 survey: Though 67.4% of Americans think that we’re becoming a society of haves and have nots and only 33.4% believe that everyone in America has an opportunity to succeed, less than half (45.7%) see the current extent of income inequality in our society as a serious problem.

And most Americans still believe in the American Dream. When asked “Do you think what you achieve in life depends largely on your family background, or on your abilities and hard work?”, only 12.3% chose family background (32.6% said both). 85% agreed that, “While people may begin with different opportunities, hard work and perseverance can usually overcome those disadvantages."

These responses varied across the income spectrum, but not as much as one might think. 31.1% of those with family incomes under $50,000 said that “just some” Americans have opportunities," while 22.4% of those with family incomes over $100,000 did. 73.8% of those with family incomes under $50,000 said we are becoming a society of haves and have nots, while 59% of those making over $100,000 did.

What does this have to do with K-12 education? Back in November, I responded to Jim Horn’s post “Work Hard, Be Nice, and Other Lies My KIPP Teacher Told Me.” Basically, the question was whether educators should preach that hard work and effort yield success irrespective of one's racial or class background. Some observers have argued that they shouldn’t. For example, in Ain’t No Makin’ It, Jay McLeod wrote:

The familiar refrain of “Behave yourself, study hard, earn good grades, graduate with your class, go on to college, get a good job, and make a lot of money” reinforces the feelings of personal inadequacy and failure that working-class students are likely to bear as a matter of course. By this logic, those who have not made it have only themselves to blame. Because it shrouds class, race, and gender barriers to success, the achievement ideology promulgates a lie, one that some students come to recognize as such.

On the other hand, what does a rejection of the “achievement ideology” look like in the classroom? Readers, please chime in.

Want to read more about research on inequality? Check out a new magazine on poverty, inequality, and social policy called Pathways. Think Ed Next, but without editorial dogma about "the establishment." The first issue includes articles by Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on the "new War on Poverty," as well as short articles about income inequality by folks like Robert Frank, Charles Murray, and Tim Smeeding. There are also ed related articles on the gender gap and housing vouchers. You can sign up for a free subscription here.

To be blunt, I think that Jay McLeod's ideology -- however well-meant -- is profoundly misguided. If you tell poor (that is, monetarily poor) students what might be a more realistic message ("Don't even bother; the deck is so stacked against you that you might as well not even try"), inequality can only get worse, because those students will fall even further behind the richer suburban students. Right? What else does anyone expect to happen?

Jay McLeod's ideology has always struck me as the equivalent of this: "Don't bother telling your daughter that she's a beautiful little girl. Chances are that she's really just average. In fact, better just instill in her that she's ugly as sin and that no one will ever like her."

There are perceptions. And then there is reality. Kids and parents can know both that they have the ability to do better but also understand that there needs to be a change in policy.

From today's Education News:

"Children from low-income families in the United States do not have the same access to qualified teachers as do wealthier students, according to a University of Missouri study. Compared to 46 countries, the United States had the fourth largest opportunity gap, the difference between students of high and low socioeconomic status in their access to qualified teachers.

"Comparing eighth grade math teachers from around the world, the study defined highly qualified teachers as ones who have full certification, a degree in math or math education and at least three years of teaching experience. The study found that high-achieving countries have a larger percentage of students taught by highly qualified teachers than low-achieving countries.

"When students are not taught by highly qualified teachers, their opportunity to learn is considerably lower," said Motoko Akiba, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis in the College of Education at MU. "Previous studies have shown that students with similar backgrounds achieve significantly higher when taught by highly-qualified teachers."

Discouraging? Yes. Inevitable? No.

What does a rejection of the “achievement ideology” look like in the classroom?

A rejection of the achievment ideology looks like a re-examination of the ways that we teach history. Examples--Martin Luther King was a man who fought for his rights. Instead, he was a man who studied effective means of integrating belief with the marshalling of the oppressed to confront an unjust authority.

Rosa Parks didn't just get tired one day and refuse to move. She had involved herself in a study of rights and history and the Constitution and made connection with groups doing likewise, so that on that day when she refused to move she had people to call from the same jailhouse where others had just rotted for similar actions.

Teach about the growth of unions in this country, marshalling the power of organization to confront unjust conditions (Triangle Shirt Waist, company stores, scab laborers of different ethnicities shipped in to provoke violence). Teach about the countries in the world where "welfare" is not an insult--and the social contract to ensure access to such basics as employment, housing, education and health care is taken seriously.

Teach about rights and writing letters and voting. Teach about learning in supportive groups instead of as isolated "ones," each responsible only for self.

The problem with rejecting the achievement ideology is not what to do in its place. The problem is letting go of the possibility that individual action will gain more than working with the group.

Once I read this post and clicked over to the survey results, I asked the next five people I talked to -- all in the education or ed nonprofit field to guess what percentage of Americans agreed with the following statement: "While people may begin with different opportunities, hard work and perseverance can usually overcome those disadvantages." With one exception, nobody guessed higher than 50% (the poll showed 82.9%).

This is utterly unsurprising. If teachers weren't concerned about inequity, surely we would choose a sunnier vineyard in which to toil.

I'm concerned about the long-term impact, however, of failing to deliver on this hopeful view. Think for a moment about the child (every classroom has one) who comes to school ready to learn, and buys what we are selling without question. This child is neither our brightest, but far from our lowest achiever. She does her homework and everything else asked of her without complaint. She gets good grades. Not the top, but near enough. She's doing well in school.

But because she's not struggling, and becauses she's not a behavior problem, she never quite gets our full attention. We tell her she's doing great; her report cards are fine. Everything's perfect until she gets to college, and sees kids who while not as bright as she is, get good grades while she struggles. Maybe she even fails out.

Because she didn't get the education she could have had in a better environment -- and because we assured her she was fine measured against our low standards -- her job prospects are diminshed and her income not what it might have been had she sprung from a luckier womb. Now what? Because she is too bright to be sold a false bill of goods, will she tell her children to sit up in class and do whatever the teacher said, the way her mom taught her? How will she answer when the pollster calls her 20 years from now?

Maybe the question isn't about what said rejection looks like in the classroom, but what the rejection should look like in the school continuum.

For example, school counselors could be powerful allies who work with the teacher and student to discover strengths, then help the student work towards larger goals by identifying opportunities for strategic growth.

Ex: Let's say that there is a disadvantaged youngster with a scientific bent. That youth needs to know about free and low-cost community opportunities like workshops or camps where they can make connections and see if science is really their "thing." They need to know how to prepare to apply for scholarships, laying the groundwork years in advance for higher education opportunities. They should be connected with a mentor who could assist outside school hours helping the youth imagine the life of an scientist. (and so on, so forth...)

I think rejecting the Horatio Algier myth in today's classroom has more to do with connecting with students on a personal, one-on-one level than telling a group of kids that the deck is stacked against them. Young people need the encouragement to strike out beyond their circumstances, whatever they are, to pursue a life of their choosing. That encouragement takes the form of simple information and role-modeling, which impoverished students tend not to get at home.


There is a lively debate on the American Dream going on at my blog at:


Is it about a rejection of achievement ideology? Or, is it about being honest with one's children in (and out) of the classroom, giving them a clear view of the road that lies ahead?

It seems that the latter is the most honest and best way. Instead of the many paternalistic approaches suggested, we treat children as the blooming intellects they are and help them understand why this country is not really meritocratic and why capitalism, with its good points, is also problematic in terms of everyone having an opportunity to "make it".

Imagine what would happen!

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Nathan Long: Is it about a rejection of achievement ideology? Or, is read more
  • Liberal Arts Dude: Hello There is a lively debate on the American Dream read more
  • edh: Maybe the question isn't about what said rejection looks like read more
  • Robert Pondiscio: Once I read this post and clicked over to the read more
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