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The Trouble With Educational Slogans

Slogans are a highly effective way of getting the attention of the public. But do they accomplish much more than that? I have reference now to the granddaddy of all educational slogans: equal opportunity for all students. The notion is so noble. The reality, however, is that we will never achieve that goal in this country.

I was reminded of how quixotic the task is by hard data ("How Did the World's Rich Get That Way? Luck," Businessweek, Apr. 22). According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 20 percent of Americans get about half the nation's income, and the top 10 percent control about 70 percent of the wealth. These numbers are significant because about 35 to 43 percent of variation in the income of children after they grow up is associated with the relative wealth and income of their parents. Boding ill for the future is that childhood poverty is nearly 22 percent, the highest in two decades.

I don't doubt that effort, ability and intelligence can sometimes result in some children overcoming their disadvantaged backgrounds. But how probable is it that large numbers of children born to parents at the bottom of the income spectrum can ever hope to achieve at the same level as children born with a silver spoon in their mouth ("No Rich Child Left Behind," The New York Times, Apr. 28)? I'm not talking about possible but instead about probable. This is not defeatism, as some will charge. Instead, it is an observation based on the evidence to date. Let's not forget that the U.S. is a huge country. We're not China or India in terms of population, but we're still big.

Nevertheless, public schools are lambasted for not posting better results. I'm not an apologist for abysmal schools. They are cheating students out of whatever slim opportunity they have to rise above the circumstances of their birth. But it's not fair to lump all schools that fail to meet expectations into that category. There are factors beyond the control of even the most dedicated teachers. Consider the role that parental involvement plays in education. High-flying schools succeed largely because parents care deeply about their children's education. However, not all children have parents like that. It's a matter of luck. Children do not choose their parents.

So the next time the equal educational opportunity banner is unfurled, I think it behooves everyone to regard it with a healthy dose of skepticism. It's not going to happen unless we have a more equitable distribution of income.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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