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The legacy ingrained in the collective history of our country is one of individual agency. In order to succeed in the U.S. you must “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and succeed despite any odds set against you. We tend to view education as an equalizer, a means of succeeding in spite of circumstance. We’ve all heard about the importance of being in school. “Keep your head in those books and leave the boys alone!” or “Make sure you graduate from high school or else you’ll work at McDonalds!” Oh and then there’s all of the slogans and cliché’s : “Education is the Key” or “Only the Educated are Free” yada yada blah blah.  Education is viewed as society’s cure-all as if a diploma is our key to the Promised Land. Meanwhile, there must be something wrong with “those people” who drop out of school and wind up (or remain) poor. They should just work harder and make something of themselves. So what if you live in the projects? So what if you live in a single parent household? You have the same opportunity as the average American…use it!

Sigh….and yet we quickly forget  that growing up in the hood vs. suburban Pleasantville dramatically affects the quality of education we have. We tend to have social amnesia and forget about the whole poverty thing. Yeah I said it P.O.V.E.R…well you get the point. Please don’t misunderstand me, education reform can make a world of difference in our society. However we can’t simply advocate for longer school days, uniforms, and high stakes test scores and call it progress. Our education system is designed for people with money to succeed. The nicer neighborhoods have the better buildings, more books, and higher quality teachers. Meanwhile, poor neighborhoods get the middle finger with outdated textbooks and broken radiators in the dead of winter. Educational researcher David Berliner refers to poverty as this:

That’s right, it’s the 600 pound gorilla in the room. When developing education policy, our politicians like to act as though poverty doesn’t exist.  Hmm…I wonder why? Berliner argues the reason why school reform is often turned to as the solution to societal woes is because, “school reform, as opposed to other things we might do to improve achievement really involves relatively little money and perhaps more importantly, asks practically nothing of the non-poor who often control society’s resources.” The school system cannot single-handedly tackle the achievement gap. There are deep-seated structural forces that must be examined and transformed before school reform stands a fighting chance. Lets look at this graph:

This graph shows the amount of children living in poverty in rich countries. Notice anything strange? Yup that’s right the United States is at the bottom of the list! Beaten only by Mexico! What a damn shame. Despite our title as “the land of opportunity”, almost one fourth of our children are living in poverty. Studies show that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to succeed. Interestingly enough, poverty is directly correlated with race. If you are African-American and Hispanic you are more likely to be poor. Although we are known as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we have the lowest distribution of wealth, and this unequal distribution is racialized. Some people might say “Ok, well you might grow up in poverty but at least you have the opportunity to get out of it right?” True….but very difficult to do. Out of the world’s richest countries, the United States has the worst track record of exiting people out of poverty. Simply put, if you become poor in this country you’re much more likely to remain poor. So much for those bootstraps!

“My fellow Americans, this is an amazing moment for me. To think that a once scrawny boy from Austria could grow up to become Governor of California and stand in Madison Square Garden to speak on behalf of the President of the United States that is an immigrant’s dream. It is the American dream.”
–    Arnold Schwarzenegger

Secretly, don’t we all wish for this dream to be real? It’s such a romantic story, a  country that rewards hard work and drive with material success despite insurmountable odds. We desperately want to buy into this vision. It is a story that has shaped our collective history for so long. “The idea that schools cannot cure poverty by themselves sounds like a vote of no confidence in our great American capacity for self transformation, a major element of the stories we tell as a nation.”  But we must wake up and get our head out of the clouds! Millions of people work multiple jobs to feed their families and pay the bills and yet, they are barely surviving. Despite the myth we espouse, hard work does not equal success. We must ask ourselves why our system has been designed this way. In order to create fulfill the dream we talk about, we must work on transforming our country’s current reality of structural dis-empowerment; that is if we truly care about the future of the our children. The current American dream  ignores deep-rooted structures that inhibit equality, and leaves many students in the school system feeling isolated and hopeless. Let’s just face it: Poverty is not an individual problem, but a structural one.

Well what’s wrong with being optimistic? Weren’t we told that we can do anything we set our minds to? True…in some cases and much more difficult in others. Dreaming big is what makes our country so great! We are the land of big ideas. However, why not work collectively to break down structural barriers that cause so many people to fail? This would give more people the actual opportunity to obtain this American dream.

***Barbara Ehrenreich speaks more about the difference between hopeless optimism and constructive realism in this animated video****