How the system is broken and needs to be fixed.
In a perfect world, all students would be liberated, enlightened and transformed through their education. It would be their opportunity to learn about and then contribute to the world in a meaningful way. A standard for success wouldn’t be thrust on students, but rather they would be encouraged to discover and define success for themselves. In a perfect world, education would be a liberating, equalizing and non-discriminatory force.
But ours isn’t a perfect world. The education system both reinforces a specific status quo and, more darkly, perpetuates systemic poverty and churns out uninspired, overworked and oppressed people.
The United States does more to perpetuate cyclical poverty than it does to provide a pathway to that elusive “American Dream.”
The American Dream is the story that, through tenacity, hard work and dedication, prosperity is possible for anyone. If this story of freedom and success were true, the U.S. would have to have a high socioeconomic mobility rate, because this line of thinking implies and requires the entire burden of success to fall to the individual, no matter their background or environment. And if success were truly up to the individual, we should see people who were born into poverty being able to rise to the middle or upper classes, and kids born into wealthy families having no guarantee of maintaining that status.
So, what is the evidence that poverty in our so-called Land of Opportunity is cyclical, and how does this relate to education?
Here, your parents’ income is the biggest determinant of your success. An article from The Economist reported this strong correlation between parental income and likelihood of reaching the top 1/5th income bracket. In other words, a child born into extreme poverty has less than a 10 percent chance of rising to the top — three times less likely than a kid born into wealth. Among comparable countries though, this isn’t normal. American mobility rates are consistently lower, and the same Economist article identified that “in Denmark, a poor child has twice as much chance of making it to the top quintile as in America.”
Education should be the force that mobilizes and frees people from this imprisonment of poverty and inopportunity, because it shapes how we see and who we are in the world. If it’s done right, the ability to think critically and the cultivation of empathy can equip kids to affect our world, rather than be affected by it.
And the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Devlopement’s Economic Policy Reform report from 2010, this lack of mobility is linked to education. It says, “Policies that facilitate access to education of individuals from disadvantaged family backgrounds promote intergenerational wage mobility, and are also likely to be good for economic growth.” In other words, not only is our education system limiting the potential of kids, but the economy suffers as a result as well.
In our modern caste system, your worth as a student is pre-determined by your parents. And the more you’re worth, the better your chances are for success. A 2016 NPR story reported that the national average is to spend $11,841 on each student, but poor schools have the resources to spend only a little over $5,000 on students, while some wealthy school spend between $30-40,000 per student. That is a huge difference. It determines the quality of the educators, the state of facilities and the potential of individualized attention that you will get.
In the poor district, “one nurse commutes between three schools,” they “share an art and a music teacher” with nearby schools and they can’t afford luxuries that a lot of other districts might have. In the wealthy district on the other hand, “class sizes … are small, and every student has an individualized learning plan. Nearly all teachers have a decade of experience, [and] kids have at least one daily break for ‘mindful movement.’” This is the difference between setting someone up for success and setting someone up for failure.
Conditions matter. If your school is falling apart, your teacher is overwhelmed and you’re one of about 60 kids in a single classroom, you start to understand and internalize the message that you are worthless – that your education is not a priority. This is not a matter of students lacking dedication, it’s a matter of kids being told that they lack inherent value before they have been given a fair chance to prove themselves.
It’s the poorer school districts that fall through the cracks, and not by accident it’s people of color who have been boxed into occupying those poorer districts.
The GI bill in 1944, racist government practices like redlining and discriminatory developers ensured that the suburbs which were created to get people out of the industrialized inner-cities were exclusively for white people, and non-whites were openly prevented from moving there. They were denied bank loans, or they were just flat-out denied housing in the suburbs.
And now today, wealthier school districts are most frequently found in suburbs where non-whites were systematically prevented from moving into.
Yet, the still-common rhetoric supporting the story of American individualism heaves all the blame (which includes but is not limited to this tradition of racism, the inequities of the housing system, and systemic poverty) onto the kids as they take their first steps into their school. History, tradition,and structures far outside of their control guarantee their failure but blame their inability to succeed on character defects or psychology.
So it’s not surprising when our neighbors find themselves below the poverty line. Their poverty was planned, orchestrated and executed by the state. Nothing is an accident, but once we recognize that, we are not helpless. While these systems have a firm history, they are not stagnant. They can be changed, they can be evolved and they can be upended – if only we have the determination and the wherewithal to do so.
Isabel Brooke is a junior Philosophy-Religion and Politics double major who was a teacher in a past life.