Work, study, dream — and stay poor

(Linda Lutton\/WBEZ)

Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Photo: Linda Lutton/WBEZ

“School is what makes the American Dream possible,” writes WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton in The View From Room 205. That’s what desperately poor kids are told. But is it true?

On the first day of school, September 2014, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then head of Chicago Public Schools, told Penn Elementary students they could achieve anything. “No matter where you’re from, what neighborhood you call home, and no matter what your dreams are in life, it is right here at Penn that our children are going to get their start — so that they can have that dream, chase that dream, capture that dream and live it,” Byrd-Bennett tells the kids and their teachers.

After following a veteran fourth-grade teacher’s class, Lutton begins to doubt that schools can overcome poverty, neighborhood violence and family instability.

To her dismay, Lutton witnesses Penn teachers looking at the standardized test a week early, planning to give it as a practice test and letting students use notebooks with reference information on the test. Cheating doesn’t help: Penn kids still do poorly.

Hamilton and the American Dream

Seven years ago at the White House, Lin-Manuel performed what would become the first song of Hamilton, later to win 11 Tony awards.

The crowd thought a musical about Alexander Hamilton was a joke, writes Andy Smarick on The 74. Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, persisted with “Hamilton-esque doggedness.”

Traditionally, struggle and success have been paired, writes Smarick.

Whether the American DreambootstrappingHoratio Alger-ism, or Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” our story was that anyone willing to tirelessly strive had access to endless possibilities.

Now, some are “seeking to unmask ‘privilege‘,” while others advocate “grit,” he writes. The underlying issue is “the extent to which effort matters.”

I believe the “privilege” lens can be like a candle used for illumination: It reveals dark corners, helping us see the meaningful advantages and disadvantages people possess through no credit or fault of their own. But the privilege candle can also be used for arson, to burn down what others have built through labor. By attributing too much of one’s success to luck, it can diminish her effort and sacrifice. Worse, it can undermine our collective interest in inculcating in our students values (like conscientiousness, verve, and determination) that lead to individual, community, and national flourishing.

Schools should “teach our kids about responding to adversity,” writes Smarick. “Do we imply to our kids that there’s only so much they can do, or do we teach them the lessons of the American Dream and Hamilton’s anthem?
I’m just like my country.
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

If kids are taught they’re victims, they won’t try very hard — what’s the point? — or go very far.

Read Coates, believe Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Alexander Hamilton in the hit show he also wrote and composed.

Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers and a huge hit on Broadway, draws “a straight line from America’s revolutionary moment to the contemporary music and idioms of youthful rebellion,” writes Robert Pondiscio, who teaches citizenship at Democracy Prep charters, on The 74. Its creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a genius.

So is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, a “powerful jeremiad” with a “hopeless, even nihilistic” message about the future of young blacks in America.

I Want My Students to Read Ta-Nehisi Coates But Believe Lin-Manuel Miranda, writes Pondiscio.

It is impossible to think of our founders merely as dead white males once you have seen them embodied by young black and brown ones. On stage nightly, “Hamilton” transfers ownership of America’s narrative and ideals to those whose grip on them has been fraught for more than 200 years.

Miranda, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican ethnicity, portrays Hamilton as an ambitious immigrant. The cast is mostly brown or black — except for King George III. The lyrics invoke the “call to build a more perfect union,” writes Pondiscio.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ book preaches that “America is structurally and irredeemably racist,” writes Pondiscio. His “message to young people of color is you have had the great misfortune to be born in a country that is determined only to break your black body.”

Schools and educators are tools of oppression, Coates writes. He sneers at teachers’ good “intentions” and condemns those who speak of “personal responsibility” in “a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.”

Yet, high school teachers and college professors are assigning Between the World and Me. Pondiscio wants kids to read the book — but to choose Miranda’s hope over Coates’ despair.

I gave my daughter tickets to Hamilton as a Christmas/birthday present. (They are wildly expensive.) She said it’s fantastic.

Shelving the dream

Dina Strasser’s daughter wants to start a bakery that serves pie and gumbo. “You can do whatever you want,” she told her. But that’s not true, Strasser writes in Shelving My American Dream.

She works as an English teacher. Her husband is a minister, who has little hope of finding work outside the South or Midwest. Her brother is mentally disabled. Her mother is widowed.

In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.

Strasser would need “exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest,” she decided. Instead, she will “stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial.”

Yet she wonders what to tell her daughter and son about their dreams. “It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out.”

She hasn’t figured it out.

Going for a PhD is “risky business,” writes Fredrick deBoer. “I tell people– if you can imagine doing literally anything else, do that instead.” However, “mocking graduate students . . .  features a lot of weirdness about risk, choice, and other people’s lives in late capitalism.”

Teach the American dream

“As Congress moves towards opening new paths for immigrants, it should find a way to restore the foundation of American citizenship — the self-confident teaching of American history in our nation’s schools, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The American.

The immigration bill will reaffirm “quintessential American values” and restore “the American dream,” writes Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.
But “few of our students — foreign or native born — know much about the provenance of those values,” writes Sommers. “Our schools no longer teach the American dream.”

Once, immigrant and native-born children learned about America in school, “and came to view themselves as part of an extraordinary culture of liberty,” she writes. That civic mission has been neglected.

The latest Department of Education national history assessment (2010) shows that only 12 percent of American high school seniors have a firm grasp of U.S. history. More than half (55 percent) scored below the “Basic” achievement level. A 2012 Roper survey of college graduates found widespread ignorance about U.S. history and basic functions of government: only 17 percent of those polled, for example, could identify famous words from the Gettysburg Address or knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Noting a 2009 study that found that 39 percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment, civil libertarian Greg Lukianoff has described us as a nation in the process of “unlearning liberty.”

We are perilously close to testing Thomas Jefferson’s famous admonition: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in civics, U.S. history, and geography have been indefinitely postponed for fourth and twelfth graders, reports Heartland. The Obama administration blames a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. The three exams will be replaced by a new test on Technology and Engineering Literacy.

“Without these tests, advocates for a richer civic education will not have any kind of test to use as leverage to get more civic education in the classrooms,” said John Hale, associate director at the Center for Civic Education.

Diversity without racial preferences

Can Diversity Survive Without Affirmative Action?  The Supreme Court will rule soon on whether the University of Texas can use race and ethnicity in admissions, points out the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog. If universities can’t use race, can they achieve diversity by giving preferences to low-income students, improving outreach and financial aid or ending legacy preferences?

Affirmative action for low-income students of all races is fairer than racial preferences, writes Richard Kahlenberga senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Liberals are likely to bemoan any Supreme Court decision reducing racial preferences, but such policies never had the support of the American public and a ruling along these lines could pave the way for better programs. While universities prefer race-based programs that assemble generally well-off students of all colors, the end of such programs will likely usher in a more aggressive set of policies that will, at long last, address America’s growing economic divide.

California has preserved diversity, despite a state ban on race-based affirmation action, writes Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, who directs the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of California at Irvine. “Outreach to disadvantaged communities equals more outreach to students of color.”

Academic merit should be the primary criteria for admission, writes Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

It is unfair and wrong to accept a black child from a prosperous college-educated family with a $200,000 income while rejecting an equally qualified white person from a poor household with a $40,000 income where the parents never attended college.

“Taking more poor students . . . arguably promotes the American Dream of equality of opportunity, but also works to support minority admissions,” Vedder writes. But they must be qualified academically.

Educating Hispanic students

How Can Schools Best Educate Hispanic Students? On Education Next, Harvard Education Professor Nonie Lesaux calls for teaching higher-order literacy skills, while Juan Rangel, president of Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, stresses civic responsibility and good citizenship.

It’s not enough to teach basic conversational and reading skills, writes Lesaux. Students learning English — and their classmates — need to be “in strong and supportive language- and content-rich classrooms” that build academic vocabulary and knowledge.

Schools have done a good job teaching most students the basic skills necessary to be proficient readers in the early grades, decoding and comprehending the conversational language that conveys ideas and topics in beginner books.

But in higher grades, many Hispanic students don’t have the vocabulary and knowledge to comprehend the “academic language of print,” learn academic concepts and “generate ideas and questions,” Lesaux writes.

Immigrants are chasing the American dream, but public schools no longer teach them how to become Americans, Rangel writes. “A quality public school that emphasizes civic responsibility and good citizenship” will . . .  “transition immigrant families into the American way of life, into making American values, culture, norms, and language their own.”

Schools in the UNO network are 95 percent Hispanic in enrollment and 93 percent low-income, but are “classic American schools,” writes Rangel. Instead of special programs, immigrant students — and others — need  “a great teacher, a core curriculum, a disciplined school culture, and strong accountability.” UNO uses Structured English Language Immersion for its students rather than bilingual classes and offers a longer school day and year.


The higher ed bubble

How many college borrowers are “underwater” on their student loans?

“Part of the American dream is that if you work hard, and you get an education and you apply yourself, you’ll be successful,”  a Rutgers researcher tells NPR. A third of young college graduates don’t believe this any more.

Illinois: Fix K-12 math to boost college grad rate

To raise the community college graduation rate, require more math in high school and redesign remedial math instruction in college, concludes an Illinois report.

Colleges must focus on productivity and affordability to keep open the path to the American Dream.