Education and The American Dream
“Education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time” (Obama). Obamas speech is relevant to talk about here because Education in America is an issue to talk about now with the profound economic effects it has on our society. In this contemporary time the American dream has become economically focused for most people, which requires educational achievement. We will attempt to tackle the hardships that people face when navigating their way through schooling to a path of success. What many people in America assume to be a fair and equal system is in fact peppered with flaws that prevent many groups from achieving equal opportunity. In ACT we will explore how equality in education effects a child’s future success. ACT II will focus on the schooling of immigrants in our public school system. Our final ACT III will look at socio-economic class and educational opportunity.
ACT 1: Education For All
By Katherine Weidel
What does it take to make money in America? For most people, the answer is simple: ‘It takes money to make money’. While this phrase is in complete contradiction to the American Dream, it also carries with it an unfortunate truth. Equal opportunity is supposed to be a given, a privilege that every American is born into. What too many Americans have come to realize though, is that equal opportunity is but a mere ideology, something that America prides itself on striving for. But striving for equal opportunity is not achieving it. So what happens when you look at equal opportunity for good education in America? The answer may not surprise you- it takes money to get a good education.
According to the American dream, every person starts off with equal chances in life, leading the smarter, the more driven and the harder working people to pull ahead and become the top moneymakers. The equal chance that I am talking about here is education. Every child has access to education; in fact, it is an obligation in America that is strictly enforced. The problem is not access to education though; the problem is that not all education is equal. There are many reasons that schools are unequal in the United States today. One particularly thought provoking way to look at the inequality of education in America is to view it through one of our most prized achievement measuring techniques: standardized testing. What the results really show are something that might be a tad shocking. Americans like to ignore that “teaching to the test” is not working, and deny that socioeconomic status affects a child’s testing results. There are, however, fundamental socioeconomic issues that are affecting the American right to equal opportunity.
What happens when the average test results of the score obsessed country that we live in are compared with a country without standardized testing? We lose. The PISA survey (Program for International Student Assessments), is an international test conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Since 2000, Finland has ranked at or near the top of the list with China, South Korea and Singapore. South Korea and Singapore are known for their exhausting cramming and intense routines of memorization. They are overachievers in a way that most Americans do not wish to emulate. What seems crazy for Americans to except about these results is that we consistently score in the middle of the pack, nowhere near Finland. What I’m about to tell you will seem even more insane. Finland, the little country that has been holding it’s own again the mega-testers, does not have standardized testing. Furthermore, Finland does not have private schools. There are a few independent schools in Finland, but they are publicly financed and are not allowed to charge tuition fees.
So what does this say about the American education system? It’s not working like we think it is. Even when comparing public schools in America to public schools in Finland, taking the possibility of private institutions out of the picture, we are still not achieving the same kind of success. American schools have a rigid teaching curriculum, strict grading policies, and an attempt at being equal. When I asked Chloe, a senior education major at Bucknell who is student teaching second grade at Kelly elementary, this is what she had to say about the American report card:
“The standard report card is really a way of convenience for teachers so that they don’t need to write a different report card for each student, and a way to be equal. But what I learned at my college classes here, fair is not always equal, and equal is not always fair, meaning that in the classroom, certain students should not be held to the same expectations of other students, – every student should be held to different expectations.”
Schools in Finland also have report cards. However, these report cards are individualized from teacher to teacher, and from student to student. Periodically, Finland’s Minister of Education tests a random sample of students from different schools to track national progress. There is also the National Matriculation Exam, which is given out as optional standardized testing to high-school aged students. These two tests in Finland are as far as standardized grading gets.
How are Finns doing so well on standardized testing then? Finland based their education reform on equality and responsibility. In order to become a teacher, you must obtain a Masters degree (from a public institution). These institutions are some of the hardest and most selective professional schools to get into in the country. Teachers are also provided with responsibility, respectability and a good salary. Beyond exceptional teachers, Finland aimed its reform at making sure that every school is equal. Whatever school you send your child to, whether it is a high or low-income area, they will receive the same curriculum, same quality teachers, and same individualized attention. Furthermore, the quality and abundance of the educational resources and materials are uniform across every school, regardless of its location. Finnish education reform since the 1980’s has been focused on equality regardless of background, income or geographic location. Finland provides easy access to meals, health care, psychological care and individual student guidance.
Sadly in America, access to all of these factors largely depends on the geographic neighborhood in which you live. America doesn’t pay for food, responsibility of teachers, individual guidance etc., local taxes do. So in America, geographic location plays a huge part in a child’s opportunity to great education. This brings me back to my opening remarks. It takes money to make money. It takes money to live in a high-income neighborhood, with good schools, which in turn, provide a child with a better opportunity to receive better quality education. Students in this neighborhood have better access to food, health care and individualized attention. A student in a wealthy neighborhood will likely have easier access to quality education resources and have the privilege to learn in a clean, well- stocked quality infrastructure with highly paid and therefore motivated teachers.
Compare this scenario to a low-income neighborhood, and you get a child that is struggling to find time to see his teacher, because his street is dangerous to walk on after school. Furthermore, his teachers are paid almost nothing, so they might be working another job, or don’t feel the need to put in the extra effort. Moreover, he is not getting enough food at home and no food at school. For this child, his safety and consumption of calories is a priority over his education. In terms of the responsibility of the teacher, she or he is probably overworked, underpaid, and facing the same issues at home as the student. These are typically problems not found in a high-income area.
To make matters even worse, standardized testing scores provide incentives such as salary increases or money grants to the schools to “teach to the book”. When I asked Chloe about standardized testing in her school, listen to what she had to say: “what I’ve learned at Bucknell is different from the opinion I’ve found in elementary school. Literature and research now about standardized testing shows it is a pretty detrimental experience for students, because the type of testing right now is proving to be not valid and not reliable meaning it’s not testing what it’s supposed to test” When I asked her about the opinion of the teachers in her school, she brought up an interesting point: “The teachers that I’ve talked with have been in the school system since before the craze of no child left behind, so they saw a time before standardized testing wasn’t a focus, so they were able to run a classroom with more freedom and focus more on the whole student, instead of now where they have to teach to the test constantly, making sure that they are up to the date constantly, so that their students will get good scores, because it’s more of a reflection of teachers rather than students, because they will break it down by classroom and see which students are performing well, and teacher’s salaries can actually be affected because of standardized test scores.” Later, she had this to say about teaching to the test: “teaching to the test is a huge problem, because it’s not something teachers want to do, they are actually pushed and encouraged by the administration because their schools will receive more funding based on good standardized tests scores.” Low-income teachers, then, have a bigger incentive to teach to the test, rather than focus on each individual student’s best way of learning, pace of learning, and method of learning. A salary increase or decrease, or funding for a school is much more important for a low-income neighborhood. Because of these reasons, equal opportunity is far from being presented to all of the children in America.
People that achieve the American dream undoubtedly work hard and sacrifice a lot. It’s hard to ignore the overwhelming trend felt in America, though. The people on top were most likely born into privileged families that were able to provide a better education, and therefore a better opportunity for their child to succeed in life. The neighborhood that a child lives in greatly improves or impedes on his or her chance at success. Instead of private sources, the Finnish government covers the cost of 98% of all levels of education. This is quite different than in the US. Even at a public level, schooling is paid for by income taxes that vary demographically. This means that the equality of education for children in America depends on estates rather than the US government. In order to provide equal opportunity, every generation must be provided with equal tools to achieve success. Sufficient food, quality education and access to health care are only a few necessities to provide equal opportunity. Unfortunately, America is falling short. Finland is only one example of a multiple countries changing their approach to supply this kind of equality. However, the success that Finland is achieving in providing equal opportunity through good health and good education is undeniable. Not every child is born with equal chances in life. The American Dream is just that- a dream. One surefire step in making this dream a reality, is to start at the beginning, with an education reform overhaul.
“I think ideally every child in America should have access to a good education. Not just equal to everything else, but an exceptional education, funded by the government”.
ACT II: Immigrant Education and the American Dream
By Sam Pope
The contemporary perception of the American dream that anyone can do what he or she want and reach certain economic and social standards is deeply intertwined with public education in this country. In this time education is needed to gain employment and make money. It is nearly impossible to be successful with no academic achievement. Public schools are accessible to everyone and are supposed to provide all children with equal opportunities. However, some groups do not get the opportunities.
Immigrants have been an integral part to the culture of our nation. History tells of many fluxes of many people coming to the United States in search of opportunity through the American dream. However, currently the education of immigrant students is not working as well as it should. Almost half of immigrants in the United States are in or near poverty and around 36.3 percent of them receive welfare payments from the government. The problem is that different cultures of poverty and many other complex social barriers prevent some these people from attending school or performing well in school. Statistics show that 28.1% of immigrants from all geographical and racial backgrounds have less than a high school degree. In addition, around 26% of them have only a high school diploma in terms of their level of education. Education is a key to economic success. If immigrants continue to underachieve educationally due to a myriad of barriers, the American Dream will continue to be a falsehood for this population.
Most immigrants come in with English as their second language. For this reason these students are enrolled in “English Second Language” classes that are designed to teach them English so that they can understand and write the basic level of English that is required for classes. The content knowledge of ESL classes is basic and much less then the regular classes. For this reason, schools try and get their students through these programs as fast as possible, however, that creates problems as well. (Dr. Fruja interview on paradox of ESL). ESL classes also tend to create feelings of segregation for the immigrant students because they are separated from the mainstream classes. (Dr. Fruja interview about segregation of ESL classes)
I have personal experience working with immigrants that are in the public schooling system. I worked for a non-profit organization that is a summer education program in Hartford, Connecticut that aims to provide high school students with educational opportunities. About half of the students that come everyday are immigrants. There were three groups of immigrants from different areas. Each group had different reasons for coming to the United States. There was a group of Latino students from Peru, a group of girls from Nepal, and a group of students from a small-unrecognized nation within Myanmar called Karen. All of these students were enrolled in ESL programs at the public high school they attended. However, there were large differences in the proficiency of the different groups English.
The students from Peru had the best English out of the three even though they had been in the United States for the least amount of time. They came because of the lack of jobs in the area they lived in and the increasing crime in the city of Lima. The similarities between English and Spanish in addition to the amount of Spanish speakers in the United States allowed for these students to have an advantage when it came to learning English. (Dr. Fruja clip about Spanish speakers ESL). Also, there is a much bigger population of Latin American people in Hartford than Asian Americans. There are many churches that practice in Spanish and there are countless Latin American cuisine restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city. There is even an authentic Peruvian restaurant and a Peruvian festival in the park. For these reasons the Peruvian students that attended the program I worked for encountered a better sense of belonging to their new home. This is critical to performance in school because better sense of belonging gives these students more confidence. I noticed this confidence in the Peruvian students as they were much more likely to raise their hand and offer answers without fear of being wrong or speaking with poor English.
On the other hand the other immigrant students had a much harder time with their English speaking and writing skills. This is because there is no one in the public school system in Hartford knows how to speak, write, translate their native languages. However, the students from Myanmar attend mass at a church where the preacher speaks their language which is called Karen. This church also acts as a community center for immigrants from Myanmar. The students cherish this community because they are able to be around people who are going through the same experiences. (clip about positive belonging). They came to America as refugees because the government of Myanmar persecutes their ethnic group. A church group connected with churches in Hartford was responsible for getting these Karen families out of their dangerous homeland and into the United States.
The Nepalese girls, however, do not have the same opportunity. There is no community center or church where their language is spoken or their culture is celebrated. They have the least sense of belonging and therefore exhibit the least confidence in their education and they are the least proficient at English. They are also refugees but the organization that got them to the United States is not connected to any institutions like the immigrants form Myanmar. In addition, these girls lived in an apartment building that had a huge population of Nepalese families in it. For this reason, they do not practice their English skills because the people of their household only speak their native language. This creates a type of community that is not geared to their success in education. (Dr. Fruja clip about negative ethnic enclave)
Belonging to a culture has a lot to do with educational success of immigrant students. Coming to a new country presents large problems that immigrant students have to overcome in order to stay in school and perform well. Education is considered an institution that is supposed to equalize and make sure that the citizens of the United States can have equal opportunities economically and socially. However, our education is not perfectly equipped to deal with immigrant students, who because of many factors usually end up at the bottom level of academic achievement. This leads to less success in the job market and less social mobility.
ACT III: The Opportunity of Education
By Julia Healey
James Truslow Adams’ conception of the American Dream relies upon the equal opportunity to achieve one’s full potential. Fundamental to this dream, is the promise of educational equity regardless of socio-economic class. In this Act, I investigate the educational opportunity available to the rural poor. Are low-income rural children given the same opportunity to realize their fullest potential? What kinds of educational opportunities are available and successful in these rural areas? I am simply defining success as receiving a quality education that helps one to attain his or her fullest potential. Today, is rural children’s education aiding in success?
Education is an important issue to talk about now, because the American Dream has transitioned to focus more on obtaining economic success. Receiving a respectable education is a key part to not only economically succeeding by having opportunities to higher-paying employment, but also to upward social mobility. Right now, those that face obstacles to achieving their fullest potential, are those born into rural lower economic class families, which is 8.5 million Americans, roughly 18% of the population. Government statistics show those who obtain no higher education have a 3.8-8% higher unemployment rate than those that achieve a four-year college degree. Statistics also show that those with no higher education receive around half as much weekly income than those with a four-year degree. Currently, only 33% of Americans achieve a four-year college degree. This education barrier affects a large part of the population’s quality of life. Those that only receive high school level education are confined by higher unemployment rates and lower pay. I am asserting that the American Dream hold that all peoples, regardless of class, gender, or race are inherently titled to equal and quality education, that will provide them with skills to economically improve their quality of life.
To explore this intersection of educational opportunity and economic success, I interviewed Brandon Trygar, who is a Director for a program called TIES, which stands for “Teens in Innovative Education Structures,” located in the rural town of Milton, Pennsylvania. TIES intentions is to provide individualized learning experiences for students that focus on the areas they don’t receive enough attention in during school, or areas like art programs, that are not offered during regular school curriculum due to cutbacks. Activities such as homework help, reading improvement, math and science tutoring, SAT Prep, exercise, music, and arts activities, community involvement, and many other enrichment programs are offered through TIES. The program is available to grades 3 through 12 four days a week after school to students who need extra help or are just interested in participating, usually because their parents need a place for them to stay after school while they are at work. I, along with many other Bucknell Students, volunteer to work with kids in TIES one day a week.
Milton is a rural blue-collar community where over the last decade the economy has been in decline as numerous factories and businesses move out, taking job opportunities along with them. 26.1% of Milton residences have income below the poverty line. And 68% of those people are single-parent families. Thus, many parents in Milton don’t have the ability to put in extra time to their child’s education, making sure they have completed their homework, and are doing their best in school. White tutoring, I have had conversations with children at the Milton Middle School about how they rarely do homework at home either because their household is too chaotic, or there is no one sitting down to help them with it. State cutbacks in school curriculum leaves gaps in these children’s education, that aren’t adequately filled by this type of family background. This lack of correct academic attention has proven to greatly affect some Milton children’s success in school. The Milton high school graduation rate has dropped 12% in the last year. And 19% of the graduating class is below the basic reading level.
When I volunteer at the middle school, my main focus is working with the kids on their reading. I personally see several students struggling with their reading who are behind the proficient level. This is why programs like TIES have been created, to lessen the gap between the children’s education who come from rural low-income families, and those who don’t.
I asked Brandon what the goals of TIES are, “We provide enrichment programs that kids may not get during the school day, like a lot of art programs are getting cut out of the curriculum now a days. So we are trying to incorporate some of those things the school can’t offer during regular school hours.”
How successful do you think TIES is in helping students achieve educational success?
“In the short two and a half years we have been running, we have gotten a lot of positive feedback form parents, students, administrators, and community organizations. In the Milton setting with the socioeconomic status Milton has, I think we are a good fit. Ties provides an extra opportunity to learn a little bit more and extend the learning beyond the classroom for free, which is kind of a big thing for Milton.”
A key point Brandon makes here is that TIES comes at not cost to the family. It is a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant program funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This grant has partnered with Milton, because it looks to support students who attend high poverty, low performing schools.
“This is nothing out of pocket for mom and dad or students, the role that TIES plays in economic class is huge, in a blue collar town people are trying to make a buck go as far as they can, and especially in Milton in the last ten years or so a lot of factories and a lot of bigger businesses have pulled out making it harder to stretch that buck.”
TIES being free for students is a crucial aspect of the program, but because it is funded by a grant, money for the program comes and goes. Brandon said he is unsure whether TIES will be able to survive down the road. TIES has had positive feedback about effectively aiding in children’s success by evaluating participant student’s academic improvement, character development, and engagement in school. Personally I see the success of TIES through my interactions with the students. Most of them continually tell me it is the favorite part of their day, especially when the Bucknell students come to help. They thrive with the individual attention and support they would not normally receive outside of TIES.
It not only improves their academics, but allows them to build individual social relationships with the TIES mentors. However, this positive evaluation of the program does not mean funding for it will continually come. The grant was given for three years, so next fall Milton is unsure whether they will have funding for ties. So at some point money for this grant may run out. What happens then?
Currently around 100 Milton district students participate in TIES. Nationally, the 21st Century Community Learning Center funds over 8,900 centers which serves over 1.5 million students. All of these students come from poor backgrounds where they need programs like TIES to help them succeed.
Milton public schools are failing to reach students needs, and poor parents don’t have the means to make up for this deficiency, or the political authority to make changes to the school district through the state, leaving the Milton children at a disadvantage to reach success to achieve their fullest potential. TIES has been essential in upholding the American Dream’s principle of equal opportunity to achieve one’s potential in Milton, Pennsylvania.
Throughout this podcast, we have discussed the challenges of achieving the American Dream through education. We hope this has inspired you think about what attaining the American Dream truly means for every American. We hope you have enjoyed this segment of this American Dream.