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Americans’ Attitudes on Inequality: A Teacher’s Dilemma

By Eduwonkette — January 30, 2008 2 min read

Though the Two Americas campaign is kaput, let’s talk about a new Maxwell School poll on Americans’ attitudes towards inequality. (Juju to Andrew Leigh for the link.) What continues to surprise me is how, despite a rising tide of inequality, a high proportion of Americans still believe that everyone has a fair shot.

Here are the key findings from the September 2007 survey: Though 67.4% of Americans think that we’re becoming a society of haves and have nots and only 33.4% believe that everyone in America has an opportunity to succeed, less than half (45.7%) see the current extent of income inequality in our society as a serious problem.

And most Americans still believe in the American Dream. When asked “Do you think what you achieve in life depends largely on your family background, or on your abilities and hard work?”, only 12.3% chose family background (32.6% said both). 85% agreed that, “While people may begin with different opportunities, hard work and perseverance can usually overcome those disadvantages.”

These responses varied across the income spectrum, but not as much as one might think. 31.1% of those with family incomes under $50,000 said that “just some” Americans have opportunities,” while 22.4% of those with family incomes over $100,000 did. 73.8% of those with family incomes under $50,000 said we are becoming a society of haves and have nots, while 59% of those making over $100,000 did.

What does this have to do with K-12 education? Back in November, I responded to Jim Horn’s post “Work Hard, Be Nice, and Other Lies My KIPP Teacher Told Me.”
Basically, the question was whether educators should preach that hard work and effort yield success irrespective of one’s racial or class background. Some observers have argued that they shouldn’t. For example, in Ain’t No Makin’ It, Jay McLeod wrote:

The familiar refrain of “Behave yourself, study hard, earn good grades, graduate with your class, go on to college, get a good job, and make a lot of money” reinforces the feelings of personal inadequacy and failure that working-class students are likely to bear as a matter of course. By this logic, those who have not made it have only themselves to blame. Because it shrouds class, race, and gender barriers to success, the achievement ideology promulgates a lie, one that some students come to recognize as such.

On the other hand, what does a rejection of the “achievement ideology” look like in the classroom? Readers, please chime in.

Want to read more about research on inequality? Check out a new magazine on poverty, inequality, and social policy called Pathways. Think Ed Next, but without editorial dogma about “the establishment.” The first issue includes articles by Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on the “new War on Poverty,” as well as short articles about income inequality by folks like Robert Frank, Charles Murray, and Tim Smeeding. There are also ed related articles on the gender gap and housing vouchers. You can sign up for a free subscription here.

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