Assessment Opinion

Faith in Social Mobility Isn’t Enough

By Deborah Meier — October 08, 2013 7 min read
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Dear Mike,

Wow. You’ve raised enough hackles to start a healthy debate.

My response in short: It’s not a matter of “faith in social mobility” as your title suggests, but a matter of having the political will to make it feasible.

Thanks to those who’ve already said much of what I’d like to say. Yes, Mike, if labor leader Al Shanker said that the answer to poverty and de-unionization was more highly educated workers he was wrong. He often was.

Yes, globalization has changed the game. We now have “international corporations of the world,” rather than the left’s dream of “international workers of the world.” Most workers are still “stuck” in their native soil, but corporations can go where the money is—i.e. where other workers get paid in wages we Americans haven’t yet imagined. (But, might have to, someday, if ...)

So producing an economy that can put most Americans to work at decent wages—so they can be self-sustaining—is a tough job. The notion that schools can be the center of the solution simply can’t work; and I say that as one who would love it to be otherwise! Faith in the possibility that it can is asking of faith what it isn’t designed to accomplish! It’s built around a persistent American myth about how we became a middle-class nation.

You say to Leo, “I guess I’m in the dark ... when you say it’s ‘no great secret’ how to reduce poverty. What is it? I’m all ears!” That’s when Shanker had it right: JOBS. Jobs that pay living wages and a society with safety nets when there aren’t such jobs.

At the moment we have fewer such jobs, and jobs that once paid living wages are no longer doing so. And we’re removing food stamps, not increasing them!

I know that you know that I wouldn’t have remained a teacher for 50 years if I had thought the “poor” weren’t able to learn. But test-score achievement may lead to a BA, MA, or PhD—but it isn’t the route to a good job if enough good jobs don’t exist. Plumbers are more likely to be able to support a family than BAs. When only 10 openings exist for good jobs it’s no wonder that “them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose” (In the words of Billie Holiday.)

I’m very proud of most of our graduates. But we were never arrogant enough to think most kids would leap over all the obstacles they face and jump ahead of their far wealthier counterparts. I, like so many other teachers, wrote about how schools might make a difference even so ...

For a short time—in the ‘70s and ‘80s—we had an impact. In retrospect it still awes me. But we weren’t allowed to be as patient as we needed to be. Bill Gates’ patience—as he announces that it will take a dozen years or more to find out if the current reforms are headed in the right direction—is a luxury neither teachers nor parents dare take.

The reforms that Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools promoted couldn’t move ahead as fast as the new reforms because, among other reasons: they didn’t have the same kind power behind them and the reforms could not be mandated from above and replicated en masse.

Some reforms may be deeper and more long lasting precisely because they only “work” if we move gradually, with people who have experience-based faith in their ideas. A faith which rests on a definition of being “well-educated” that rests on authentic demonstration, not standardized test scores designed to rank order.

So, I repeat, there’s a difference between waiting to have a family if the odds look pretty good that you will one day be in a position to have one. There’s no activity in life that even well-educated people take on without looking at the odds for and against—I hope. An occasional zealot ignores the odds and wins. Of course, some zealots take up trades you and I disapprove of—like joining the drug trade, etc. And a few beat the odds the “right way,” like the occasional teen-age athlete who turns a “hobby” into a fortune. (And they often pay a price, which is another subject.)

My children could be less focused, less driven, and not pay a price for it. My kids didn’t get jailed when caught with pot or frisked when just walking the streets of New York City. In short, the more obstacles we place in the way, the fewer the “exceptions.”

To expect children facing the worst odds to pretend otherwise is not a solution. It’s a starting point for designing better odds—both personal and social. Yes, some youngsters raise the odds against themselves by having children now rather than waiting until they can earn (or marry into) a decent family income. But they are not willing to bet a lot of their limited chips on the chance that waiting will work out someday.

Pretending that test scores—which are particularly sensitive to social class and ethnic origins—are a measure of intellectual “achievement” is adding obstacles rather than removing them. Ditto for holding kids back in 1st and 4th grades because of test scores, ignoring the reality that by doing so we’ve raised the odds against their ever graduating. We have data to prove this. Ditto for rewarding 5-year-olds who can sit still for hours looking dutiful. And on, and on. Not to mention the daily slights and put-downs, for adults as well as kids, in the schools they attend.

It hits me in the face every time I enter a school: This school is a place for the children of X, and that one for the children of y. You don’t need algebra to fill in the “unknowns.” It affects parents and teachers, too. Indeed, tackling this disrespect is worth it, even if it had no effect on one’s future income or test score.

Schooling for democracy means living in the here and now, said John Dewey, in schools that teach us what democracy feels like, looks like, and acts like. What goes on between the adults? Are teachers treated like babysitters who have a script? (I actually tried that once.) Or are they welcomed into a community of adults who learn together to be better at their trade? Who dares tell us—working practitioners and parents—that class size doesn’t matter when it comes not only to taking in new knowledge, but also when developing grit, character, stamina, and all that. We sometimes scold the poor for having large families (I wish I had had one), but then criticize teachers for wanting only 15 to 20 students at a time.

If everyone were educated as though he or she were a full member of a powerful democracy—one we have yet to create—we’d still find that coming from a family of musicians improves the odds of becoming a musician, or having worked alongside a carpenter father (or mother) helps one become a carpenter. Or that being part of an “old boys” network of powerful people helps in becoming powerful oneself. Fact. Life is easier for some than others even if we didn’t add advantages to some that we deny others. (And yet we do add those advantages.)

We need schools—communities—in which rich/poor/white/black et al get what most of the wealthiest and best educated families provide for their kids—PLUS! Such a simple answer. Even if it didn’t improve the economy or our competitive edge over China, it’s the “right thing to do.”

We need such schools as well as an economy that doesn’t condemn millions to live with poverty wages because there are people in the world willing to do the work ‘we’ want done for poverty wages. We need to create living-wage jobs for the people we have—we can’t “expel” them. That’s what we remind each other in the schools I have helped lead—we’re stuck with each other.

Now let’s—together—think of what we can do so that most Americans can make wages (or grades) that allow them to raise a family well. Let’s offer everyone from child to principal, citizen to president, with the right to be heard, to have “excuses,” to a fair hearing—to do unto others as we would have others do unto our own children.

How can we not flinch (with shame) when we think that there are people in our midst—fellow Americans—who make as much in one day as others don’t dream of making in a lifetime. How can we tolerate a society in which some are making enough to protect their own offspring for many generations to come, regardless of the ups and downs of America’s economy? I’m not even blaming them—but surely as public citizens—protecting their advantages is not our task!

I was thrilled when our graduates held a reunion 20 years after they left Central Park East Secondary School—because one of our “messages” was: Stick together, don’t lose sight of each other, build a network that is there for you when you need it and when you don’t. Don’t mourn, organize.

I could go on forever. But I’ve gone on far too long already! There’s no guarantee that the odds favor the survival of America, much less America as a beacon of democracy and equity. So we both have a stake in seeking solutions that don’t rest on fantasies about being saved by the chastity of poor young women.

Let’s list the sentences we take issue with and see where (and if) there’s room to find common ground on some next steps.


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