AMERICaNS WaNT TO BELIEVE that ours is a land of opportunity, where no matter what a person’s starting point, those who work hard—and their kids—can “make it.” For much of the twentieth century, economic growth made that dream a reality for generations of Americans. This was particularly evident in the thirty years following the end of World War II, when both the economy and the incomes of families at the top and the bottom of the income ladder doubled in size. Fueling much of this growth was an increasingly educated work force.1 Average schooling increased by six years between 1900 and 1970, with growing numbers of children completing more education than their parents. This, coupled with technological advances that benefited both highand low-skilled workers, led to widely shared increases in living standards and intergenerational mobility. But storm clouds began to gather in the 1970s. In contrast to the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the last quarter saw computerdriven technological advances that rewarded skills that only the most educated Americans possessed. Moreover, many manufacturing jobs began to be outsourced to low-wage countries. These trends, continuing into the twenty-first century, have translated into substantial growth in the wages of college graduates, no growth in the wages of high school graduates, and falling wages for high school dropouts. As a consequence, the living standards of children in higher-income families have risen while the incomes of low-income children have stagnated or even declined.
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One might have hoped that the increasing monetary rewards associated with college-level skills would have spurred large increases in educational attainment. But this has not happened. Beginning in the 1970s, high school graduation rates stalled for several decades. Today, the United States no longer leads the world in high school and college graduation rates. Fewer children are exceeding their parents’ schooling levels. Gaps in academic skills and educational attainments between low- and higherincome American children have grown sharply. Why is the American Dream of upward mobility fading? Historically, this country has relied on its public schools to help level the playing field for children born into different circumstances. But those schools are no longer able to ameliorate the effects of inequality—and may inadvertently be exacerbating them. As we will explain in more detail in the chapters that follow, the macroeconomic forces that have driven a widening wedge between the incomes of affluent families and those of poor and working-class families have also made it much more difficult for schools to help children from low-income families acquire the skills they need to compete in today’s economy. Changes in the ways that families at different ends of the income spectrum use their money and time have helped transform income gaps into achievement gaps. At the same time, increasing residential segregation based on income is widening the quality gap between the schools that low- and higher-income children attend while compounding the unique problems faced by high-poverty schools. Demographic patterns, such as increases in immigration and in the number of single-parent families, also play a role. All of these are forces that are beyond the control of schools but that affect schools greatly. The story of the diverging destinies of American school children could be told solely with charts and graphs, and we have included much information of this type throughout the book. However, we also draw from previously published accounts of four boys from different families, different neighborhoods, and different economic backgrounds to paint a fuller picture of how and why these educational disparities have grown. The stories of Anthony, Alexander, Garrett, and Harold, whom you will meet in chapters 2 and 3, are taken from research by sociologist Annette Lareau. Between 1989 and 1995, Lareau and her research team studied white and African Ameri-
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can fourth graders from widely different economic backgrounds, paying nearly daily visits to the families of selected students for three weeks and revisiting them once they reached adulthood. The lives of the four boys we chose to feature in this book illustrate some of the disparities wrought by recent economic, social, and familial changes. Their divergent destinies, described in the chapters that follow, have been shaped by macroeconomic forces that have driven a widening wedge between the incomes of the millions of families toward the top of the income scale and the millions of poor and working-class families toward the bottom.2 Stagnant educational attainments and growing inequality in educational outcomes call into question America’s vision of itself as a land of growth and opportunity. But the purpose of this book is not simply to document the problem. In the second half of the book we focus on successful schools and programs that show that it is possible to provide children from low-income families with the opportunities they need to have a fair shot at achieving the American Dream of upward mobility. A quick look inside one elementary classroom, located in a charter school on Chicago’s South Side, suggests what schools that provide these kinds of opportunities look like. All of the twenty-seven children in Shannon Keys’s second-grade class are African American and live in low-income neighborhoods of the city. A visit to her classroom finds the students working in groups at one of several activity centers. The group work is designed to teach children the interactive skills that are essential for many middle-class jobs. All of the activities build in some way on E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, which Keys has been reading to her class. At the writing center, children are answering questions designed to help them make inferences from what they have heard and to encourage them to defend their conclusions using supporting evidence. At the poetry center, they are reading poems aloud to a partner, following the guidelines for fluent reading posted on the wall. At the ABC center, students are writing definitions, synonyms, and antonyms for the word “coy,” which is taken from The Trumpet of the Swan. Building children’s vocabulary and background knowledge is important, as these skills are critical for making sense of science and social studies texts in the upper elementary grades.
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After a few minutes, the teacher’s aide rings a bell and each group moves quietly to the next activity center, following the instructions Keys posts on the Center Board each morning. Of course, this orderly transition did not come naturally to the seven-year-olds in the class. Keys and the entire school staff worked to develop these routines during the first six weeks of school, a period she calls Boot Camp. Each week Keys introduced a new activity center, modeled the work to be done there, and provided ample opportunities for the children to practice both the work and appropriate group behaviors. Instructional time is a precious resource, and during Boot Camp the children need to learn how to make the best use of it to enhance their learning and that of their classmates. The professional life of Keys and her colleagues is shaped by two complementary principles: support and accountability. Support comes in a variety of forms, all of which are critical to the success of the school. For Keys, support includes help in implementing a rich, complex literacy curriculum consistently and effectively. This support was so important to Keys that she left a better-paying job to take advantage of the opportunities the charter school offered for her to grow as a teacher. Accountability involves demonstrating progress toward the goal of having all students meet state standards. More immediately, accountability means Keys’s acceptance of a shared responsibility to her colleagues and parents to educate every student well. As we illustrate throughout the book, support and accountability are not alternative strategies for improving schools. Neither, by itself, will do the job. Together, however, consistent school supports and well-designed accountability are essential building blocks for producing a system of effective schools. In chapters 5 through 7 we show how the twin forces of support and accountability play out in the daily lives of teachers and students, first in Boston’s public prekindergarten program, then in a network of charter schools on Chicago’s South Side, and finally in small high schools in New York City. We explain why these complementary principles are central to the success of educational programs that are improving the life chances of a great many low-income children. In chapter 8 we describe a successful family work-support program that also incorporates these principles.
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Throughout the book, we focus on proven initiatives. All have been evaluated using state-of-the-art methods, and the evaluations provide compelling evidence not just that these initiatives have worked, but that they have done so for a significant number of years. The educational programs we highlight are truly exceptional, but they also show what is possible in American education today. In each case we explain why the education in these schools works and contrast it with the education most low-income children currently experience. The hurdles to implementing serious reforms in our classrooms are high. As a nation, we have failed to appreciate the extent to which technological changes over the past several decades have altered the skills needed to succeed in today’s economy. Moreover, the rising economic and social inequality produced by technology and globalization has weakened neighborhoods and families in ways that make effective school reform that much more difficult. For a variety of historical reasons we will discuss, our nation has not learned how to provide the consistent supports that schools and teachers, especially those serving large numbers of low-income children, must have to succeed. In our final chapter we examine why Shannon Keys’s charter school and the other programs we describe are the exception rather than the rule in the educational experiences of low-income children. Discussions of school reforms often center on simplistic “silver bullets”—more money, more accountability, more choice, new organizational structures. None of these reforms has turned the tide, because they fail to improve what matters most in education: the quality and consistency of the instruction and experiences offered to students. We close by describing building blocks for an “American solution” to the serious problems facing our nation’s schools. These include the new Common Core curriculum standards, consistent school supports, welldesigned accountability, advances in knowledge, and, outside of school, programs that support low-income families’ efforts to balance the demands of work and family. The country’s future prosperity, and our ability to make the dream of upward mobility a reality, depend on reversing a trend toward i ncreasingly
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diverging destinies in the education and lives of high- and low-income children. The successful educational interventions we describe in this book demonstrate that we, as a nation, have learned and continue to learn a great deal about how to educate low-income students well. Yet our nation does this for only a small percentage of them. We hope this book will help galvanize a nationwide commitment to put this knowledge into action so that every child has the opportunity to succeed, despite the barriers and challenges faced by so many.