Dreams and Realities

The American Dream and the Public Schools By Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, Oxford University Press, 301pages, $35.00

Beneath all the controversies that roil America's public schools -- bilingual education, school choice, inclusion of children with disabilities, alternative approaches to instruction, and so on -- is there one fundamental conflict and one master key? The political scientists Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick think so. In their new book, they claim that the crux of America's education debate is a conflict between individual and collective goals. The individual goal, they say, is to give each child the chance "to make whatever I want of my life," limited only by talent and hard work -- in short, the ability to achieve one's "dreams." The collective goal is that the schools enable all children to "achieve their dreams."

The trouble, according to the authors, is that in a competitive world, each child's success depends on others being less successful, and influential parents want to keep a thumb on the scales to ensure their children's advantage even when other children are equally talented and hardworking. America fails to realize the dream for all because of the competitive advantage that some children gain from growing up in privileged families.

The dilemma is real, but Hochschild and Scovronick resolve it too glibly. Americans can pursue both the individual and collective aspects of the American dream, the authors insist, if we do a better job of integrating schools by race, equalizing school finances, improving instruction, providing limited school choice, and mainstreaming (where feasible) disabled and non-English-speaking children. Each of these policies, they say, limits the "dreams" of privileged children very little but does a lot to equalize the chances of fulfilling the dream for all.

The book's repetition of such phrases as "pursuing dreams" instead of "succeeding" in school or in life is annoying and imprecise. It's easier to define career success than to know what children are actually dreaming -- and that is not a trivial distinction. While privileged children may dream of becoming lawyers or doctors, working-class children may dream simply of having a steady and secure job. Inequality in America gives rise to relatively little class conflict, in part because social context limits dreams and most lower-class adults and their children have accepted their lot.

The overuse of "dream" as a euphemism for "success" gets Hochschild and Scovronick into trouble because it lets them avoid asking whether success for all would be possible even if all children had equally influential parents and equally ambitious dreams. Here is a thought experiment I wish the authors had attempted: What if all children, from all racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds, completed high school fully literate and numerate and went on to graduate from college? Would we then have a nation only of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and managers? Who would drive the trucks, wait the tables, empty the bedpans, sell the merchandise, assemble the automobiles? Would they be only those who dreamed of being waitresses or cashiers?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics periodically projects occupational demand for the ensuing decade, estimating how many job openings will require a college degree, a two-year vocational certificate, or only on-the-job training. Two years ago, the bureau estimated that from 2000 to 2010, 21 percent of openings will require a bachelor's degree (about one-fifth of these will require graduate training), and another 9 percent will require a two-year associate's degree or vocational certificate. Of the 70 percent that will require only on-the-job training, nearly half will need only short-term training. In newly released estimates taking us to 2012, the bureau projects that employers will add 13 million service workers (food-preparation and serving jobs are the biggest category, followed by janitorial jobs), 12 million professionals (mostly teachers), 7.5 million office workers (clerks are the biggest source of demand here), 7 million sales workers (mostly cashiers), and 5 million managerial and finance workers.

These data project past trends, and some scholars claim that they understate the potential for a radical shift upward in demand for skill. Perhaps these criticisms are correct. But even if the number of jobs requiring higher education proves to be twice as large as the bureau projects, we would still be left, by 2012, with less than half of all job openings suitable for college graduates. Given the jobs that will actually be available, most children in school must either have their "dreams" squelched or must "dream" quite modestly.

I don't have a solution, except to say that the question is made more difficult by seeking all the answers in school reform. If young people who were recruited out of school to be truck drivers, retail sales workers, cashiers, health-care aides, and janitors could be assured of economic security, the consequences of losing the race in school might be less severe. Hochschild and Scovronick accept the mythology that doing better than one's parents is a distinctively American aspiration. But, ironically, according to a recent study of intergenerational mobility by The Century Foundation, "the American dream is less common in the United States than elsewhere," in large part because of growing income inequality.

The chief contribution of The American Dream and the Public Schools comes in the chapters on specific educational conflicts. In the best of these, covering school integration, the authors analyze how gains made in the first decades after the Supreme Court's 1954 decision were reversed when courts refused to require busing across district lines and limited desegregation orders to schools deliberately segregated as a matter of educational policy (and not, for example, because of segregated housing).

Hochschild and Scovronick claim that white opposition to integration stems from a mistaken belief among white parents that going to school with blacks will harm their children's interests. Supposedly, resistance would wither if only whites understood that integration benefits blacks more than it harms whites. This interpretation fits neatly into the authors' effort to reconcile individual and collective goals. But readers may instead conclude that opposition to integration reflects racism, not a mistaken cost-benefit analysis by white parents. For example, Hochschild and Scovronick report opposition to "forced busing" continues even when integration reduces the amount of busing (because without integration, children are sometimes transported to racially homogenous schools that are more distant than integrated ones from their homes), and even as busing for purposes other than integration (school consolidation, for example) has grown without protest.

Other chapters are also informative but limited by the authors' attempt to squeeze everything into the same frame of individual-collective conflict. For example, Hochschild and Scovronick come down more on the side of integrating non-English-speaking children with their English-speaking peers, although they do not insist on the abolition of all native language instruction for brief periods. They argue that instruction for immigrant children in English-speaking classrooms advances a collective American identity in place of a communal identity that is inconsistent with the American dream. And a common American identity, they argue, does not harm immigrant children's individual "dreams."

The educators who support bilingual education, however, do not all fit conveniently into this framework. Rather than hoping to strengthen group identity, most argue that native-language instruction is the best way to ensure an eventual fluency in English for children of poor immigrant families -- Spanish-speaking children with semi-literate parents are often far behind in their own language as well as in English. If they lose even more academic time while studying English -- before tackling other age-appropriate subject matter in a language they understand -- they will fall too far behind ever to catch up. Some educational debates revolve more around unresolved issues of pedagogical effectiveness than differences of political philosophy.

Readers seeking useful summaries of the debates on several of the most controversial issues in American education today will be able to gain from this book. But the authors' theoretical framework provokes more questions than it answers. How to reconcile more equal educational outcomes with unequal occupational opportunities is a problem that is almost never considered in contemporary American education. This book evades it, but so conspicuously that readers will have to think further about the issue after putting the book down.

You may also like