Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.

“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided world-views.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?”

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relived of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and phycially that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.

REVIEW: An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Toward the final pages of Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State, the primary narrator, Mireille, admits about her response to the earthquake in Haiti in the wake of her own personal horror of being kidnapped and repeatedly raped and tortured over thirteen days of captivity: “We sent money instead and it was then I felt like a true American” (p. 345).

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

When Margaret Atwood writes about Canada, she is also writing about the U.S. When Atwood writes about women, she is also writing about men. And in both dualities, Atwood writes about the intersections, Canada/U.S. and woman/man—as Classen and Howes explain:

From Atwood’s perspective, Canada has traditionally occupied, and internalized, the position of the female in relation to the dominant, male land to the south (Atwood 1982: 389), and so the figure of the female is well suited to represent the Canadian character. As Rosemary Sullivan writes in her biography of Atwood, within Canada “national identity and gender were both predicated on second-class status” (Sullivan 1998: 128).

In fact, in many of Atwood’s poems and stories, the context for the exploration of dualism and borders subtly shifts back and forth from the personal or the interpersonal to the national (Hutcheon 1988).

In Gay’s novel, readers find a parallel to Atwood’s dualities as Gay confronts both Haiti and the U.S. through a personal hell experienced by Mireille who personifies some deeply ugly Truths: when poverty and privilege intersect, violence occurs; when males and females intersect, violence occurs; in both dynamics, as Mireille concludes, “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men” (p. 344).

An Untamed State: Of Mind, Body, and Nation

My entry point to Gay’s writing was “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The story reached out from the computer screen and demanded that I find more by Gay to read so I ordered An Untamed State the same day after exploring Gay’s web site.

That first story struck me with Gay’s use of voice, genre manipulation, and tone; I was lost much of the story until the end, which pays off brilliantly.

My experience with the novel confirms my initial attraction to Gay’s gifts, but the novel presents a paradox: The story is so brutal, it is nearly unreadable, unbearable, and the story is so brutal, I never wanted to put the book down until I reached the last word.

I am prone to placing books on my bookshelves in ways that honor how I feel about those books. I will slip An Untamed State beside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy because at their cores these works are about what Mireille (again at the end of the novel and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) proclaims:

There was an earthquake….It was a new sorrow, a fresh break in an already broken place. The tents are still there, providing no shelter. Women are in even more danger. There is no water. There is no hope. My parents survived and for that I was grateful, in spite of myself. My father’s buildings stood strong while the rest of the country fell. I imagine he is proud of his work, these standing monuments of his resolve. (p. 344)

The most powerful motifs of the novel are weaved into the passage above, exhibiting a simplicity that masks the weight the novel carries from the very title itself. “An Untamed State” speaks to Haiti as country, especially as that contrasts with the U.S. and as privilege and poverty are dramatized in Mireille’s parents (their gated estate in Haiti) and Mireille’s captivity once kidnapped, and to the fragility of Mireille’s mental and physical states.

“Forgive me for my father’s sins”

Gay’s narration mixes time and perspectives with both a suddenness and grace that left me as conflicted about the style, structure, and point of view as I was about the content, Mireille’s kidnapping, the repeated scenes of rape and torture, and the tension Gay creates with her characters and her themes. For example, what am I to do when the kidnappers and rapists express valid confrontations about the violence of inequity?

Within the first few pages, the dominant motif is established, as Mireille offers the first flashback embedded in her coming to consciousness in captivity:

We sat on our lanai, illuminated by paper lanterns and candles, all of us drunk on the happiness of too much money and too much food and too much freedom. (p. 10)

This passage echoes for me the opening of Chapter III in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champaign and the stars. (p. 39)

But in Gay’s novel, the opulence and decadence are framed against Mireille’s story of being grotequely tamed, her nightmare of awareness germinated in her native Haiti: “There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew” (p. 11).

Also in those first few chapters, I came to recognize that the chapter numbering was tallying—I, II, III, IIII, IIII …—a subtle technique that reveals the fact of Mireille’s many states of captivity: captive to her father’s privilege and arrogance; captive to her native Haiti; captive to her existence as a woman; captive to her life as a Haitian married to a pale American; captive for 13 days to kidnapping, rape, and torture; and then captive to her history for the entirety of her life.

An Untamed State is a compelling novel and deserves your time if you love to read well crafted stories and characters, but the work is also a brave and piercing spotlight on the violence of this world bred by socioeconomic and gender inequity. Gay focuses those messages, in part, on Mireille’s father:

My father does not understand obstacles, doesn’t believe they exist. He cannot even see obstacles. Failure was never going to be an option. He often says, “There is nothing a man cannot get through if he tries hard enough.”

He built skyscrapers….My father said, “There’s no telling how high a man can reach if he’s willing to look up into the sky and straight into the sun.” (p. 32)

The father’s discourse is steeped in the sort of rugged individualism mythology at the core of the U.S., is paternalistic and chauvinistic, and is ironic in its embracing of a concluding image of self-induced blindness.

As a Haitian embodying the Great American Myths, Mireille’s father embodies the “no excuses” and “grit” ideologies found in current education reform discourse and policies in the U.S.:

Growing up, my father told my siblings and me two things—I demand excellence and never forget you are Haitian first; your ancestors were free because they took control of their fate.. When he came home from work each night, he’d find us in our corners of the house and ask, “How we you excellent today?”…If he disapproved, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, so wearied by our small failures. He would say, “You can be better. You control your fate.”…

It was easy for my father to overlook the country’s painful truths because they did not apply to him, to us. He left the island with nothing and returned with everything—a wife, children, wealth. (pp. 35, 36-37)

In the wake of her father’s arrogant idealism, however, is the living death of Mireille—reduced to a shell of herself, sated only by hunger like a Kafkan nightmare, and left always a captive, mostly of her being a woman and the unfortunate child of privilege in a violently untamed state.

Readers are not left only with these tragedies, although the counterweight to the consequences of the sins of the father don’t quite equal out despite the novel’s final word being “hope.”

Mireille and her mother-in-law form over the course of the novel a compact built on basic human kindness; in fact, the word “kindness” rises to the level of refrain throughout the last third of the novel.

But it is a kindness shared by battered women risen from the ashes of a man’s razed world.

The reader learns of Mireille’s last moments with the Commander, the lead kidnapper who brutalizes her, in the final chapter of the novel when Mireille utters to him, “‘Forgive me for my father’s sins'” (p. 363).

Heavy with this novel, I put it down recognizing that like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Mireille’s father, a man of privilege, and Mireille’s captor, a man of poverty, walk away from their carnage, but I fear Mireille’s plea rings louder in my ears than in the ears of either of these men, these sinners.

On Foma and Mendacity: Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may seem at first blush to share only the use of “cat” in their titles, but both works are masterful examinations of something central to the human condition: the lie.

But Vonnegut’s foma at the heart of Bokononism and Big Daddy’s railing against mendacity  present contrasting dramatizations of “lying and liars,” as Brick and Big Daddy wrestle with “one of them five dollar words” [1]:

Mendacity is the darkest of lies because it corrupts and ultimately destroys relationships and even lives. For Big Daddy, mendacity is inevitable, central to the human condition: “I’ve lived with mendacity!—Why can’t you live with it? Hell, you got to live with it, there’s nothing else to live with except mendacity, is there?”

While Vonnegut’s novel is also dark—and typically satirical—foma is offered as harmless lies, as Julian Castle explains to the narrator:

“Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.” (p. 172)

Although different consequences result from the mendacity of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the foma of Cat’s Cradle, all lies share one important characteristic: They are almost impossible to confront, and once confronted, they create a great deal of pain.

As a parent, I came face to face with letting the cat out of the bag when my daughter first unmasked the foma of the Tooth Fairy, and then connected that realization with Santa Claus. After I confessed to the truth—trying as I did to make a case about “harmless lies”—my daughter cut right to the heart of the matter, asking, “Why did y’all lie to me?”

The thinnest margins between mendacity and foma, I think, are found in our cultural myths—the fatal flaw of confusing the ideals we aspire to as a people with conditions already achieved. Many of those aspirations have tipped into mendacity, poisoning the possibility of those ideals—especially in the foundational promises of public institutions.

Here, then, are those ideals that could have served us well as aspiration, but now work as mendacity and thus against our best intensions:

  • Capitalism and choice. The realization is now becoming hard to ignore, that capitalism (the free market) is incompatible with equity (see, for example, Thomas Piketty). As well, choice as a concept central to freedom is far more complicated than expressed in our public discourse. Both capitalism and choice have worked against cultural aspirations for equity, but those failures may be better explained by the reason they have failed: idealizing capitalism and choice while failing to commit fully to the power of the Commons to establish the context within which capitalism and choice could serve equity well.
  • Meritocracy. In the U.S., possibly the greatest lie that results from confusing an aspiration with an achieved condition is the argument that we live in a meritocracy. The evidence suggests that we currently do not have a meritocracy (see how being born rich and not attending college trumps being born poor but completing college), and even more disturbing, we are unlikely to achieve a meritocracy (see why “[e]qual opportunity cannot actually be achieved”).
  • Education as Key to Equity. As misleading as claims about the U.S. being a meritocracy (or that we are a post-racial country) are assertions that education is the one true way to overcome social ills and how any individual can lift her/himself out of poverty. However, education has not and does not, in fact, change society, rarely lifts people out of the circumstances of their births, and serves as a marker for privilege (thus creates the illusion that education is a force for change)—as Reardon explains:

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially….

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

When my daughter allowed the evidence to lead her to a conclusion that made her at least uncomfortable if not disillusioned, she had to begin to re-evaluating her perception of the world, a perception that included the nature of truth and the role of her parents in her navigating that world.

That may sound dramatic about a conversation including the Tooth Fairy, but for a child, the intentions of foma have the same stinging consequences as the cynicism of mendacity. For adults, it seems, burying ourselves in the opiate of foma (Aldous Huxley’s soma) allows us to ignore the bitter pill of mendacity.

As aspirations, the bulleted concepts above remain important for a free people, but as mendacity, they have and will continue to insure that inequity cannot be achieved.

Many readers miss the powerful theme of optimism that runs through Vonnegut’s works; he maintains a genuine and compelling hope among the ruins for the capacity of humans to be kind. The bitterness and fatalism of Big Daddy, however, seem for now a more accurate assessment of the human condition in 2014.

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

[1] The film adaptation of the play has some shifts in the wording and transposing of character’s lines, but the film is iconic as pop culture so I include a clip from that although I use lines from the play in the quotes.

State Impact: Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Speaking for the Education Trust, Sonja Brookins Santelises makes the following argument in support of Common Core:

And before Baltimore, she worked in Massachusetts – the state whose standards are a model for Common Core. The Bay State is now one of the top-ranked education systems in the country.

Common standards will allow districts across the U.S. to share tips, techniques and lessons that work best for low-income or minority students.

In Twenty Years After Education Reform: Choosing a Path Forward to Equity and Excellence for All, Dan French, Ed.D., Lisa Guisbond and Alain Jehlen, Ph.D., with Norma Shapiro, conclude, among other things, about the impact of Massachusetts’ standards:

Large gaps in educational equity, opportunity and outcomes persist:

• On the MCAS, significant gaps remain among student groups based on race, poverty, ethnicity, language and special needs, with some gaps stagnant and some increasing. The school districts with the highest scores on the 2012 10th grade MCAS English test  had low-income student populations ranging from two to nine percent, while the ten lowest scoring districts had percentages ranging from 50 to 87 percent.

• On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though our average results place us at the top of all states, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between White and Hispanic students, a sign that the English immersion policy created by the Unz initiative has failed.

• Massachusetts ranks 31st of 49 states for the gap between Black and White student graduation rates (with 1st meaning that the gap is the smallest) and 39th of 47 states for the size of the gap between Hispanic and White student graduation rates. For students with disabilities, Massachusetts’ four-year graduation rate is only 64.9 percent, which ranks the state at 28th out of the 45 states with available data in 2009. A significant reason for this low figure is the impact of the MCAS graduation requirement on this subgroup.

Why Poverty and Mass Incarceration Do Not Matter in the U.S.

Ever wonder why poverty and mass incarceration do not matter in the U.S.?

Poverty disproportionately impacts women and children (see p. 15):

Povertygenderage

[click image to enlarge]

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African American males. While white males outnumber AA males about 5 to 1 in society, AA males outnumber white makes about 6 to 1 in prison:

—–

Government and business in the U.S. remains dominated either by privileged white males or the norms associated with privileged white males.

Our leaders have no empathy.

Our leaders have wealth, privilege, child care, health care, food security, and job security—and they all believe they have earned it all. They also believe those who haven’t are lazy—also deserving their poverty.

Our leaders cannot and will not acknowledge their privilege.

Leadership without empathy is tyranny.

If poverty and mass incarceration were white male problems, we’d be working to end both.

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Bi-partisan Failure: Misreading Education “Gaps”

It took about twenty years, and then another secondary ten years, but the hysterical and misleading A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration successfully kicked off three decades of public school accountability.

In the beginning, the hysteria revolved around several points that were factually inaccurate, but publicly effective: (1) U.S. public schools were failing, (2) U.S. students were weak, and possibly lazy, but their schools didn’t do much to challenge them, and (3) because of this cycle of lazy students in failing schools, U.S. international competitiveness was in dire straits.

These claims and the discourse grew from the White House and became recurrent and unquestioned talking points in the media, among the public, and by politicians. At first, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public education built state-based standards and testing cycles that targeted primarily students (best typified by the exit exams designed to hold students accountable and insure the value of the high school diploma) and then gradually the schools themselves with the rise of school report cards.

The initial twenty-year cycle of state-based school accountability also spawned governors as education reformers—most notably the fraudulent Texas Miracle during George W. Bush’s tenure in Texas that helped bolster his run for the White House. Bush as education governor became education president and brought Rod Paige along as Secretary of Education to convert the Texas Miracle into a federal version of the state-based accountability movement, now popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In 2012, two important aspects of NCLB are worth considering: (1) NCLB has been repeatedly praised as a bi-partisan effort, but we rarely consider that bi-partisanship by itself doesn’t insure quality (and in education, we have ample evidence bi-partisanship is evidence of failure), and (2) NCLB has also been credited for raising national awareness of the achievement gap, but this second point is evidence of why the bi-partisanship is proof of political failure about education reform.

Misreading Education “Gaps”

The single greatest bi-partisan success of NCLB, the argument has been, is that the federal government began forcing all schools to address the achievement gaps among subgroups of students, impacting significantly how schools identified, tested, and displayed test data related to English language learners, African American students, and special needs students.

Here, though, the use of the term “achievement gap” has never been challenged or examined for what agenda it fulfills or how it positions our entire national view of students, teachers, and schools.

Like the “no excuses” mantra “poverty is not destiny,” the use of “achievement gap” redirects the focus on the tests themselves, the students as agents of the test data, and the teachers as agents of the students as test takers. Again, just as the “no excuses” mantras accomplish, “achievement gap” creates a myopic view of agency—the rugged individual—that decontextualizes children from their lives outside of schools and students, teachers, and schools from the society and communities in which they exist.

The dynamic created by NCLB’s focus on the achievement gap (including federal funding to support addressing that gap) revealed to the public that such gaps exist—although anyone working in education or examining test data throughout the twentieth century knows that standardized scores have always been and remain most strongly correlated to the exact characteristics used to identify subgroups of students (language proficiency, parental income, parental education level, race, gender). By situating the accountability movement within schools and focusing the process on test scores, the public and political conclusions drawn from the identified achievement gap included that, once again, schools were failing, but resulted in a new claim that teachers were the primary cause of that failure.

The achievement gap, then, serves the interests of the “no excuses” reform movement that is determined to discount the influence of poverty on the lives of children and their learning—not the interests of these children or families trapped in the growing plight of poverty in the U.S., and not universal public education as a mechanism of democracy and human empowerment.

Instead of referring to and addressing the achievement gap, I have recommended focusing on the “equity gap”—a terminology that contextualizes where “achievement gap” decontextualizes.

Acknowledging and addressing the equity gap recognizes that student test data are markers for a complex matrix of conditions—not simply the effort or aptitude of students, not the quality or effort of their teachers.

Equally viable as an alternative to “achievement gap” is Charlotte Carter-Wall’s examination of the attainment gap in a new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)—The Role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap.

This report, building on previous studies by JRF (see the references provided by Carter-Wall), provides a key finding that challenges arguments that children and the families living in poverty embody attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that cause the poor test scores of those students. This is powerful since it runs counter to the rugged individualism assumptions underlying “no excuses” reforms.

The JRF study helps clarify Berliner’s research showing that out-of-school factors overwhelm in-school factors in terms of student outcomes. As well, Barton and Coley (20072009) have established similar evidence that couches the “achievement gap” in the broader social, community, and home characteristics that “no excuses” reformers and politicans tend to ignore or discount.

Linda Darling-Hammond has also challenged the validity of “no excuses” reform perpetuated by addressing the “achievement gap”:

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns….

These issues were vividly illustrated in last week’s Capitol Hill briefing on the impact of poverty on education and what we can do about it. Sponsored jointly by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the panel got beyond the increasingly implausible “no excuses” rhetoric, using new evidence to examine the relationship between income and educational outcomes — as well as about strategies that have succeeded in reducing this relationship.

NCLB must not be praised as a bi-partisan watershed moment when the U.S. exposed and confronted the achievement gap. Instead we must acknowledge that the term “achievement gap” works to mask and even ignore the corrosive influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children.

Our political and public discourse must turn to confronting and changing the equity gap, the attainment gap, and the income gap, since these all recognize the full context of both living and learning in either poverty or affluence.

But what of the most recent claims of teacher quality even if we move to these new terms and understandings?

Teacher Quality and the Attainment Gap

A Nation at Risk created and fueled a series of inaccurate claims about students and schools in the U.S., but one of the most powerful and misleading recent additions to those claims has been the assault on the “bad” teacher. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee—among many others—have stated and repeated that teachers are the most important factor in the learning of children. Again similar to responses to the achievement gap, claims about teachers have been primarily allowed without full or critical challenges in the media or the public. Briefly, then, consider these inaccurate and conflicting claims currently being posed about teacher quality as it impacts student learning:

• “No excuses” reformers make two conflicting claims: Teachers are the most important element in student learning, but bad teachers are the sole reason our schools have historically and currently failed students. These bizarre claims are compounded by another misunderstanding common in the public—that teachers can be to blame for school failure. Few political or public discussions of the role of teachers in school quality acknowledge that teachers have never and do not now run schools.

• “No excuses” reformers also call for the need to recruit the best and brightest into education while simultaneously dismantling academic freedom and due process for teachers as well as endorsing Common Core State Standards to prescribe what teachers will teacher, how they will teach that content, and that those teachers will be evaluated and fired based on tests and standards not designed or endorsed by those teachers. [Note that "no excuses" reformers depend on the achievement gap discourse decontextualizing test data from social causes in order to shift the burden of learning to the teachers.]

Reframing the achievement gap as the equity or attainment gap will be of little value unless we also reframe the discussion of teacher quality by placing that debate within the equity/attainment gap discussion. That shift must include the following:

• Teacher quality matters, but it (and school characteristics) correlates with only about 33% to as little as 14% of student outcomes. As Jim Horn explains:

So what can we do?  We can continue to improve our teaching in every way we can, even as we must begin to alter the ravaging effects of poverty and to advocate for policies that help to limit the effects the poverty.  Health care, nutrition, housing, transportation, jobs, and integrated and diverse schools that can take take advantage of the power of shared social capital.

• The “no excuses” reformers also make repeatedly another conflicting set of claims: schools are historical and current failures, but they are the mechanism by which we can change society (and that of course must be done by firing the “bad” teachers and hiring the best and brightest into what is increasing a service industry). Thus, the teacher quality debate must be framed in how it often perpetuates inequity of attainment for children since children of color, English language learners, and special needs students tend to be assigned disproportionately to new/inexperienced teachers as well as un-/under-qualified teachers—a dynamic increased by the rise of commitments to Teach for America.

If the achievement gap is a metric exposing problems the U.S. must confront, and it is, and if teacher quality matters, and it does, and if our schools are a mechanism for reforming society’s persistent scar of inequity, and they could be, the ways in which we talk about “gaps” must first be reformed so that we come to understand that living and learning in poverty is a reality of inequity for far too many children in the U.S., 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks of each year.

Recommended Further Reading

Diane Ravitch on Texas Miracle: The Texas Miracle Revisited and 20 years later, debunking the ‘Texas Miracle’

A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education

Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings

References

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2007, September). The family: America’s smallest school. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 27 December 2007, from http://www.ets.org/…

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2009). Parsing the achievement gap II. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 8 May 2009, fromhttp://www.ets.org/…

Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 25 August 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/…

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. Retrieved 27 December 2007 fromhttp://www.jrf.org.uk/…

Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F., & Stecher, B. M. (2000) What do test scores in Texas tell us? Issue Paper, Rand Education. Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation. Retrieved 20 August 2009 from http://www.rand.org/…

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.edtrust.org/…

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Why the Achievement Gap Matters and Will Remain

EdWeek features a story that is a typical crisis report on education in the U.S. that has been repeated for decades, although the current crisis has expanded beyond African American students to include Hispanic students: “Study Finds Gaps Remain Large for Hispanic Students”:

While growing numbers of Hispanic students have changed the face of American education over the past two decades, the gap between them and their white classmates in math and reading remains as wide as it was in the 1990s, according to a new federal study.

The hand wringing over the White/Hispanic achievement gap, however, exposes more about the failure of political, media, and public discourse as well as current and historic patterns of education reform than about our education system.

With a little care, we can unravel the inherent flaws in both our assumptions about the achievement gap and the misguided approaches to addressing it in our schools.

First, and this is the most important aspect of the topic, the achievement gap is primarily a reflection of the equity gap that exists in the lives of children, and only secondarily a reflection of school quality and practices.

This is central to any effective commitments to addressing inequity for children, but this fact exposes why the EdWeek headline is unlikely ever to be any different as long as we persist in addressing only in-school dynamics and focus on the narrowest forms of student outcomes, test scores.

While politicians and the media misrepresent the achievement gap in order to demonize schools and teachers, we have ample evidence that addressing the whole life of the child is the only avenue to closing an achievement gap. Barton and Coley have crafted a plan to address reform targeting schools, children’s homes, and the complex mix of any child’s community and wider society.

But the political, corporate, and media elite—who are using the “achievement gap” refrain to mask their true commitments to maintaining the current status quo of privilege and inequity—reject all evidence-based calls for addressing social forces as using poverty for an excuse. Yet, the persistent result that in-school-only reform has achieved over the past half century is to ensure, as the newest report shows (just as all studies have shown), that the gap remains.

And this first point leads to a key failure in logic that is the second point: As Walt Gardner has succinctly explained: “Don’t forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.”

This second point is a simple failure in logic. If we start with a solid premise (the lives of children outside of school contribute about 60-80+% of measurable student outcomes), and then implement inequitable in-school policies (testing, labeling, and stratifying students in order to ask less of those labeled most in need), we should expect only one outcome—a persistent achievement gap.

Historically and currently, we pretend that test scores fairly represent learning, we pretend that schools alone determine student outcomes, we implement inequitable school policies that we label as reform addressing the gap, we pretend that lives of inequity and lives of privilege somehow pause while we implement these policies, and then we express disbelief that the achievement gap persists.

And this is the cruel irony of political and bureaucratic approaches to the achievement gap—an irony that is a damning rebuttal to the intent of the rhetoric each time a political or corporate leader speaks to that gap.

A few key shifts in both how we discuss the achievement gap and address that gap would show a genuine concern for closing that gap:

• We must replace the phrase “achievement gap” with “equity gap”—clearly expressing that many aspects of children’s lives reflect the persistent facts of privilege and inequity in our culture. Since children have little autonomy and no political power, children remain the most stark mirrors of who we are as people and a culture.

• We must address inequity in the lives of children and their families—and confront our cultural habit of masking those inequities behind our myths claiming freedom and equality for all. If we indeed embrace the ideal of human agency and equity, then we must also be willing to admit that this ideal has yet to be achieved. We have historically embraced the myth to the exclusion of confronting we have work left to be done.

• We must focus all school reform on ending traditional and bureaucratic approaches to education that perpetuate the inequity and privilege students bring to school from their lives: standardized testing that is highly correlated with students’ home characteristics, stratified courses and gate-keeping policies for those courses, inequitable teacher assignments and class sizes (privileged students sit in classrooms with the most experienced and highly qualified teachers as well as the smallest student/teacher ratios), and a community-based school resources model that allows each school to reflect the coincidence of every child’s birth to determine her/his access to education.

The political and corporate elite benefit from a constant state of education crisis because that perception allows them to point at the schools and distract us from their own failure to address the conditions of inequity that insure their privilege.

People living in poverty and trapped in a cycle of social inequity—specifically children—are not the agents of that inequity. The powerful determine the conditions of our society, and our schools reflect and maintain those conditions.

A persistent achievement gap is an accurate indictment of our schools as mechanisms of perpetuating inequity and privilege, but it is a greater indictment of the power of the cultural elite to maintain their privilege while claiming to seek equity.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

“The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” begins a poem by Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America. A careful reading notices “gold bracelets,” suggesting more than affluence, opulence. The poem continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

The two women speak interchangeably about the fired domestic worker and the vase, both reduced to “one,” and “worked” is repeated about only the broken vase, an object for decoration and a Christmas gift. “It” and “colors” also haunt the conversation. In this brief poetic scene, the callousness of two affluent women about the value of an ornament over a worker (one who apparently is not a native speaker of English, and as suggested by the Spanish/English versions of all the poems and title of the collection, likely Latino/a) is couched in a larger context found in the poem’s title, “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator.”

This flippant conversation is overheard by another worker, a janitor (who do you see as the “janitor”?), standing essentially unseen, unacknowledged beside these women (who do you see as these women?), trapped momentarily in an elevator.

Kingsolver’s stark and vivid poem captures, as does Kingsolver’s entire collection, the existence of two Americas, a slogan trivialized by politicians and ignored like the janitor by much of the public in the U.S.

The two Americas include the few and affluent, mostly white, who have virtually all the power and, as the poem shows, a voice in the nation and the remaining many, disproportionately middle-class, working-class, working poor, and poor as well as African American and, increasingly, Latino/a.

Let’s consider for a moment what students may be asked to do if presented with this poem in a public high school in the U.S., specifically in this expanding era of accountability and the encroaching specter of Common Core and the concurrent new high-stakes tests.

Based on my having been an educator during the entire past thirty years of the accountability era, I would suggest that this poem would be reduced to mechanistic analysis, in much the same way we have treated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for decades.

While many are rightfully concerned that the Common Core will significantly decrease the focus on fiction and poetry in schools, we have yet to address that even if we maintain great poetry and fiction in the education of our children, we do them or that literature little service to allow those works to be reduced only to their literary parts, mere interchangeable fodder for identifying lination, stanzas, diction, symbolism, narration, characterization, setting, and the endless nuts and bolts deemed worthy of dispassionate analysis in school.

How many generations of students, for example, have examined at length the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and Gatsby’ yellow car? How many students have been guided through the technical precision of Fitzgerald’s novel while never confronting his vivid challenge to the American Dream?

Have students been asked to look carefully at the corpses of Myrtle and George (the wrong kind of people, George a mere worker and Myrtle left like roadkill in the middle of the road) as well as Gatsby (the wrong kind of rich) floating dead in his pool? Have students been asked why Tom and Daisy (the right kind of rich) go on vacation in the wake of these deaths, seemingly untarnished because of the Teflon coating of their affluence?

Have students been asked to consider carefully why Tom hits Myrtle but bends to Daisy’s taunts?

These are distinctions of analysis—suggesting that Common Core and curriculum are trivial debates if we do not address what happens in the classroom and for whom.

Made in America: Segregation by Design

The technical approach to literature that ignores critical literacy is a subset of the larger technical debate about education and education reform that focuses policy and public attention on the details of schooling (public versus charter and private, Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added methods of evaluating teachers) and ignores the substance of schooling like a janitor trapped in an elevator with two wealthy women.

The substance of schooling today is a stark contrast to the moment of cultural consciousness stretching from the early 1950s into the 1970s when separate but equal was confronted and rejected. As society in the U.S. wrestled with integration of institutions, the cancer of segregation was merely shifted from separate schools to schools-within-schools: White and affluent students tend to sit in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes with experienced and qualified teachers and low student-teacher ratios while AA/ Latino/a and impoverished students tend to sit in remedial, test-prep, and tech-prep classes with new and unqualified teachers (in the twenty-first century that means often Teach for America recruits as temporary workers) and high student-teacher ratios.

In-school segregation has been driven by affluent parents, who use their privilege to insure that their children get theirs, and damn the rest. But segregation by design has now been joined by two powerful and corrosive mechanisms—charter schools and segregated higher education access.

Charter schools (see Charter Schools: A Primer and Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity) have failed to achieve the academic miracles proponents have promised, but charter schools have exposed the most predictable outcome of choice, segregation. As Sarah Carr has shown, New Orleans is a disturbing record of the charter schools flood, the role disaster capitalism plays in destroying equity and opportunity for “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” African Americans and people trapped in poverty.

While schools-within-schools and charter schools highlight K-12 segregation by design in the U.S., as troubling is the entrenched privilege of affluence found in higher education, augmenting Matt Bruenig’s conclusion: “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”

Carnevale and Strohl have identified the separate and unequal access to higher education that constitutes the full picture of segregation by design in the U.S.:

The postsecondary system mimics the racial inequality it inherits from the K-12 education system, then magnifies and projects that inequality into the labor market and society at large….

Whites have captured most of the enrollment growth at the 468 most selective and well-funded four-year colleges, while African Americans and Hispanics have captured most of the enrollment growth at the increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced open-access two- and four-year colleges….

These racially polarized enrollment flows have led to an increasing overrepresentation of whites at the 468 most selective four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges….

At the same time, African Americans and Hispanics are increasingly underrepresented at the most selective 468 four-year colleges…. (Executive Summary, pp. 3, 6, 10, 12)

The inequitable access to elite higher education mirrors the inequitable access to quality K-12 education and to experienced and qualified teachers. Inequitable access, then, creates inequitable outcomes:

[H]igh-scoring African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to drop out of college before completing a credential….

Among high-scoring students who attend college, whites are far more likely to complete a BA or higher compared to African Americans or Hispanics….

Each year, there are 111,000 high-scoring African-American and Hispanic students who either do not attend college or don’t graduate.

About 62,000 of these students come from the bottom half of the family income distribution….

Racial inequality in the educational system, paired with low social and economic mobility in the United States, produces enormous differences in educational outcomes: Whites are twice as likely as African Americans and three times as likely as Hispanics to complete a BA or higher…. (Carnevale and Strohl, 2013, Executive Summary, pp. 24, 26, 28, 37)

Despite the meritocracy myth at the heart of the American Dream, then, Carnevale and Strohl conclude: “In the United States, parents’ education determines the educational attainment of their children” (Executive Summary, p. 38).

The cruel irony of education in the U.S. includes that most privileged children will find themselves in classrooms where color imagery (the gold bracelet in Kingsolver’s poem, the green dock light and yellow car in The Great Gatsby) will be the key to the already unlocked door leading to college and secure, high-paying jobs while AA and Latino/a as well as impoverished students are shown quite a different door.

All the while, the colors that matter—black, brown, white, and green—remain invisible and unspoken under the veneer of the American Dream of meritocracy that is less credible than any work of fiction soon to be dropped from the school day.