19 October 2009

Reviving the American Dream

Rising unemployment in the U.S. has highlighted a variety of causes for the changes in our workforce, and neither recent government spending priorities nor out-sourcing alone is to blame. Recovering American jobs will depend as much on preparing American workers as it does on removing the incentives for big business to exploit lower wages in overseas markets. We have to invest in the the strategies that position our economy to remain vibrant and growing: technologies to improve productivity, and training to foster success working in a rapidly changing global market.
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.
~Michael Jordan
We know it's not a teacher's job to make sure kids live up to a "higher" standard, yet that is what teachers aspire to, nearly universally. Nobody goes into teaching to become wealthy, they do so to give others the tools to flourish and succeed. We entrust our most precious resource, our children, our gift to the future, to the care of selfless people who, in the guise of giving out the secrets of geology, grammar, gymnastics, geometry, gravity, government -- everything from germs to galaxies -- become fundamental role models, shaping and socializing each successive generation by their words, actions, and demeanor.
Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty.
~Ursula K. LeGuin
We know, too, that no matter if it's families, communities, or school systems that are without enough cash, children suffer through no fault of their own. Where poverty is prevalent student outcomes are lower. In Minnesota, for example, Only 60% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch passed the MCA II reading test in 2007 (a standardized test from the Minnesota Department of Education) versus 82% of white students overall (in other words, without respect to family income.)

In Minneapolis, a school district with minority student enrollments well above the state average, the gap was greater: less than 47% of free and reduced price lunch students passed the reading test in that same year. Are these students with lower achievements being prepared to fulfill the American Dream?
Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it -- but sail we must and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Instead of just griping about the lack of education and opportunities, actor Hank Azaria, the voice for several characters in the animated TV comedy “The Simpsons,” decided to do something about it. He teamed up with Sara Hahn, a teacher who wanted to go into areas of need, focus on driven students who wanted a good education, and give them the tools to succeed via a nonprofit organization called Determined to Succeed. Students agree to bring the drive and be held accountable to that by their teachers and parents.

In exchange these young dreamers get summer enrichment programs, tutoring, mentoring, and a commitment to stay with them until they graduate from high school -- a seven year commitment to develop and foster the skills each young person needs to flourish in our society. In fact, one student is still a member of DTS even though her family moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. She gets tutoring and mentoring help over the phone once a week and through frequent emails. DTS is maintaining contact with her teachers and counselor at her new school - they're committed to her success.

That's a great program, and a laudable initiative from the non-profit sector, but we need to do even more. We need to reach the students sooner so the drive to succeed, their belief that they can grow up to be whoever and whatever they want to be, never falters. We need leadership from the Congress and the White House that prioritizes both education and eradicating poverty for the good of our nation.
I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
~Henry David Thoreau
The U.S. likes to think of itself as the world's super-power, despite the lingering effects of the recession that has gripped the country for 12-48 months depending who you ask. Re-establishing economic security depends on a solid foundation of well-educated citizens ready to take on 21st century jobs and careers. Another key to that process is to get the middle-men and their overhead out of the college loan process, as the Senate is currently working on - but we need to direct attention and creativity to the challenges of our youngest students, as well.

Frankly, to put the American Dream back in everybody's head we urgently need to cooperate and overcome the disenfranchisement, the disengagement in our communities, and the segregation-driven achievement gap that threatens our collective prosperity by undermining our public school systems from coast to coast.


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