Following the Dreamers: Why We Are So Far from a Future Where Everyone's Education Matters

Following the Dreamers: Why We Are So Far from a Future Where Everyone's Education Matters

The last chapter of my upcoming book The Seven Futures of American Education talks about why we are so far from a future where everyone's education matters. The Washington Post's "Following the Dreamers" series helps illustrate why in detail.

In the last chapter of my upcoming book The Seven Futures of American Education (coming out soon!), I discuss a seventh possible future for American education -- one why where everyone's education matters -- and the Washington Post's "Following the Dreamers" series promises to shed considerable light on the obstacles we face in attaining this future. A bit of background first: the "Dreamers" project was one of the copycat projects inspired by Eugene Lang and his "I Have A Dream" Foundation - the idea being that wealthy philanthropists take a group of disadvantaged elementary school students and offer them the promise of college education tuition completely paid for.

Although only the first installment of the WaPo series is out today, some relevant information has already been revealed. Out of 60 (or is it 59? I haven't figured out the reason for the discrepancy yet) students, 44 students graduated from high school, and another five got their GED; 11 graduated from college. Given the initial circumstances of these students, these are pretty impressive numbers -- I don't have the comparison stats handy, but I'm pretty sure these represent a substantial improvement over what was likely to occur otherwise.

Still, the numbers are even more revealing in how they fall short. Despite the offer of free college tuition, over 75% of the students failed to attain the presumed goal. This tells us what we should have recognized all along: money helps a lot, but it is not nearly enough. Disadvantaged students have to overcome a culture which is not just economically impoverished but also impoverished when it comes to supporting long-term educational attainment. Many of the students in these stories needed considerable psychological support to overcome the traumas they experienced in their lives; many of the parents lacked the skills to motivate their children effectively and did so instead in the only ways they knew how. The notion of a college education was a total abstraction to most of the students, and even a few of the parents, when it was first offered to them. As a group, the Dreamers and their parents had precious few connections with the larger culture which supports educational attainment; for those that did, it appeared to be serious and meaningful for them. It will be interesting to read to what extent those connections made a difference in their children's lives.

One conclusion it seems we can already draw from the initiative without having read the full report: it's going to take a lot of resources to make a difference in every child's lives -- free college tuition is just the tip of the iceberg. It makes the machinations of No Child Left Behind look rather pitiful, and perhaps even a bit obscene, by comparison. It should also remind us that the offer which the wealthy benefactors made, as generous as it was within its own context, looks rather meager when put alongside those countries (often derided as "socialist" or worse) who offer free or reduced college tuition to all their citizens. Comparing this effort to that one reveals a different sort of cultural and societal poverty...

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