Have we crossed a tipping point towards the death of the American Dream? It is a sad, perhaps even horrifying thought to those whose historical window largely spans the last 75 years, or perhaps sees the genesis of that Dream in the almost miraculous prescience of the founding American generation of the late 18th century. The latest book by Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, argues that the downward slide is serious, if not critical, in its combined magnitude, direction, and complexity. This soon-to-be bestseller is a must read, so I won’t go into detail. Readers here are concerned about education, and education is one of the key elements in Putnam’s equation of the growing disparities of opportunity for this and future American generations.
Are we already on the cusp of widening even further that gap of opportunity? Is there another growing gap in education that will further distance those young people who are well prepared for the challenging, changing, ambiguous future that lies ahead, and others who are not? It would be hard to argue that this is not the case, and I want us to radically focus on this: a solution is not a solution unless it scales to be massively more, rather than less, inclusive.
Here is what I see:
- A majority of American students and their families recognize that the traditional model of education based on learning content and doing well on standardized tests is not preparing our students well for their futures.
- A majority of educators are talking about the problem, but doing little. They are overwhelmed by a combination of fear and inertia.
- A relatively small minority of educators, across the full spectrum of public, private, charter and hybrid schools are doing something about it, courageously building a deeper learning environment that places the future skills and needs of the student above their own comfort with the status quo.
Lacking a significant shift, the trajectories of the minority and majorities will increasingly diverge. A few students will radically benefit from the shift to deeper learning, will be vastly better prepared to creatively tackle the really huge challenges of the decades ahead. More students will be left behind, able to answer test questions but prepared more to follow, than to lead, into the future. The gap in equality of opportunity will further widen. The American Dream will further dissipate. It will not be good enough to be able to say “I prepared my students at my school well.” That will be a shallow success in the face of a much deeper failure.
Are there answers? Can we reverse the directions of these curves? I don’t know about some of the social and economic factors; they are beyond my ken. I do know we can turn the educational factors in favor of the Dream, but it means that we only settle for elegant solutions that radically scale and impact the majority. It will mean some moonshot thinking and acting. It was, after all, a real moonshot that proved what Americans can do when we really want and need to. That is what I am working on, or at least dreaming about, these days. Man, do I hope to soon get to a point where we can work on a moonshot together!