The American Dream and the Public Schools

The American Dream and the Public Schools

The American Dream and the Public Schools

The American Dream and the Public Schools


Why is education policy so contentious? Do conflicts over specific issues in schooling have anything in common? Are there general principles that can help us resolve these disputes? In this book the authors find the source of many debates over schooling in the multiple goals and internal contradictions of the national ideology we call the American dream. They also propose a framework for helping Americans get past acrimonious debates in order to help all children learn. The American Dream and the Public Schools examines issues that have excited and divided Americans for years, including desegregation, school funding, testing, vouchers, bilingual education, multicultural education, and ability grouping. These seem to be separate problems, but much of the contention over them comes down to the same thing--an apparent conflict, rooted in the American dream, between policies designed to promote each student's ability to pursue success and those designed to insure the good of all students or the nation as a whole. The authors show how policies to promote individual success too often benefit only those already privileged by race or class, and too often conflict, unnecessarily, with policies that are intended to benefit everyone. The book also examines issues such as creationism and Afrocentrism, where the disputes lie between those who attack the validity of the American dream and those who believe that such a challenge has no place in the public schools. At the end of the book, the authors examine the impact of our nation's rapid racial and ethnic transformation on the pursuit of all of these goals, and they propose ways to make public education work better to help all children succeed and become the citizens we need.


We have a great national opportunity—to ensure that every child, in every school, is challenged by high standards, … to build a culture of achievement that matches the optimism and aspirations of our country.

—President George W. Bush, 2000

There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.

—President Bill Clinton, 1993

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS A POWERFUL CONCEPT. It encourages each person who lives in the United States to pursue success, and it creates the framework within which everyone can do it. It holds each person responsible for achieving his or her own dreams, while generating shared values and behaviors needed to persuade Americans that they have a real chance to achieve them. It holds out a vision of both individual success and the collective good of all.

From the perspective of the individual, the ideology is as compelling as it is simple. “I am an American, so I have the freedom and opportunity to make whatever I want of my life. I can succeed by working hard and using my talents; if I fail, it will be my own fault. Success is honorable, and failure is not. In order to make sure that my children and grandchildren have the same freedom and opportunities that I do, I have a responsibility to be a good citizen— to respect those whose vision of success is different from my own, to help make sure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed, to participate in the democratic process, and to teach my children to be proud of this country.”

Not all residents of the United States believe all of those things, of course, and some believe none of them. Nevertheless, this American dream is surprisingly close to what most Americans have believed through most of recent American history.

Public schools are where it is all supposed to start—they are the central institutions for bringing both parts of the dream into practice. Americans expect schools not only to help students reach their potential as individuals but . . .

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