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The Widening Gap in the American Dream - by Kathryn Garrett

Student: Kathryn Garrett

Instructor: Erik Moellering

Course: ENG-112

Date: May 1, 2019


The Widening Gap in the American Dream


In the early twentieth century, historian James Adams coined the term “the American Dream,” which he described as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Kiger, 2011). Since its inception in 1931, the ideals and values behind “the American Dream” have embedded themselves into the fabric of the country. The notion that each is granted equal opportunity “according to ability or achievement” has become the ethos of the United States, echoing the words of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson who affirmed that everyone in America was entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The “American Dream” theoretically protects every American’s right to achieve their potential, but this is historically, and even today, not always the case. Unfortunately, today the American Dream is at variance with ongoing segregation and inequality that continues to persist within the United States educational system, largely due to the growing income gap and racial discrimination.


Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Dubois once said that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line and unfortunately for many, these words still hold true today. Although most Americans feel proud to champion over their defeat of civil injustice and racial inequality, the reality is that the victory has yet to be won. Segregation in American schools continues to exist today despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1964 to integrate schools across the nation. According to data from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the percentage of black students in majority white southern schools decreased from 43.5 percent in 1988 to 23.2 percent in 2011, just below where it stood in 1968 (Breslow, 2014). The presence of racial segregation in America’s education system is particularly concerning because the responsibility falls onto schools to uphold the students’ right to equal opportunity, regardless of their race. This is especially crucial today when the number of ethnic minority students enrolled in schools in the United States has reached a staggering fifty-million (Education Writers Association). Additionally, racial segregation, along with the increase of national socioeconomic disparity, has contributed largely to the growing academic achievement gap between minority and white students.


In the article, “Racial Disparities and Discrimination in Education: What Do We Know, How Do We Know It, and What Do We Need to Know?” author George Farkas evaluates the many factors that attribute to the academic achievement gap between white and minority students. According to the data, minority students are set at a disadvantage from early preschool years due to segregation by race and family income, creating an achievement gap early on that is difficult to rectify (Farkas 1122-1123). Farkas explains that “ethnic minority and low-income students typically attend racially isolated, low-performing elementary schools” as opposed to their socioeconomically advantaged counterparts who attend “largely white and middle-class, high-performing elementary schools” (1130).


The data shows that the education system in America is failing minority students in significant ways by allowing such racial and economic discrepancies to affect their schooling and educational outcome.

Author Linda Darling-Hammond addresses the issue of educational inequality and ongoing racism within America in her article, “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education.” According to Darling-Hammond, the growing disparity of school funding and resources for racial minority and primarily all-white public schools is the leading cause of unequal educational outcomes in schools across the United States. Darling-Hammond argues that the United States educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, stating that “in contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest ten percent of [United States] school districts spend nearly ten times more than the poorest ten percent” (Darling-Hammond 1998). Although the gap in the minority and white students’ test scores narrowed substantially after the illegalization of segregation and efforts the equalize school spending in the 1970s, educational experiences for minority students have continued to be significantly separate and unequal. According to Darling-Hammond, two-thirds of minority students in America still attend schools that are predominantly minority. These primarily minority schools are generally located in poor districts within cities and receive funding and educational resources that are substantially inferior to the neighboring suburban majority white schools. For instance, students in poor or predominantly minority schools are much less likely to be taught by teachers who are fully qualified or hold higher-level degrees, while the most highly educated new teachers are hired largely by wealthy schools (Darling-Hammond 1998). The failure to provide equitable financing and resources to predominantly minority schools puts the students at a severe disadvantage from a young age, often having detrimental consequences on their socioeconomic wellbeing in the future. In a 1991 report to Congress, attorneys William L. Taylor and Dianne Piche stated, “inequitable systems of school finance inflict disproportionate harm on minority and economically disadvantaged students” (Darling-Hammond 1998). According to a Tennessee study, elementary students who are assigned to less-qualified or ineffective teachers for three years in a row score nearly fifty percentile points lower on achievement tests (Darling-Hammond 1998). The inability to provide poor minority students with proper and qualified teachers serves as a crucial impediment for their overall educational growth and achievement, often preventing them from escaping the cycle of poverty.


The issue of unequal opportunity in America exists beyond the boundaries of school walls.

In order to appreciate the problem of educational inequality in America’s school system, there needs to be an understanding of the growing income gap within the nation. In the article, “The Gap Problem,” author Katharine O’Neill addresses the issue of the increasing socioeconomic inequality in America and its effect on the democratic ideals that the nation is built upon. According to data, the income gap between the rich and the poor in America has been steadily increasing over the last few decades, with the top one percent of the population accounting for 34.6% of the nation's wealth in 2007 (Neill, 257). Neill argues that “the increasing proportion of wealth that is being concentrated among the top one percent of the population” has served to widen the income gap in America, thus contradicting the values of equality and opportunity as described by the “American Dream” (255). The growing income gap largely prevents members of the low-income populace from realizing a “richer and fuller and better life” as illustrated by James Adams. Paul Ryan, the former Speaker for the House of Representatives, recently said that “the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life,” reiterating these American values and beliefs that were established generations prior. However, according to Neill, individuals born into wealthy families have a significant educational advantage over their lower-income counterparts: “they enjoy the benefits of educated parents, access to better primary and secondary schools, and more resources to go on to college” (257). Contrary to Paul Ryan’s remarks, this article explains that America’s income gap does, in fact, give an advantage to those born into higher economic status, thus dismantling the ideals of the “American Dream.” Additionally, Neill explains that the correlation between the income gap and the gap in educational advantages is particularly significant because “the job market [in America] increasingly demands workers who are more highly skilled and educated” and also because “more highly educated individuals tend to participate more in the democratic process” (257). The growing income gap is concerning for low-income students who are born into a system of socioeconomic disparity because they are typically enrolled into primarily poor, insufficiently resourced and funded schools, thus continuing the cycle and widening the gap.


In an article from the Atlantic, “The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools,” authors Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein explore this cycle of segregation in schools based on income and race. According to a federal data analysis, in almost all major American cities, “most African American and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income” (Boschma and Brownstein 2016). Nationwide it is estimated that about three-fourths of minority students attend schools where they are surrounded by classmates who qualify as low-income, and in about half of the largest one hundred cities in America, most African American students attend schools where an alarming seventy-five percent of students are poor or low-income. (Boschma and Brownstein 2016) Isolating colored students living in poor communities into predominantly low-income schools is extremely detrimental to their academic achievement. According to Abigail Langston, a senior associate at PolicyLink, “kids who spend more than half of their childhood in poverty have a high-school graduation rate of 68 percent” (Boschma and Brownstein 2016). The concentration of poverty and minority students within schools is strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap, according to Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University and a leading expert on residential and educational segregation. Reardon explains that “the difference in the rate at which black, Hispanic, and white students go to school with poor classmates is the best predictor of the racial-achievement gap” (Boschma and Brownstein2016). The correlation between income and the educational gap has become ever more apparent in recent years. In a study conducted by Reardon, the data shows that “in the 1980s, the gap between the reading and math skills of the wealthiest ten percent of kids and poorest ten percent was about ninety points on an eight-hundred-point SAT-type scale while three decades later, the gap has grown to 125” (Reardon 2014).


The poor, disadvantaged victims of racial segregation and increasing income inequality are faced with seemingly impassable barriers that stand in the way of their realization of the “American Dream.” In his poem, “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes explores the realities for the oppressed members of society, to whom the dream of equality, freedom, and opportunity seem practically unreachable. Hughes highlights the realities of minority oppression by stating, “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars” and “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 20-21). Hughes encapsulates the struggle of disparity and injustice in America when he writes that minorities are “finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak” in his country (Hughes 23-25). For these members of society, escape from ongoing racial oppression and inequality may seem unattainable. However, Hughes offers the reader a hopeful note in his plea for a return to an America of freedom and equality for all:


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe. (Hughes 12-15)


Hughes recalls the reader to an idealized America in which freedom, equality, and opportunity is available to every citizen despite their socioeconomic status or their race; this dream is still relevant today as many are facing the realities of poverty and segregation. The origins of income inequality and poverty can be traced to the environment and level of schooling that America’s low-income students receive. It is therefore imperative that in order to close the income gap in America, educational reformers must intentionally seek more equitable methods of school funding and distribution of resources. Through an intentional pursuit to continually integrate schools while accounting for the growing population of minority students, equal opportunity for students can be realized. Additionally, the priority for poorly funded schools that enroll primarily low-income students should be to hire comprehensive, experienced, and highly-qualified teachers. Darling-Hammond offers a note of hope: in 1998, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued a set of policies to ensure a “caring, competent, and qualified teacher for every child” (Darling-Hammond 1998). According to Boschma and Brownstein of the Atlantic, educational reformers are strongly emphasizing that in individual schools around the country, dedicated teachers and principals and produce impressive results even for students living in communities of pervasive poverty (2016). If all states equalize education spending, enforce higher teaching standards, and reduce teacher shortages, then schools in poor communities will have the ability to produce higher levels of achievement in their students and send more of them to college and eventually the workforce; this, in turn, will help to end the cycle of poverty and create an America that is, in fact, built upon equal opportunity for all.


Works Cited

Kiger, Patrick J. “How the American Dream Works.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 2 May 2011, people.howstuffworks.com/american-dream1.htm.


Breslow, Jason M. “The Return of School Segregation in Eight Charts.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 15 July 2014, www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-return-of-school-segregation-in-eight-charts/.


“Demographics & Diversity.” Education Writers Association, www.ewa.org/demographics-diversity. Accessed Aril 28, 2019


Farkas, G. (2003). Racial Disparities and Discrimination in Education: What Do We Know, How Do We Know It, and What Do We Need to Know? Teachers College Record,105(6), 1119-1146. Retrieved from https://brainmass.com/file/1474172/RacialDisparitiesandDiscriminationinEducation-WhatDoWeKnow,HowDoWeKnowIt,andWhatDoWeNeedtoKnow-.pdf.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2016, July 28). Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education. Brookings Institution. Retrieved April 10, 2019, from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/


Neill, Katharine A. “The Gap Problem.” Administrative Theory & Praxis, vol. 34, no. 2, 2012, Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/search/basic?vid=0&sid=f00bb6ec-00b9-4bd8-a28a-67663cb72272%40sdc-v-sessmgr05 pp. 255–271., doi:10.2753/atp1084-1806340205.


Janie Boschma, Ronald Brownstein. “Students of Color Are Much More Likely to Attend Schools Where Most of Their Peers Are Poor.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Feb. 2016, Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/concentration-poverty-american-schools/471414/.


Sean F. Reardon, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, ed. Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011). Retrieved from https://equitablegrowth.org/income-inequality-affects-our-childrens-educational-opportunities/#footnote-2


Hughes, Langston. “The Life and Work of Langston Hughes.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1 Feb. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again.

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