Thursday, September 24, 2015

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis.
Robert D. Putnam.
Review by Duane Campbell
This new book is an insightful and well researched analysis  of on the achievement gap, which Robert Putnam  correctly calls an opportunity gap for the current generation of young people.  I was drawn to the book by respect for his prior writing,  Bowling Alone . This new work  is of equal value in synthesizing social science research.  Perhaps it is of more value since we have major institutions-schools- in positions , that could contribute to the rebirth of equal, democratic opportunity.

In Our Kids, Putnam   describes major developments in our schools and our communities - the growing inequality of opportunity for the working class and the poor.
Educational writers have long chronicled several of the key concepts, the role of tracking, of concentrations of poverty and of race. This work excels because it is a very well informed outsiders sociological viewpoint of these issues.  Putnam and research associate Jen Sliva bring together extensive social science data and research to support the  many interpretive suggestions.

This is not the over simplification of many general and popular books, nor the ideological tracts of education’s many critics and neoliberal "reform" advocates. Putnam provides vivid and useful examples combined with a well informed data bases  of social science research  of the most important issues. He builds his arguments upon both individual interviews and the synthesis of an enormous amount of social science research thus combining big and important  ideas with the research to support them.  

In my own career, and in my writing, I have long sought to describe several of these  issues in a manner that would guide school improvement.  We begin by educating both the public and teachers on these vital issues of building a democratic school system that can contribute to improved equality of opportunity necessary for the survival and rebirth of our democracy. Building a democracy requires this active interaction between the public, teachers, and the school systems.

Robert Putnam  extensively documents that  we are traveling toward a more divided, more unequal system- the precise opposite of the goals of democratic reform .  This serious and valuable work  is not the cant of the neocons, nor of the neo liberals of higher standards and higher expectations, although both of these have their place in overall school improvement.  But as Putnam meticulously records, it is the complex interactions of race, class, communities and the educational systems that creates the growing inequality.

Our Kids, describes the problems and issues with integrity and care. It does not offer many solutions for teachers  working in schools. The task of developing daily, practical solutions can mostly come from people working in education.   Each of the case studies offered  important insights.  I found particularly insightful the comparisons of two divergent Mexican American families in Southern California; one that had achieved a middle class economic standard and the associated middle class schooling, and a second family where poverty, disruptions, and its associated conflicts blocked opportunity at great economic costs to the young people.

It is vital that teachers and education advocates understand the broad and complex issues of schooling and communicate to the general public the dangers and pitfalls of the growing inequality in our schools and in society.  Our Kids  does summarize examples of major policy directions at work that  may provide a beginning place for needed  dialogue between teachers and the general public.  As Putnam chronicles, the hard work of defending and extending democratic education has been seriously damaged by the neoliberal assault on our schools, our teachers' unions, and on intellectual integrity.  At this point we must  acknowledge that little is likely to develop in the present political climate of (mostly Republican) neoliberal control of most state governments and our economy.

Our Kids is a significant contribution and should be read by teachers interested in pursuing democracy.    It is a sophisticated essay on the complex issues of poverty and wealth and the growth of inequality in our nation. The author provides substantive scholarly syntheses of several diverse research directions revealing the high costs we pay as a society for  underserving poor kids.  He astutely points out the substantive challenges not only to schooling but also to the survival of our democracy and  advances in knowledge of how we might create  a more democratic system and reclaim and renew the democratic project.

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