The hats are flying and the ring is filling up as presidential hopefuls queue up to announce their candidacies. I and millions of fellow optimists are hopeful as well, as we look for another leader who can make a difference that makes a real impact, especially in the experiences of our underrepresented and underserved young people and their educational outcomes.
As each election goes by, I feel like Charlie Brown and his on-the-field encounters with Lucy and “the football”. Just as my man Charlie makes his approach to the ball, Lucy pulls it away and Chuck falls flat on his back. Anguish follows, but then hope springs eternal, and Charlie Brown tries again. Is that where we are now, optimistically taking focus on that pigskin yet fearing another whiff?
I believe many Americans are a bit ambivalent by nature. When confronting a serious social issue, we hold two ideas in our head simultaneously. We ask, “Why can’t our government do something?” And then, without missing a beat, we lament that our government will likely screw up. My sense is that we look at our political leaders in much the same way. President Obama, during his one-and-a-half terms as Commander-in-Chief, has been bold about social initiatives that help support people and communities of color and the middle class. However, the President and Congress may have whiffed on delivering policies that really improve opportunities for systemic school change and innovation. Unfortunately, the Race to the Top has left too many students near the bottom.
We continue to hear a lot lately about inequality. Of course, we do not mean basic inequality. There’s very little we can do about that. We are born with obvious differences that bring us a lifetime of benefits and challenges. The fact that I am six foot eight makes it easier for me to have my way on the basketball court and more challenging to fit into an airplane seat. We all learn to live with and capitalize on such inequalities.
What is deeply troubling and much harder to live with is inequality of opportunity and access, particularly for our young people. Our leaders must be sure those opportunities exist and are accessible to ALL. And then, as educators, we must prepare our students to understand and grasp those opportunities, particularly those that require deep and sustained learning in the real world.
Some have observed that opportunity is declining in this country. There are certainly some signs that point in that direction. Take a look at the Bureau of Labors list of fastest declining occupations. A cursory glance suggests that manufacturing and other labor-intensive trades are quickly going the way of the dodo, which is going to leave behind an entire segment of our population for whom an academic-based education hasn’t been a top priority. The middle class is shrinking, good-paying jobs are scarcer, and providing for a family is ever more challenging. Expanding the number of real opportunities is something we expect our leaders to do something about without screwing it up.
It wasn’t too long ago that many of us thought it impossible that we’d see an African-American President in our lifetime. But that has happened. As the field narrows, we can look back with pride having had a woman and two Latino candidates. For the remaining candidates: has their—will their—sensitivity to inequality of opportunity produce much change in the prospects for our young people? And what about us? Their educators? Will the learning opportunities we provide our students — as deep and varied as they are — provide them with opportunity in that larger sense? Will our leaders hold that football steady for us so that we can give it a satisfying boot? Like Charlie Brown, I remain eternally hopeful… for our children.