© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Is America Still The 'Land Of Opportunity?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. This is our special broadcast from the Aspen Ideas Festival, here in Aspen, Colorado. We're spending this hour talking about education and, more broadly, learning. Later in the program, we'll get the latest buzz from the guys who've made it out for a special Aspen barbershop. But first, we want to talk more about the question I asked John Deasy a few minutes ago. He's the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, and we were talking about whether this is still the land of opportunity, where education offers that opportunity to everybody who wants it and is willing to work for it.

Joining us now are Shirley Ann Jackson, she's president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She's a theoretical physicist. She also happens to be the first African-American woman to lead a top-50 research university. Joel Klein is a former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. He's now the CEO of Amplify, the education division of News Corp. Madeline Levine is a psychologist and author of "Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success." Paul Tough is a writer who's been focusing on education for some time now. His latest book, "How Children Succeed," is just out in paperback. Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.


JOEL KLEIN: Thank you.


PAUL TOUGH: Thank you.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking the same question I asked Superintendent Deasy. And I'll start with - Joel Klein, I'll start with you, because you also led a large, diverse school system with lots of kids, with lots of different challenges and backgrounds and opportunities. So is this still a land of opportunity, where education is the key?

KLEIN: Certainly education is the key. The question is, will we deliver on that promise? You know, America created, in the 20th century, the greatest middle-class in the history of the world by educating our people at an unprecedented rate. We were the first country to require that everybody go to secondary school. After the war, second world war, we expanded college opportunities at unprecedented rates. I think the question which you're focusing on is exactly the right one, Michel, which is now what we're seeing, increasingly, is a divide.

Some kids are doing extremely well, more and more kids are falling behind. When John Deasy talks about college and career readiness, he's talking about exactly the right issue, which is, will we get our kids ready for what they will need in the 21st century. The world's a very different century. And right now, increasingly, what you see is less and less mobility at the top colleges. You see fewer and fewer kids who grew up in poverty who are getting into those schools and those programs.

You see fewer and fewer of those kids really climbing the economic ladder of opportunity. So I think we're focusing on the right question. I think the next 10 years will answer that question for America, but shame on us if we get it wrong, 'cause America's got only one magic ingredient. It's called the American dream. Many of us have lived it. We want to make sure that future generations have that opportunity.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, I just remembered that my colleague Renee Montagne on Morning Edition spoke with the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, last week. And she asked him a similar question. I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say. Can we hear that clip? OK, well, I'll read it to you. We're having a little technical difficulty here.

He said that the civil rights issue of our time is this issue of the achievement gap. It's the democracy issue of our time. If you want an enlightened citizenry, they've got to be able to read and write. It's the economic issue of our time. If you want to be able to compete in the new economy, you have to have intellectual capital. So Shirley Ann Jackson, let me ask you that question, because you're also interested in outcomes. I mean, you, presumably, are getting the best of the best?

JACKSON: We are. We get very bright students. I do believe this still is the land of opportunity, but it is - that opportunity is becoming frayed. We sit where we get the product of the, primarily, the public school system, and there are issues with what we get, even for those who, nominally, are well educated, who have high SAT scores, who've taken AP courses.

And those things can range from how deep the knowledge is to what the maturity level of the young people turns out to be. And so we have to integrate across all of that. Now I'm a scientist, and we educate, primarily, scientists and engineers, but I do believe that we have to be sure that we cover the basics, that the young person really does have to be able to read, read well, to articulate, to do basic math.

Now for students coming to us, they need more than that. I think we need to think about new compacts between higher education and secondary education. And what do I mean by that? We're one of the few really selective universities that really has an articulation agreement with a community college. Now we specify what that curriculum should be. But if students succeed in that curriculum - and they do have to have pretty high grades - then we will have them come into the university.

We do this because we realize that not all students are prepared, leaving high school, to come into a place like Rensselaer. And they aren't prepared sometimes because of academics, but interestingly enough, sometimes it's because of maturity and time management skills and so on. We also are beginning - and I spoke yesterday in a panel here in Aspen about MOOCs. We're looking at how we can use technology-enablement to create better pathways for young people from secondary education into the university.

So interestingly enough, even as we're developing technology-enabled courses that will be online, we're using our abilities to create pathways to strengthen the secondary skills, secondary education skills of students before they come.

MARTIN: Madeline Levine and Paul Tough, I'm glad you're both here, because the thing that both of you have been writing about is whether we define success too narrowly now. So Paul, why don't you start?

TOUGH: Sure, so I think that is part of the problem, that, especially for the past decade or two, we've been focused very much in our school system and, I think, in many of our families on cognitive skills, on the sort of skills that get measured on standardized tests. And as Shirley Ann is pointing out, those matter a lot when kids get to college, but they're not all that matters.

There's also this other set of skills that economists called non-cognitive skills, things like grit and perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism that matter a lot, especially at the college level. And right now, I don't think we're doing a great job, either in schools or outside of schools, developing those skills.

MARTIN: Why not?

TOUGH: Well, I think part of it has to do with education policy, that we've been so focused on standardized tests as the measure of whether a school is doing well that we're not giving schools the time and the incentive to work on these other skills.

But I think part of it goes to what's happening in families, as well, that a lot of parents, especially affluent parents, are increasingly concerned about being able to measure how well their kids are doing. They feel like they're caught in this very competitive race, and without something that is easy to measure like test scores, they don't know how well their kids are doing.

MARTIN: Madeline Levine, that's exactly what you talked about in your first book and you also talk about in your second book. You're very concerned that kids who have everything, supposedly, everything in a material sense, devoted, interested parents, resources, are exhausted, and - you are also a clinical psychologist - have all kinds of emotional problems. Talk a little bit about that and why you think that's a concern, not just for the small group of kids, but for other kids?

LEVINE: Well, it's a concern for all kids. First of all, the privileged kids that I wrote about first are, you know, sort of likely to go to schools like yours, to be in positions of authority as they grow up, policy, policy decisions. We don't want them to be exhausted, cheating all the time.

At Stanford we just did a study, 95 percent of kids are cheating. It's well-known. That's not who we want to be making policy for our country. I think the other thing is...

MARTIN: ...I think I should have used the term ethically exhausted, as well.

LEVINE: Well, that's exactly right. And recently, I had a little eight-year-old boy in my office. And he's sitting on the couch. And when I ask him what he wants to do, what he likes to do and what he wants to be when he grows up, he tells me he wants to be a venture capitalist. Now his feet don't even hit the floor. And while it's funny, because venture capitalist, you know, whatever.

And maybe he will be a venture capitalist, but not at 8, because at 8 he has a whole bunch of other developmental tasks that he has to master. When you're talking about maturity, I see it as coping skills. Julie Lythcott-Haims, who is the dean of freshman at Stanford, loves the story of the young girl who gets to Stanford, gets a little confused the first day, doesn't know where her next class is, and, instead of reaching into her backpack to find the schedule, calls her mother 16 time zones away. That's a lack of coping skills.

And it's a tiny - you know, I like it 'cause it's a small example, it's not a great big example. But you add that kind of limited coping skill up, and it really doesn't matter where you've gone to school. You're not collaborative, you don't know how to work, you're not self-reliant, all the things that you write about, Paul. So I think that's a big issue, as well, this narrow definition of success stresses our most academically talented kids in very dangerous ways and, I think, marginalizes a whole bunch of other kids who have talents in other areas.

MARTIN: It's interesting, because I'm looking at the Twitter questions and comments coming in. I mean, hundreds of people are joining us from Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, New Jersey, and they seem to fall into two groups. I mean, one is, like, Valerie Burton (ph), who's a teacher in New Orleans, says, yes, this will always be the land of opportunity, we just must refine how to give these opportunities to all. And then there are people who are articulating some of the issues that we're talking about here, which is why is success defined so narrowly?

It's doing really well on the test, you know, the test, and then getting into this school or that school. And so what I'm wondering here is how do you reconcile the fact that some kids clearly aren't getting what they need now, and yet, there are a lot of people who are concerned that the kids who are getting everything that they supposedly need, that somehow something's not working. Joel Klein?

KLEIN: Well, look, I think the points that Madeline and Paul are making are very important points, but I don't think either one of them would say that we should forget about teaching our kids to read or teaching our kids to write or do the higher order thinking. Somehow, we've got to figure out a way to get the whole package. And the problem you're talking about is if you define success narrowly, we're not remotely meeting that narrow definition.

Now Paul and Madeline are saying we've got to broaden the definition, which I totally agree with. But that's going to mean we're going to have to have more time in school, which could contribute to stress, unfortunately. But you got to do the kinds of things that Shirley needs, 'cause otherwise, we're kidding ourselves to send these kids to her. And she's got a great school.

There are a lot of other schools we send them to, and they're still not remotely prepared to do the work. And as Paul has pointed out, they don't have the grit, the determination, the stick-to-itiveness to grow. So it seems to me what we're trying to do is both widen the definition, but make sure we meet that widened definition. And that's going to put increasing challenges on the public school system.

MARTIN: Let's talk, though, in the time that we have left - and we have about five minutes left, which is clearly not enough time - but let's start with, what would fix this thing? Let's fix this thing right now.

And I also do - but I think a lot of parents wonder about the idea of keeping kids in school longer in schools that aren't working now. I mean, I think they wonder what that accomplishes. I'll just throw that out there. Paul Tough, let's fix this thing.

TOUGH: So I would say - I'm not sure I've got all the fixes - but I would say that part of the answer is to, that we need to go beyond school. So what Joel Klein has done, what John Deasy is doing right now in school systems, is giving more advantage to lots, more opportunity, to lots of kids, especially those who wouldn't have that kind of opportunity otherwise.

But I think schools alone are not enough to take on the kind of disadvantages that kids are growing up with, especially kids who are growing up in poverty and disadvantage. So I think we need to do more work as a society in the early years, figure out ways to support families, especially struggling families, in the first few years of a child's life.

And I think we need to do more work on the way to college, as well, and engage more colleges to be better partners with kids, first-generation college students, who need more help at that stage.

MARTIN: Shirley Ann Jackson, do you want to talk more about that?

JACKSON: I'd say two things. I think we need a more integrative approach to education that recognizes that a person is a whole person, that there are these cognitive skills and abilities that need to be developed, but they can be developed in contexts that can help with these other elements of what a person really is. And it also would help to delineate where peoples' skills and intelligences really are. And there are multiple intelligences.

MARTIN: So what does that mean? Do you change the school day? Do you do more social learning during the day, you know, social learning, making sure you know how to get along, how to be a better person? Do you do...

JACKSON: ...Well, let me give you...

MARTIN: ...You know, character building? Tell me what to...

JACKSON: ...Let me give you an example.

MARTIN: Tell me what to do?

JACKSON: Let me give you an example. I once taught a little class in grade school, and the kids were learning about John Glenn, you know, the senator and former astronaut. And so they were talking about him going into Earth orbit for the first time. But then they separately go somewhere else, and maybe they try to teach kids about escape velocity, meaning how you get out of the, you know, the gravitational pull of the Earth.

Well, why couldn't you do a complete story about John Glenn the man, weave in what some of the science is and talk about the historical significance all at once, and then have the young people try things, because they have a lot of energy and so that they can get a sense of what escape velocity is? It can be as simple as trying to throw paperclips up into the air and see what happens. And so these are things that what I mean by the integrative, because kids have a lot of energy.

And here's the thing, we have college students. They have a lot of energy. And so we have an approach that we call clustered learning advocacy and support for students, and we cover the whole spectrum, in terms of what goes into their heads, their hearts and their bodies.

MARTIN: Madeline Levine?

LEVINE: I think we need socioemotional learning in every classroom - Chicago's doing a good job of integrating it - which means that, not as a separate course, but as part of how everything is taught. And I also think we, every one of us, when you said, you get the best of the best, I think we need to think differently. She gets a particular kind of good student.

JACKSON: But you don't know what I mean.


MARTIN: OK, Joel Klein?

KLEIN: Three quick thing - one, let's give families more choices. Everybody wants more choices when it comes to education. Second of all, let's make teaching the most respected, most revered profession in America. We really have not done that right. And third, for the first time, let's really use technology to empower our teachers, change the learning process. Shirley was talking about MOOCs.

We've had a lot of the things here at Aspen about how to use technology. You're sitting there reading Twitter quotes and stuff. Every place but education has gone through a technological revolution, and education is sitting still. And I think the opportunities to empower our teachers, change the learning process, engage kids - I've seen it with the work we're doing at Amplify, and I've been in schools that are using these products and how excited they are.

You want to get kids working together, give them the kind of quests we put them on. Figure out in groups who killed Edgar Allen Poe and why. Those are the kinds of experiences that I think technology can unleash and we'll get it done.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you the last question, because you are a person who's operated, kind of, in the political realm. Do we have the will as a country to do these things that we've talked about here? Do we care enough to do it? Do we want to do it?

KLEIN: I think we have to have the will. See, I am of the view - people don't become a school chancellor unless you're an eternal optimist - and I am of the view that what Shirley Ann said before, it's exactly right. America is unique in being the land of opportunity. And John Deasy talks about immigrants coming from all over the world to be part of the American dream.

If we don't give them the kinds of things that the people on this panel are talking about to get them where they need to go, then the American dream becomes the American memory on our watch. And that's intolerable. So the answer to your question is we need the political will. Right now, political will seems in short supply in our nation's capital, but we need to get there.

MARTIN: You can still join our conversation. Go to #TMMAspen, #NPRAspen. Thank you all so much for joining us. Joel Klein is a former chancellor of New York City Schools. He's now CEO of Amplify. That's the education division of News Corp. Also with us, Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute.

Madeline Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of "Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success." Paul Tough's latest book, "How Children Succeed," is just out in paperback. I thank you all so much for joining us from the Aspen Ideas Festival...

LEVINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...This special broadcast.

KLEIN: Thank you.

JACKSON: Thank you.

TOUGH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.