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‘Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre’

Is it fair to blame schools for our nation's social and economic disparities?

Photo Credit: Estelle via


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

William Butler Yeats called this ‘centre’ Spiritus Mundi , the set of values, beliefs sanctions and behaviors that hold us together. His fears of collapse were grounded in the horrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the violence of the Irish revolution. In a later age, Joan Didion referred to this spirit as our national narrative — the framework of our values, identity, spirituality and hope.

What is this spirit that unites us? It is the resonating harmonic of the American Dream. We believe that any child can grow up and be successful by dint of education and her own hard work. We glory in our tales of seven presidents who grew up in log cabins. Our major presidential candidates both invoke and pay homage to the dream.

Our realization of the dream was always imperfect. Yet, across the 20th Century, we codified our vision of who we are, what we could be, and what we must be.

Laws were passed saying that we would educate all children, assure adequate food, provide employment at a living wage, ensure affordable and decent housing, guarantee free and fair economic opportunity, regulate the gilded age hegemony of moneyed oligarchs and great inequalities, make universal medical care available, and protect people against the misfortunes of unemployment, sickness and old age.

These were the things we believed and to which we aspired. As James Truslow Adams said in 1931, “. . . it is a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the(ir) fullest stature.” In the minds of many, this is the true definition of American exceptionalism.

Today, angry denial and deadlocked disputations are the primal values. With a long slow recession, severe under and unemployment, increasing economic gaps, and the hollowing-out of our middle-class; our grasp on the dream is drifting away. Will the center hold?

The wealth disparity between the top one percent and the bottom 90 percent is now worse than it was in the Great Depression. Six percent of the nation’s population lives below half of the poverty line (that’s $11,000 a year for a family of four). Meanwhile, the average CEO is given $9.6 million per year — which would take the person making the median national wage 244 years to accumulate. Talk radio defenders of these inequalities affirm Yeats, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In this strange land, schools are blamed for these social and economic disparities. Tubs are thumped about our middling international test scores — even though they are not related to the health of the economy in any meaningful way. What is not mentioned is that if we look at only the schools where affluent children go, the United States has the highest test scores in the world.

Further, lamentations about “failing schools” obscure the fact that achievement for all students has improved over the past thirty years and the achievement gap was actually closing until NCLB-type test-based accountability systems turned our attention toward market variables and away from social and civil variables. Then the gap quit closing.

Most troubling is that the growing income gap in our society is now reflected in widening gaps in our test scores. Over the past twenty-five years, the achievement gap between our wealthiest and our poorest has grown by up to forty percent.

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