For several decades now, educators in the United States have focused much of their attention on the disappointing levels of academic achievement among low-income children. This concern is hardly unwarranted: Even as it became clear to policymakers that education would be critical in preserving economic mobility into the 21st century, America's low-income children were falling further and further behind their wealthier peers. Growing inequality, intractable racial disparities, moribund test scores, and low college-graduation rates signaled that America was not fulfilling its promise of opportunity for all.
Against the backdrop of such inequity, it may seem inept, or perhaps overly "privileged," to divert attention away from low-income communities and toward the middle class. After all, statistically speaking, middle-class students are not the ones struggling to read or pass their algebra exams. They're not the ones flailing in our globalized, knowledge-based, volatile labor market. Yet understanding some fundamental facts about the middle-class mindset is crucial to diagnosing what ails an education system designed and administered by middle-class professionals, who inevitably bring their own cultural psychology to the task.
At bottom, something in the psychology of the American middle class makes running a classroom and designing its curriculum a paradoxical undertaking. On the one hand, America's middle class demands an education system grounded in the cultivation and celebration of each child's individuality — in an appreciation of the habits, tastes, and dispositions that make every child unique. At the same time, the middle class expects the nation's schools to instill in every student a set of distinctly middle-class values — accountability, diligence, civility, and self-control — that are often in direct tension with students' autonomy and individuality.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. She is the author of several books, most recently The New Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.
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