The Land of Opportunity -- An American Fairytale

09/29/2011 10:42 am ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

The recent Huffington Post report on New Haven schools is an example of the foolishness infecting American education. The article describes a program named "Pathway to Promise." The mission is to build a "college-going culture" among all students, beginning in pre-K and kindergarten. Its architects believe it is replicable and can change the culture of education in America. The program requires teachers to distill "... the college message in their classrooms."

As already happens in many highly regimented charter schools, Pathway to Promise will fill hallways with banners and slogans, intending to inculcate a culture of ambition, culminating in all the children going off to college and living happily ever after. And this, as most "happily ever after" stories, is pure fairy tale.

There are many things American schools need. More early academic emphasis is not one of them. In fact, early academic emphasis is one of the root causes of the intractable achievement "problems" in public schools in recent years.

Since, oh, only the mid-19th century, education theorists, scientists and the pioneers of child psychology understood that real learning requires patience and a deep understanding of the stages of child development, biologically and psychologically. More recent developments in neurobiology have affirmed the remarkable prescience of folks like 18/19th century educators Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel (the creator of Kindergarten). Since then, 19/20th century educators like Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Eleanor Duckworth, John Dewey, Francis Parker and scores of others have made an airtight case for play/experience-based, socially-focused early childhood education.

But no, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and a slew of politicians know better. Let's skip those things and jump right into readin', writin' and 'rithmatic. We have to catch those kids in Singapore, after all, as though Singapore is running somewhere we want to go.

The Pathway to Promise program is not only unwise. It is cruel. While I can't know the intentions of its architects, I can observe the emptiness and contradictions presented by the implicit promises being made to kids. Our national response to education "problems" has been to: test the kids more often; increase class size; demean the teaching profession; allow the continued deterioration of school facilities; subvert public education with schemes to privatize schools; reduce budgets; and put endless unfunded mandates on states and local districts.

In this context it is disingenuous and mean-spirited to lift the aspirations of young children, particularly children of color, in communities that America's politicians, policy makers, and plutocrats are systematically neglecting. According to many of the loudest political voices, poverty is a problem of low ambition and racism is dead. They seem to think all we have to do is fly a Harvard banner and the young folks in these communities will pull up on their rotting bootstraps and join the honor roll. Nonsense! Poverty is a byproduct of greed and neglect. Racism is very much alive. Schools are not going to improve through pop psychology, branding and marketing techniques.

I don't mean to suggest that children can't benefit from a climate of hopeful expectations. But this program sounds artificial and contrived. If poor children need hope to fuel their ambitions, we should focus on saving their neighborhoods, providing jobs with a living wage for their parents, offering affordable day care, removing asthma-inducing facilities from their streets, providing good pre-natal care to their mothers and creating great parks and public facilities in their neighborhoods.

Do these things and remove the toxic regimen of testing, testing, testing and watch children thrive. The sad truth is that we seem not to have the national will to make a better life for children. We will just hold the carrot of opportunity in front of them and then wonder what went wrong as they stumble further and further behind.