10/15/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

The Number One Question We Should Be Asking Low-Income Students

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A few months ago I attended the institute on Closing the Achievement Gap at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and one of the faculty who had worked with an elementary school where the teachers visited the homes of each parent shared how they start each meeting with a simple, yet profound question:

"What are your hopes and dreams for your child?"

Can you imagine how that conversation might go compared to something like, "we're here to talk to you about what we need you to do to make sure your child passes the standardized test"?

What if when we talked to high school and college students, especially those from low-income families, instead of, "What's your major?" or "What are you going to do for a career" or "What's your GPA?" We asked, "What are your hopes and dreams for your life?"

I think everyone could benefit from being asked and then answering this question, but I think it's most vital for students who are striving to achieve the American Dream through education, especially higher education.

There are very real barriers that low-income students face when it comes to getting a degree of almost any kind -- we know this. It's not all in their head. It's not, "if they just tried a little harder..." The barriers are real. But they're not impossible to overcome.

But they will be impossible if the students themselves don't believe their barriers can be overcome -- or if they don't have any personal reason to try so hard.

Because the reality is they will have to try really really hard. Someone with privilege can, to some extent, coast without a lot of intense motivation. They have many support systems, many nets to catch them if they stumble.

For low-income students, it can take just the smallest misstep to send them over the edge.

That, to me, is why questions like "What are your hopes and dreams for your life" are not warm and fuzzy at all. They are survival. If you do not have hope, what reason do you have to keep going, to find a better way, to work harder than those around you to overcome the unfair disadvantages you have in your life?

Dr. Shane Lopez, author of Making Hope Happen, agrees: "Many [students] cut off their own future because no one has ever asked 'what are your hopes and dreams?'" (p.103).

If students cut off their own future in their minds, there is no program or reform or policy or initiative or amount of money that will be able to motivate them to pursue a degree.

In the rush to measure everything, we cannot forget that these students are not numbers.

They are people. People who need to be heard. People who sometimes wonder if there is a place for them in this society, wonder if it's really worth it to try so hard and play by the rules, wonder if in this whole pursuit of education they'll be able to find acceptance, love, hope, a place for them to be who they are and be valued for that.

It doesn't matter how many people on the outside tell them it's worth it. They'll never be able to do what they have to do to succeed until it feels worth it to them.

We can't expect students to work so hard towards this idea of a "better future" if they don't feel personally connected to what that could mean for their life and their future.

This matters for anyone at any income level, but it especially matters to low-income students.

I see this every day in community college. The students who don't really know why they're there, who don't have a big dream or goal for their life that's connected to their college education, drop out. Why would you spend hours on remedial math for some distant future you've never even visualized when you can spend those hours making minimum wage to put food on the table? How can you even think about a future when you're trying to survive today?

If we want the American Dream to be a reality, if we believe that where you start really doesn't determine where you can finish, and if we believe education is the vehicle that can make those dreams a reality, then we must think very hard about how to help those who are just surviving see how the investment of their time in their education can help them reach their hopes and their dreams. We must do more to understand how we can help people connect with the futures that, understandably, are often so hard to imagine for themselves.

If low-income students can't connect to the why of their education, they won't finish. It's just too hard, and when you hear some of their stories, the very real barriers they face, you can't blame them.

Someone needs to be asking them what their hopes and dreams are for their life and then connect that to strategies and plans and programs and policies and initiatives and reforms and money.

But the dream has to come first.

In the TED Talk "Start With Why," Simon Sinek makes an important distinction about Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech: "By the way, he gave the 'I have a dream' speech not the 'I have a plan' speech."

What are your hopes and dreams for your life?

How would students' lives change if someone who cared about them asked them that question, and then actually listened?

Only when students feel their dreams have been heard will they be ready to listen and make plans and do the work. Messing up this order can be a disaster for low-income students especially.

Working first and dreaming later sounds all rugged and individualistic -- two very American values -- but sometimes those values conflict with what's actually required to achieve the American Dream. The American Dream requires an individual's hard work and grit for sure, but it requires a community too. It requires having some kind of vision and purpose. Asking yourself about your hopes and dreams can be helpful, but having someone else ask you is even more powerful.

Ask someone this question today (ask a student if you work in education), and see for yourself how it changes the conversation, and, more importantly, how it changes the person to whom you ask it.