Review: Robert Putnam's 'Our Kids' reinforces need for dramatic changes in our schools

June 19, 2019

If you’re looking for a dose of reality and lots of data about the opportunity gap in the United States to provide some reinforcement for John Wiley’s call for change in our schools, look no further than Robert Putnam’s 2015 book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

Putnam zeroes in on the opportunity gap that has widened dramatically over the past half century, a gap that makes it increasingly unlikely that a child born into poverty will be able to successfully navigate the school system as it now operates.

Sure, there are successes. But the odds are long and bleak. New approaches are desperately needed, writes Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard.

Many students are coming into the schools from desperately unhealthy family situations, bringing with them a host of barriers that make learning difficult. The challenges for teachers and school administrators are vast.

Putnam lays out a series of possible options, from paying teachers more in troubled communities to moving poor kids to better schools to investing more heavily in apprenticeship programs and other forms of vocational education.

The apprenticeship emphasis falls in line with the recommendations Wiley makes in his recently published “Bottom Half Teens.” But expanding apprenticeship programs and introducing specific vocational training options would need to be done with buy-in from the community.

“Fears that such programs might lead to a class-based, two-tier educational system are not unrealistic,” Putnam writes. “Any effort in this area would need to erase the stigma of voc ed or apprenticeships as second-class education, by integrating quality academics and by having much tighter partnerships of industry and post-secondary schools to develop and implement quality standards.”

The reality is that some students are not going to go to college. The “college for all” theory is a false promise. So, what options are we going to provide for those not bound for college? Do we offer an opt-in path to vocational training, as Wiley recommends in his book?

Or do we continue to allow non-college bound students to graduate from high school with limited job skills, no job training, no experience and almost zero opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty?

“It is between quality vocational training and no post-secondary education at all,” Putnam writes. “Apprenticeship and vocational education is a promising area in which states and cities should experiment, especially with high-quality evaluation.”

There is plenty of substance to Putnam’s book. There are real-life tales of struggle and frustration. There is data that shows a decline in social mobility for a large swath of the population and a growing divide between children from families that struggle and those blessed with privilege and opportunity.

It’s a book worth reading as you contemplate the recommendations being made by John Wiley and enter into discussions in your community about how we can shepherd changes to give those struggling students an honest chance at escaping the cycle of poverty.

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