THE AMERICAN DREAM IS A POWERFUL CONCEPT. It encourages each person who lives in the United States to pursue success, and it creates the framework within which everyone can do it. It holds each person responsible for achieving his or her own dreams, while generating shared values and behaviors needed to persuade Americans that they have a real chance to achieve them. It holds out a vision of both individual success and the collective good of all. From the perspective of the individual, the ideology is as compelling as it is simple. “I am an American, so I have the freedom and opportunity to make whatever I want of my life. I can succeed by working hard and using my talents; if I fail, it will be my own fault. Success is honorable, and failure is not. In order to make sure that my children and grandchildren have the same freedom and opportunities that I do, I have a responsibility to be a good citizen— to respect those whose vision of success is different from my own, to help make sure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed, to participate in the democratic process, and to teach my children to be proud of this country.” Not all residents of the United States believe all of those things, of course, and some believe none of them. Nevertheless, this American dream is surprisingly close to what most Americans have believed through most of recent American history. Public schools are where it is all supposed to start—they are the central institutions for bringing both parts of the dream into practice. Americans expect schools not only to help students reach their potential as individuals but also to make them good citizens who will maintain the nation’s values and institutions, help them flourish, and pass them on to the next generation. The American public widely endorses both of these broad goals, values public education, and supports it with an extraordinary level of resources. Despite this consensus Americans disagree intensely about the education policies that will best help us achieve this dual goal. In recent years disputes over educational issues have involved all the branches and levels of government and have affected millions of students. The controversies—over matters like school funding, vouchers, bilingual education, high-stakes testing, desegregation, and creationism—seem, at first glance, to be separate problems.
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